Danger of using savings as the sole measure of service changes

In these times of cost-cutting, it is essential to realise that service changes are not best measured in financial terms, says Geoff Ettridge

Over many years as a local authority manager I often saw examples of savings proposals put forward by other directorates or agencies that had financial consequences for social care. Whether intentional or not, these decisions seldom delivered savings for the public purse because those made in one service often caused pressures in others.

The consequences of service changes (reductions) are not always best measured in financial terms. Using the concessionary bus travel scheme for older people it is possible to demonstrate how what could be regarded as a straightforward affordability decision for the funding body, could have far wider unintentional social and economic consequences.

It is widely accepted that the bus-pass scheme needs refinement and consultations are being undertaken. However, with £223m earmarked for the scheme in 2010-11 it is reasonable to assume that the Department for Transport, albeit privately, will question the affordability of the scheme within the context of delivering savings and its own priorities – and therein lies the risk.

The cost of the scheme is clearly significant but is a fraction of the costs of care services for older people. Early local authority circulars outlining the need to transform social care acknowledged that councils had difficulties in delivering preventive programmes.

Preventive programme

However, it could be argued that the concessionary bus scheme is one of the most significant preventive programmes we have in that it helps older people remain mobile and socially engaged. It is also not difficult to see how delaying the “onset of dependency” just by a few weeks for a small percentage of older people could more than cover the scheme’s costs. But this benefit would accrue outside the Department for Transport.

The benefits of the scheme are not limited to older people. Anyone who uses the bus service will have noted that older people can represent a significant proportion of the passengers on some routes.

By travelling, these older passengers are contributing to the bus company’s revenue stream which in turn helps maintain the frequency of buses on particular routes and possibly the viability of others. Additionally, research in Scotland – and the findings are probably true for elsewhere in the UK – revealed that most older people use their bus passes to go shopping – spending that could well help sustain town centre traders. Both these “indirect consequences” of the scheme benefit us all as well as the public purse.

Unintended consequences

Using the hypothetical example of ending the concessionary bus scheme for older people, it is easy to see the importance of assessing the wider impact of any savings proposals.

Without doubt, the public service system is complex and it is inevitable that there will be “unintended consequences” arising from decisions taken in any part of the wider system. However, just as we need to manage the risks associated with health, safety and business continuity, perhaps we need to apply a similar discipline to evaluating the impact of saving proposals.

Although I can anticipate some resistance to the idea perhaps this is a role that should be undertaken with local strategic partnerships.

Although to date these partnerships have had a more positive role of creating better communities they are similarly well placed to “protect” communities from the worst effects of the policy and service changes that are inevitably coming.

Who knows, they may spot opportunities where the “unintended consequences” could be serendipitous and deliver transformation as well as savings!

Geoff Ettridge is an independent adviser on care services

This article is published in the 29 October 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Concessionary bus passes are symbolic of the greater good”

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