Is it just me…?

Vic Rayner, Executive Director of the National Care Forum reflects on the sector, three months after taking up her role.

Is it just me…? Or are we letting the fact that there are ‘two sides to every story’ tie the care sector in knots?

We live in interesting times, which seems at one level the most over used and yet the most appropriate mantra for this unique point in UK history. It is at this moment in time that I have taken up the helm at the National Care Forum (NCF), and I certainly have not found myself twiddling my thumbs and wondering what to do.

Three months into the role is a good moment to reflect – the initial frenzied round of meetings is in abeyance, and I have got my teeth stuck into some of the key challenges impacting on the sector. However, coming from outside of social care, this perhaps is a good opportunity for me to reflect on what I see in terms of ‘the sector’ – before I become so immersed in it that it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Quality and innovation

Quality and innovation dominate the agenda of almost every discussion that I have been involved in. This discussion plays out in a number of different ways and is, I suspect, indicative of the broader challenge impacting the sector. Critical to this debate, and that of many others, is the audience. Quality and innovation is excellent in many parts of the sector, and NCF members and other providers are rightly proud of the ongoing efforts to raise the bar of services to meet the changing needs of those receiving care. However, quality and innovation are also under threat, because of the squeeze on funding and the rising costs of provision, through the introduction of the National Living Wage, amongst other areas. So how do you represent that dichotomy when we have excellent services that are under threat? Or we need more funding to provide innovative solutions in services of the future? If you are a purchaser of care, you will need the first message, if you are a commissioner, you will need to respond to the second part of the equation.

A healthy dose of realism is important for everyone, and adult social care is perfectly capable of ‘telling it like it is’. However, once again, the question of ‘who’ it is telling can lead to mixed messages. This is aptly indicated in the whole debate around the workforce. In a recent personnel survey carried out by NCF, the standout figure for me was that 93% of the registered managers in the workforce were 45 and over. How does the messaging around that work? On the one hand, there is a clear understanding that at some point in the not too distant future, large chunks of that workforce may consider retirement, leaving a gaping hole. However, over and above the calls for young blood, there has to be an absolute recognition that unless we nurture and develop this experienced workforce, there is going to be a much more immediate recruitment crisis.

Opposing messages

How is it possible that these often opposing messages are allowed to co-exist within the sector? Why is it that we haven’t plumped for one set of messages that portray a clear image of what is happening on a day-to-day basis? My reflection on this conundrum would be that we are still largely intent on talking to ourselves and, therefore, presenting almost in one breath, a seemingly Janus-faced response to the key issues does not feel out of line. Because, of course, there are two sides to a story, but if you want to build a narrative to share with anyone not immersed in your day-to-day world, you have to be absolutely clear about your goals, and distil your energy into telling the side of the story that will get you closest to your target. This is not cynical marketing, this is engagement. As long as we continue to offer a two-sided representation of our world, we will find that people will only hear what they want to hear, if, that is, they hear anything at all.

Challenge ahead

My challenge for the months ahead is to get those goals clear and help shape the words and pictures that tell the wider world what is great about the services that we currently offer, and what is needed to make them greater still.

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