Dating agency-style matching of PAs to budget holders

A service is taking its inspiration from dating agencies to find personal assistants that are compatible with personal budget holders, reports Louise Hunt

Carer Venetia Balmer (see case study)

 (pic Tom Parkes)

A service is taking its inspiration from dating agencies to find personal assistants that are compatible with personal budget holders, reports Louise Hunt

Project details

Name of service: People4People

Aims and objectives: To match personal budget holders with good quality personal assistants, to help increase personal budget uptake.

Annual funding: £330,000 from May 2010 until 2012 from Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Redbridge and Waltham Forest councils.

Number of staff: Three: a manager, consultant and administrator.

Number of service users and personal assistants matched: Two, with six enquiries pending.



People4People has been described as a social care dating agency. It is easy to see the parallel: the service exists to match personal budget holders with personal assistants.

The idea was hatched from the evidence of a personal budget holder in east London who said the right to choose her own care had changed her life.

Her testimony came to the attention of Joe Coogan, now assistant director for transformation at Havering Council but then working for neighbouring Barking and Dagenham.

“It started me thinking, how can we replicate and mainstream a matching system so most people in the area can have the same benefits,” he says. Local research revealed that, although one-third of personal budget holders had a PA, the rest also wanted one. The gap in the market prompted Coogan to approach Havering, Redbridge and Waltham Forest councils with the idea.

All four boroughs wanted to find a way to increase personal budget uptake, in line with government targets.

There was also a safeguarding concern because many personal budget holders had employed people from their own job advertisements, many of whom were unqualified and without references or Criminal Records Bureau checks. “If that happened on an industrial scale you can only imagine what the safeguarding issues could be,” says Coogan. “By designing a system that is safe it would also be more sustainable. You don’t want people to go back to the traditional system because they have had a bad experience.”

The councils realised they could not afford to deliver such a solution individually, so they clubbed together to create a development grant to fund a social enterprise to develop the matching service, which would become self-sufficient in two years.

The result is People4People, launched in September and run by Essex-based not-for-profit care provider Outlook Care. Although other personal assistant matching services exist, “there is nothing that goes as far as People4People”, says Coogan.

Piotr Rejek, Outlook Care director of business development, says already having a large database of bank care staff helped the provider win the tender. “We realised we could create a system where we could input customers’ needs from a PA and match them with carers already on the system – not dissimilar to a dating agency.”

Prospective customers are assessed to identify the type of carer they want, using a mixture of hard skills, including qualifications and experience, and soft skills, such as personality, fitness levels and interests. “It’s interesting that we are getting more enquiries about soft competences than hard skills,” Rejek says.

After this process, lists of possible matches are provided to users. All PAs have been vetted by People4People and CRB checked, and have to pass the organisation’s test of competences. Users pay an annual fee of £250, which can be made over 12 months.

“Once a match is made, we support them in negotiating the contract and terms,” Rejek says. “Then we provide up to three-months’ follow-up support. If the match fails a replacement will be found without another fee.” For an extra £15 a month, customers can have a PA replacement service for when carers are off work, along with a service that removes the burden of calculating pay and tax.

Rejek admits there were initial concerns among existing bank staff over working for vulnerable customers without a traditional agency relationship. However, he hopes these worries have been allayed by the service’s focus on supporting personal budget holders in managing their PA. “They are given training and support on how to be good employers, such as by making sure they understand all their PAs’ work entitlements and understand the minimum wage, but also how to find the right balance in pay to retain staff,” he says. “PAs can negotiate directly with customers too.”

Rejek hopes the service will also offer ­carers the chance to develop skills and a ­satisfying career as personal assistants, which may help to address the high staff turnover faced by many home care recipients.

Staff without social care experience are also trained through People4People’s e-learning system, which includes modules in health and safety, person-centred planning and customer services.

“We think it’s a way for them to develop a career in social care,” Rejek says. “We know that in future there will be more personal budget users, including people with complex needs, and we are starting to see customers who are prepared to pay more for a carer if they have specific experience that meets their need.”

The service is generating interest from other authorities. Presentations have been given to Southampton, Hertfordshire and Islington councils and a forthcoming event will be held with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. This is perhaps not surprising as Rejek suggests that using a credible matching service could save councils £2 an hour spent on home care compared with paying agencies directly.

The challenge now facing People4People is to convince personal budget sceptics in authorities that it can deliver on its promise of a safe, mainstream matching service.

To become self-sufficient in two years, People4People needs to make 30 matches in the first year and 226 by year two.

It has some way to go, having matched only two customers with PAs so far. “We are finding that there is a negative perception of personal budgets among some statutory practitioners and that this is affecting the number of people being signposted to the service,” Rejek says. “We are trying to use all our contact with the commissioning boroughs to make service users aware that we’re out there.”

Case study: ‘There is much more job satisfaction because the client is happier’

Venetia Balmer has worked as a carer for 14 years, with institutions and agencies. Being a People4People PA is her first experience of being employed directly by a carer and she says it is “much better” than previous jobs.

“When you work for care homes you’re restricted in many ways from doing what the client wants,” she says. “When the client is your boss you are free to take them out for a coffee, if they want, you don’t have to stick with a care plan. There is much more job satisfaction because the client is happier.”

The employer support provided by People4People has also erased worries she had about being employed by a client. “You know when you’re going to be paid and that the tax will be worked out. It takes the pressure off the service user so they can enjoy the service, without worrying about those things.”

The matching process also means that both parties have a chance to get to know one another; and because the customer is in control over who they choose to employ there is a different level of trust from having a stranger from an agency come into your home, adds Balmer.

The positive experience has opened her mind to career possibilities. “It has made me want to move away from institution work and move into more private care work. It is all about the client’s happiness and it’s a joy to go to work now,” she says.

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