The social workers’ guide to micro-providers in social care

Micro-providers offer social workers significant opportunities to help service users get the most of their personal budgets, but awareness of small providers among the profession is low, finds Max Daly.

Micro-enterprise the Pulp Friction Smoothie Bar Project provides volunteering opportunities for people with learning disabilities

In many ways, micro-providers in social care embody personalisation. Typically employing no more than five staff, they are often run by disabled people, provide something different to traditional care options and their small-scale can enable them to offer a more personalised service than larger providers.

However, despite the centrality of personalisation to adult social care policy and practice, micro-enterprises are under threat.

“Micro-enterprises face regulatory, legislative and other barriers and in most areas their numbers are falling,” says Simon Taylor, micro-enterprise support and development officer at Shared Lives Plus, a UK network for small community services.

This is partly because many micro-enterprises operate “below the radar” of social workers and other council staff working to develop support plans with service users. In short, a flourishing local supply of high quality sustainable micro-services is being ignored, says Taylor.

Three barriers to success for micro-enterprises

There are three main, inter-linked barriers to the use of micro-providers, says Sian Lockwood, chief executive of Community Catalysts, a social enterprise set up by Shared Lives Plus to support the development of micro-services.

The first is a need for reassurance among commissioners and service users about the quality and safety of the enterprises. She says the majority of new micro-enterprises do not need to be regulated with Care Quality Commission, as they do not provide a regulated activity, such as personal care.

Local authority quality assurance processes are usually designed for more traditional services, such as residential care, domiciliary care and building-based day care, and these are often inappropriate for very small, local services working in different ways. Lockwood says Community Catalysts has developed a Quality Mark for micro-enterprise that is designed to address these concerns. But she says this needs further resourcing to work well.

The second barrier is to do with local authority procurement processes that limit people on council-managed personal budgets to using services on approved providers’ lists or with a framework contract. It can be extremely difficult for very small, local service providers to get through the hoops necessary to be accepted onto an approved list or to be awarded a framework contract.

Many social workers ‘don’t know about micro-providers’

The third is a communication barrier. “Many social workers will simply not know that micro-providers exist,” says Lockwood.

Local-authority generated lists of services may not include some micro-providers and web information systems may similarly omit many of these small community services. In addition, there are rarely systems in place to communicate unmet requirements to potential micro-entrepreneurs – local people who would develop a small service if they knew it was needed.

“In the local authorities where we are working our support co-ordinators work hard to improve communication – making sure that social workers have information about the full range of micro-providers and that current and potential micro-providers have good information about the kinds of service people are looking to buy,” says Lockwood.

Community Catalysts has worked with 29 of the 152 councils in England since 2010 to help them develop the local micro-provider market. One of these is Dudley Council. Lorna Reid, the council’s micro-services co-ordinator, who previously worked for Community Catalysts, says her role enables good working relationships between social workers and micro-enterprises.

Training for social workers

Reid has facilitated 13 workshops with nearly 100 social care staff to identify the gaps in the social care market and discuss effective support planning. Dudley has a Quality Mark, created by Community Catalysts but implemented locally, which gives social workers more confidence to work with micro-providers and promote their work.

“Social workers feel that micro-providers often bridge the gaps [for service users] that traditional providers don’t often fill, such as support with IT skills, pet sitting or taking someone to a football match. Social workers nationally need to be aware that local micro-services can offer that alternative and that significant outcomes can be produced.”

As well as providing social workers with creative options to discuss with service users during support planning, micro-providers also offer social workers an employment alternative to local authority practice.

One social worker who has set up a small enterprise is Kelly Hicks. She worked for Doncaster Council before she set up Personalisation Plus, which offers support and brokerage for people managing their own care. She sees moving outside the local authority as a chance for practitioners to rediscover real social work. Hicks also believes there are increasing opportunities to do this as some councils become more willing to delegate their support planning functions to micro-enterprises.

“Sheffield council has for some time opened up support planning and brokerage to micro-providers and fully embraced citizens’ ability to choose their provider [of these services]. I have believed for a long time that the only way forward for social work is for many of the functions to operate outside of local authority control and become more accountable to the communities we serve. 

“There is growing evidence of commissioning practices embracing this model and I am seeing more opportunities for micro-providers. However other authorities still refuse to allow citizens to seek support outside of the local authority and have not fully realised the citizen is the commissioner.”


  1. Consider a different title than independent social worker – this is still found threatening by many statutory employees as the usual encounters from independents occur in the court room. I often use the term community social worker which I have found to be more acceptable.
  2. Remain true to your values and undertake work that reinforces the reasons why you became a social worker. Be careful to balance this with paid work as it’s easy to get lost in ‘doing the right thing’ at the expense of your own life.
  3. Find out what people actually want from social work. The majority of my wages are paid by community groups who have a lot of influence in gaining funding. This also supports my work to remain true, relevant and fresh.
  4. Don’t be afraid to challenge and show commissioning bodies the evidence they need to commission a micro-provider. It takes dedication and commitment to demonstrate your value within the current commissioning culture.
  5. Now has never been a better time to become a micro-provider. The economic climate has forced commissioners to seek new ways of providing at a lesser cost for better outcomes. In my experience commissioners are usually willing to listen to innovations that tick improved quality and reduced cost.
  6. Break the boundaries – as a micro-provider it’s about doing a small service well and not recreating a bureaucratic minefield.
  7. Know your strengths and don’t chase contracts that don’t ignite your social work passion.
  8. Find your support – it’s not easy being out on your own. Find like-minded people that can offer support and a listening ear. 
  9. Don’t expect to get rich. Social work shouldn’t be about huge profits, but value yourself and aim for a liveable wage. Don’t be afraid to put a value on what you do.
  10. The people and communities you support are your biggest allies. Gather evidence as you go along – unite and trust that they will support you to find your way.

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