Life outside the public sector: what it’s like to be a social care spin-out
Updated: Apr 6
Writing for the Guardian’s Social Care Network, MV’s Anne-Helene Sinha describes the experience of two adult social care spin-outs…
When Heather Barden, then team leader at York’s warden call and telecare service, first raised the idea of spinning out of the council with her team, she was greeted with silence. Then the questions started coming.
“How do we know we have any chance of being successful outside the council?” “How will we survive financially?” “What happens if we fail?”
These are questions we have heard many times over the last four years at Mutual Ventures, as we have supported groups of staff to move their adult social care service to independence. For Barden, the last two years have been quite a journey, culminating in her becoming chief executive of the social enterprise Be Independent.
Public service spin-outs are becoming increasingly common as councils seek to save money yet preserve quality by doing things differently. For staff used to life in the town hall, leaving this familiar safety net to embark on an entrepreneurial journey is a major cultural shift.
So is it fair and realistic to ask staff to take the leap?
With more than 70 spin-outs in health and social care set up since 2008, there is growing evidence that, yes, it is. As a group they have been remarkably successful: seven have been shortlisted for this year’s Social Enterprise UK national awards.
But as with any major organisational change, there are challenges. Staff at Be Independent worried whether running a business would distract them from providing care, or that tusers of the service would see them as too commercial. They were concerned about winning new contracts and unsure whether senior managers could make their service work as a business.
Fast forward 18 months, and most of the staff have embraced the new approach. The team feel their professional judgment is more valued and their ideas are encouraged. One team member put together a case for wardens to carry automated defibrillators. This was adopted and the policy has already saved one person’s life. Staff have also moved into one space to create a team culture as well as generate efficiencies.
This flexible approach would have been difficult to implement from within the council. So while a handful of staff are still struggling with the changes, especially as the service has seen almost constant change, morale has generally increased. Barden says regular communication with staff, including team meetings and quarterly business updates, has been a key factor.
Earlier this year on the other side of the Pennines, Wirral Evolutions became a local authority trading company delivering the full range of adult social care services. Staff are still adjusting but are slowly brushing off concerns about leaving the council. One support worker told us he is convinced they will thrive. He says that, despite initial concerns, running the business hasn’t been a distraction from providing the day-to-day care; in fact he feels the service is much better now. Staff are given more flexibility about where they buy services and products as they are not tied into council contracts and preferred providers.
Some staff have concerns around pay and pensions, but with constant funding cuts in local authorities threatening job security, they recognise that these wouldn’t have been guaranteed had the service remained within the council. A staff forum is being created to help highlight issues of concern, explore ideas and ensure employees have representation at the board.
For Christine Beyga, acting managing director of Wirral Evolutions, leaving the council has meant they’ve been able to keep the services that people really value. The real bonus for staff is that rather than talking about a grim future of downsizing and redundancy, they are now growing and becoming sustainable for the long term.
Would they do it again? Both Barden and Beyga say it’s been challenging journey but they would never consider going back. One thing they definitely agree on is that it is an impossible – and pointless – task if the staff group aren’t on board.
So, what should you consider if you are thinking about delivering your service differently?
Involve staff in shaping the vision for the new organisation. Don’t create the impression that this is being done to them, rather than with them. It is an opportunity to empower the team and to let them create the culture that will define the new organisation.
Communicate regularly and with purpose; a lack of openness will concern the team, but equally too much communication can be overwhelming. Staff need to feel they are getting the important information and being involved in key decisions, but they still expect their leaders to lead, and deal with the mundane stuff without bothering them.
And finally, be honest! Success is not guaranteed but it is more likely if the leaders are honest with the staff group about risks and challenges. Preparing for and tackling key questions around pensions and pay is vital.