I attended a meeting with Skills for Care last week where we had a discussion about the importance of having ‘mature conversations’ with Local Authorities. This means having sensible conversations with people at a senior level in the Local Authority about the real issues providers face, but also what we can do to help Local Authorities struggling with financial pressures. I strongly advocate ‘mature conversations’, but rarely see them happening in practice. To give one example, I am aware of a Local Authority in huge financial difficulty that has a large in-house service for people with learning disabilities. If that service was outsourced, it would require political support from councillors and would involve the transfer of current staff on their existing terms and conditions. However, given that I believe some of the accommodation is sub-standard, it would be perfectly possible to put together a plan that would enable people living in those services to be re-located to new accommodation designed specifically around their needs with support provided by a high quality provider like CMG or one of our competitors that would enable significant cost savings to be made. The chance of me having that ‘mature conversation’ is virtually zero.
Just to give one other example, I attended a provider forum a few months ago with a Local Authority that has to make £6million of cuts in its learning disability provision. The purpose of the session was to ask providers for their view as to how the money could be saved. I was on a table with some very nice representatives of small not-for-profit organisations. They came up with the idea of supporting service users to go on a camping trip in the summer which would enable the day centre to close and save some money. Whilst this was a great idea, it would clearly go nowhere near saving the £6million required. The commissioner from the Local Authority was involved in that discussion and during the coffee break, I had a chat with him about other ways in which he could save the necessary amount. Having been a commissioner myself in the past, I knew the areas to look at where sizeable savings can be made, including outsourcing in-house services and bringing people back to borough who are in very expensive poor quality placements. I offered to look at his Authority’s expenditure on out of area placements to see the potential for saving money as I’ve got a pretty good idea what fee levels represent value for money. Effectively I was offering him free consultancy. He thanked me and told me my ideas were very interesting and went back to discussing the camping trip.
One of the challenges working with Local Authorities is being able to meet people who are sufficiently senior that you can have these types of ‘mature conversations’ with. Sometimes you can talk with commissioners, but quite often they are inexperienced or frightened of saying something that will get them in trouble with their procurement colleagues. Ideally, you want to have this sort of conversation with Directors of Adult Services. In my experience however, that virtually never happens. I can’t remember any occasion in the last 8 years where a Director of Adult Services has asked to have a chat with me about how we can work together to jointly achieve savings whilst improving services.
The Chief Executives who run the major learning disability provider organisations in this country are by in large a very able, experienced group and Directors of Adult Services would find it a pleasant and refreshing experience to speak to them. I think they need to see the CEO’s as their peers and start having these ‘mature conversations’ so that we find our way through the current difficult environment without simply chipping away at services until they become non-viable.