In working out how to live our lives and make best use of the resources our communities have to offer, we all use expert advice. We might obtain it from friends and neighbours, voluntary groups or the council and sometimes from paid experts such as financial advisers or travel agents.
Individual budgets will mean that increasing numbers of disabled and older people will have significant sums of money to spend on getting the right support and opportunities. If they just use it to buy the things they already know about, then opportunities will be lost.
The idea of brokerage, helping people work out how to use their money to best effect, is a key influence on the success of individual budgets. Some people will have either the knowledge or the natural networks to identify and find the supports and services they want and will spend their money to best effect.
For others, access to a skilled resource to help them identify and explore options and then bring them together in the way they want, will be an important component of the “personalisation” system.
Knowledge and networks
There has been much discussion about the nature of brokerage, who is best placed to provide it and how it is best organised. The Department of Health has described five types of brokerage, which are already emerging. While views vary on which approach is best, there is a consensus that each has its place. For example, people are describing themselves as brokers and offering their services to individuals or councils. Some local authorities are creating such roles.
But how is anyone to know whether an independent support broker has the knowledge and skills needed to help people get what they want and is sufficiently impartial to give good advice? Friends and family doing this is a private matter, but if people are being paid to do it – either directly by someone with an individual budget or through a council payment to a group or individual – then should there not be some quality standards in place?
Competency and training
To answer these questions, Skills for Care commissioned the National Development Team to develop a competency framework from which training courses for independent support brokers could be developed. This built on earlier work by the NDT for the DH on the role of the independent support broker.
Organisations as varied as the DH, Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, Office for Disability Issues and the National Centre for Independent Living all endorsed the framework approach. They also emphasised some key training factors that emerged from it:
● Training should be provided to independent support brokers and be available to families and disabled people who want to develop their skills.
● Training should not be long and complex because this would deter people.
● People who use services should be involved in delivering broker training.
● While operating within a framework, training should not be overly rigid in how brokerage support is then delivered.
● Brokers must focus on accessing mainstream community resources and not on the traditional social care system.
● Ongoing support on practical matters (such as helping people to manage the money and contract with providers) being outside the broker’s role in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
With agreement about the nature of the role secured, consultations took place about what skills and knowledge a broker needed and thus what should be included in any training courses. People who used services, families, care managers and commissioners were interviewed and a schedule of competences developed.
There was consensus about what was needed, with the biggest challenge being to keep the identified competences (and thus length of training) to a level that matched the desire not to over-professionalise the role. This suggests that the key challenges to develop effective training is not with the content or design but with the brokerage framework itself. There are some fundamental decisions needed – probably at a national level – about the organisational context within which brokerage will operate. The NDT work has identified two particularly important questions.
Registration and regulation
First, should there be compulsory registration and regulation of independent brokers as with many other roles in the social care system? Many are concerned this would sap the creativity and community focus of brokers. The NDT has proposed an alternative system of voluntary accreditation, possibly managed by local user-led organisations operating within national guidelines. For example, this could include having undergone training as outlined by Skills for Care.
People would then exercise consumer choice about how important that accreditation and the associated evidence of standards are to them. An analogy would be the Corgi accreditation for plumbers – people do not have to use a Corgi plumber, but if they do, then they have confidence that certain levels of training and knowledge have been achieved and monitored.
Second, who pays for the broker? The pure “market model” suggests the person using the broker’s services should pay out of their individual budget. Others argue that, particularly in the early days of individual budgets when people are still getting to understand how best to use the money available to them, a pool of accredited independent brokers should be funded as part of the local “personalisation” infrastructure.
Decisions on these, and other factors, are needed soon if independent brokerage is to be a high quality resource that promotes increased opportunities for people to live full lives – with a national training framework helping to underpin quality standards.