Innovation is often used as a shorthand for change. It’s a term bandied around and often misused. I think, however, that some of the long-standing challenges the social care sector faces means there’s real potential for innovation.
Innovation is also often linked to new technology, which of course can streamline and improve ways of working. Procuring and implementing new tech usually draws out the real areas which need innovation – how systems, organisations, teams and people collaborate and how processes and the ‘way we’ve always done it’ need questioning to allow new ideas to flourish.
Certainly the sector is not short of people with innovative ideas, we’ve seen some great, new recruitment techniques and tools; workflow processes; tech to improve care; the emergence of new care models like co-housing and co-living.
Yet compared to some other sectors, it is stark how unevenly that innovation is distributed. In fact it’s quite hard to think of a single innovation that started in the social care sector that has gone to any real sector-wide scale.
That isn’t to say there hasn’t been attempts to create sector-wide innovations over the years. It’s just that the sector has been on hold for 20+ years, waiting for any government-led solution to repair it.
Why might innovation make a difference now?
Firstly we know innovation thrives and helps at times of real hardship. The social care sector has challenges around coherent policy, adequate funding, workforce recruitment and retention and developing staff skills.
In other sectors, innovation has been a real lever for tackling long-standing problems around workforce, workload and staff development – think about the broadening of training and CPD routes for teachers and other education professionals over the past 20 years.
As we move towards the end of lockdown, now is surely the time for innovations around recruiting, training, retaining – and valuing – social care professionals.
Secondly we know that innovation thrives when there are lower barriers to entry. Much of the social care sector is tightly regulated but there are parts which are less difficult to enter and offer opportunities to rethink ways of working. Finding those brave leaders who want to start such conversations should be the first step.
Thirdly, the social care sector covers different types of care from housing and homecare to support – we know what works for a disabled person won’t work for an elderly person. Innovation doesn’t have to be one size fits all, but adaptations of innovation can span the sector. The variety within the sector offers opportunities to trial and refine innovations to find the ways which make the biggest difference.
Fourthly, given the reach of the sector to nearly a million people who receive state-funded care, and many more who fund or organise their own care, the benefits of innovation could be huge for so many recipients and providers.
Any innovation, even on a relatively small scale, could have a massive impact on many people and on budgets. It’s these windows of opportunity that Innovation Unit help turn into meaningful change, working in partnership with the organisations, leaders, workforce and, of course, the care recipients themselves.