Buying things together works better

Inclusive Economy26 Jun 2013Lucie Stephens

Collective buying reduces costs, but also makes money go further. Britain’s up2us programme has experience with it by implementing a collective approach to housing care and support.

As austerity bites and social care becomes increasingly focused on people holding personal budgets to purchase their care, what can we learn from models which are based on more collective principles, and which bring people together to pool their resources in order to meet their needs?

One of the interesting lessons from the up2us programme was on the value of people coming together to make spending decisions. What we found was that isolation meant many people spent their personal budget on social aspects of day to day life, like companionship, shopping, going to the cinema, etc. When people were able to connect with others in their communities, it became possible to reduce these costs or remove the expenses altogether by sharing support and doing things as a group. This meant that people were then able to spend their limited budgets on the things that they really did need professional care help to do. Doing things collectively meant, therefore, that people were able to make their money go further, while being able to get the things that really improved their quality of life.

Over the last four years the new economics foundation (nef) has been the learning partner for the up2us programme. Up2us has focused on personalization in housing care and support in the UK by enabling people to pool money to do and buy things together. This work has been led by HACT with partners in six pilot areas in England. The collective buying approach has been piloted in a community setting in Kent and documented as the Parkwood Bulkbuy.

The work has been trying to understand the following:

  1. How easy it is to buy things together with personal budgets? We found it’s not as easy as it could be, but not impossible – and definitely worth the effort.
  2. What types of things do people want to buy when they pool their budgets? A wide range of things, from trips, courses, gym equipment or meals out to personal support.
  3. Do people report any benefits from buying things together? We found that people said they were able to do more things, and felt their wellbeing had increased.

One challenge of the work has been how larger organizations such as housing associations and local authorities can respond to personalization, and support people who want to come together to pool money and do things together. Each pilot was hosted by a housing association or a local authority, with staff often seconded from these organizations to facilitate the pilots. The activity in each pilot site was co-designed and co-produced with people who receive care and support. The up2us approach was designed to be ‘bottom up’ and each pilot site was expected to demonstrate a culture of co-production and ensure that service users were at the centre of developing and implementing ideas. A variety of practical activity emerged including:

  • Building a community networking web portal that brings together local people, local knowledge and local resources
  • Residents organizing shared activities in extra care housing and playing a role in commissioning future services
  • Setting up a user-run cooperative with members planning and taking part in activities at weekends, and in the evenings
  • Jointly buying gym equipment
  • Jointly commissioning shared overnight support

The up2us pilots demonstrated that housing associations and local authorities can support ways of doing things that start from the bottom-up and are co-produced by people who use services alongside professionals. At times, however, working in this way was at odds with the prevailing culture and ethos. Often, policies and procedures were pulling staff in the opposite direction, as they were trying to work with people in more personalised ways. When organizations were successfully supporting and nurturing service user-initiatives, they were:

  • Taking an asset based approach to the people who used the organizations’ services. Identifying and using people’s skills and knowledge increased the resources available to tackle problems and develop solutions. People were willing to play a role in planning and organizing things but wanted support from staff to overcome some of the practicalities, such as finding other people and places to meet.
  • Focusing on the outcomes that a new way of working could generate. The pilots set out with a clear aim, to support people to pool budgets, but didn’t prescribe how this would be achieved. By working collectively, people were able to take responsibility for developing new ideas and delivering change. This was really important in making sure the solutions that were created worked for the people involved. Staff time was focused on facilitating and supporting this, rather than delivering results themselves.
  • Learning from existing local activity. In each area it was possible to find examples of people already coming together to do things or buy things together. Talking to these groups gave the pilots valuable insight at the early stages of their own development. Whilst pooling budgets is not yet a widespread approach, it is likely that there is activity to learn from in many locations.

Most people involved with up2us reported that it had helped them to make new friends, to make more choices about what they do, to learn new things, undertake more activities and trips, to go out more often and to find out what was available to do in the local area. The majority of people said they wanted to remain involved and would recommend up2us to their friends and family. But, to do so requires change on the part of providers and local authorities, and it is vital to re-orient policies and procedures to support small, informal activity. The following questions might help organizations reflect on their current procedures, and move towards a more enabling environment for co-production.

  • Do you understand what people can do as well as what they can’t? What are people’s passions and skills and how can these be supported?
  • Are your employees able to support people to support each other? Do you help people to make connections with others who share an interest or skill? Is there support for people to get online and make virtual connections as well as face to face ones?
  • Is your approach to risk management fit for purpose? Do your staff feel held back by real or presumed concerns about risk management?
  • Are staff aware of the benefits of doing and buying things together? Are there opportunities for people to collectively plan or is staff time directed towards one on one interaction?
  • What existing resources can be used to support people to do things and buy things together? In each of the pilots, access to practical resources, like a telephone or computer, to organize outings, a meeting room or make connections with useful local organizations, were invaluable to getting activities off the ground.

In these times of austerity, it is easy to assume that innovation can be too expensive and disruptive, that it is more efficient to focus on core services. The up2us pilots have demonstrated that innovation in practice is often about small scale change that can be supported by adjusting or redirecting existing resources. Download the full report to learn more about the practical work undertaken in each of the pilot projects.

This blog post has been published in shortened version at the nef blog.