By Morwen Johnson
The news that budget pressures have affected councils’ ability to carry out research in adult social care won’t come as any surprise to those working in the sector. Councils have cut £4.6bn from adult social care budgets since 2009-10, equivalent to almost a third of net real terms spend, according to Adass. And with research seen as non-essential, it will always lose out in favour of frontline services and care packages.
A recent survey carried out by the Social Services Research Group (SSRG) and commissioned by the Personal Social Services Research Unit (PSSRU), highlighted the scale of the problem though, finding that there were fewer staff to do research, and those who were left had fewer resources and less support.
Dr Chris Rainey, one of the report authors commented: “In-house research is critical to finding out what, how and why services are delivered and what difference they make. The survey points to the need to reinvest in local research capacity to ensure sound evidence is used”.
Barriers to the use of research
As well as low capacity to undertake their own research on local needs, the survey also identified restrictions on training and professional development.
Like other professions, those working in public health and social services face barriers to keeping up with the latest evidence and commentary. This includes lack of time but also the accessibility of much research (both in terms of knowing it is out there and being able to understand how research relates to practice).
The report highlighted the risk that “reliance on internet-based training and information … may result in a lack of exposure to critical debate and an over-reliance on ‘received wisdom’”.
What our members say
The findings reflect our own experience in meeting the information needs of council staff. We’ve a number of adult social care departments who use our Information Service and once staff realise the time savings we offer, they become champions of the service to colleagues. As our team is made up of information professionals and researchers, we offer experience that can be lacking internally. Resources include peer-reviewed journals, grey literature, books and practice-based case studies and evaluations – which won’t be found by searching Google.
Staff also use us for CPD purposes – nowadays spending on event and conference attendance is unlikely to be approved, but our briefings and current awareness services can help keep them up-to-date with essential topics. We also have a lot of resources on general management issues, such as managing teams, benchmarking, performance, equalities and communication.
“From time to time, we review this service and our last review showed that those who use it regularly either in a corporate capacity or in our major strategic services value it highly, describing it as quick, easy, and comprehensive. It gives staff access to a wide range of information and keeps them up-to-date across many areas that are of direct relevance.”
“I recently completed a Post Graduate course and used it as my first reference point at the beginning of each module. The service saved me a lot of time in searching for articles and books and the staff were extremely helpful. The library is well stocked and I didn’t need to purchase any books for the course.”
“Having access to the on-demand research service is a real plus, and most of our staff see real advantage to that. It saves them time in the long run and frees them up to do the day job.”
The threat of short-termism
With resources in social care departments likely to remain very tight, but with practitioners under more pressure to deliver than ever, the question is how can local authorities retain and enhance the evidence base it needs to make decisions effectively?
And how can practitioners engage with the research and analysis on key developments in policy that affect social care services, such as demographic change, housing need, and independent living?
It’s worth remembering that local authority social services researchers were introduced as a result of a recommendation of the 1968 Seebohm Report. This report stressed the need for research and evaluation to be ‘a continuous process, accepted as a familiar and permanent feature of any department or agency concerned with social provision.”
But as we approach another Spending Review, it’s likely that adult social care services will face more cuts. This is despite national organisations representing the sector issuing a statement in October arguing that the sustainability of the sector has now reached a ‘crunch’ point.
Focusing on efficiency savings and short-term interventions may seem the only option at the moment, but we risk just patching up problems rather than delivering services which take a holistic and long-term view of outcomes. And that’s why recognising the value of research and evidence should be a key part of decision-making in every part of the public sector.
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