Dealing with the stress of worsening acute budgetary pressures while struggling to maintain the best possible support to the most vulnerable people is a task of epic proportions for any council, but to do this while under the detailed scrutiny of documentary filmmakers is a challenge few are likely to embrace, let alone encourage.
But a sense of responsibility to try to highlight an adult social care crisis that, despite mounting evidence of potentially catastrophic failure in the not too distant future, is not broadly accepted by the public as a priority let alone fully understood prompted Somerset CC to take a bold leap into the unknown.
The BBC’s Panorama team were at work in Somerset in July last year when the council, with rapidly dwindling reserves, faced a projected budget deficit for 2019 which had doubled in six months to £19m.
The documentary provides an insight into the perils of cutting services to reduce an in-year overspend while also struggling to respond effectively to social care demand, as opposition councillors and the community vent their frustration at the sacrifices being made.
“We weren’t quite sure what was going to be exposed but the message was more important,” David Fothergill
While the tension and obvious stress of the period is captured in the first of two Panorama episodes aired last night, Somerset’s chief executive Patrick Flaherty told LGC he is now confident the council’s finances have been stabilised and said the process of being filmed had been “productive”.
He said despite the “jolt” of the financial challenges the Somerset faced, the council leadership were driven by a strong sense of duty to raise awareness of the serious and worsening national problem of social care.
“Our concerns were almost peripheral to that”, he said. “We were under the spotlight, but we knew the job in hand and we had a process to deal with that.”
Somerset leader David Fothergill (Con) admitted the decision to invite Panorama in had not been easy, but said it was “incumbent on us to tell our story”.
“We weren’t quite sure what was going to be exposed but the message was more important,” he added.
Cllr Fothergill said he would encourage other councils to consider the media in a more positive way to help educate the public on the issues facing local government.
“[Councils should] build up a level of trust, get the message across and have more influence,” he said. “There has been a reticence to do that because of potential reputational damage and losing control of how you portray messages.”
“My only worry about the programme is you don’t see any of the innovation we are doing,” Stephen Chandler
Cllr Fothergill admitted it was “very uncomfortable having Panorama cameras in your face” but said an understanding developed between the producers and the council leadership as the filming progressed.
He added the process and resulting programmes also served as a reminder of the everyday realities faced by staff, carers and those who receive care.
He added: “It is easy to disconnect from the front line being a leader but to see the difficult decisions we have to make on finances and see how it impacts on people is really powerful. It really brings it home what we are here for.”
Mr Flaherty said the “modest” underspend recorded last year now means “positive conversations can start about how we become more preventative”.
“In an essence it was about how we promote independence and wellbeing, to step in as early as possible and before people reach crisis,” Mr Flaherty said. “We also start from a position as an organisation of what people need.”
“We understand the cost of our services and the demographic coming down the track. We have had a focus on core activity, but we are going to become more cost effective.”
Mr Flaherty added that the debate on social care is often over-simplified with a focus on funding and demographic pressures.
“We don’t talk enough about the complexity in people getting older with more conditions more multiple morbidity and care needs,” he said.
Somerset director of adult social services Stephen Chandler, who had a starring role in the first episode, said when he started discussing the need to raise the profile of the challenges faced in social care with the leader and chief executive, he insisted “it was no good us criticising a lack of activity [by the government] if we weren’t prepared to step up to the mark ourselves”.
“We were keen to bring the issue alive because for so long successive governments and this government have failed to address in a credible way the challenges we are facing,” he added.
But he was keen to stress that despite Somerset’s challenges the council has been innovating in its attempts to manage demand and improve the quality of care.
For example, Somerset has established 400 “micro-providers” after an appeal for community entrepreneurs to get involved in social care. These can be individuals or small groups with specialisms who are matched with people with particular needs. These micro-providers are now supporting 1,600 people across the county.
Mr Chandler said the only concern he has about the programmes is that such initiatives are not highlighted.
He added: “You see some fantastic examples of people involved, not just the people [being looked after] but also our staff. I feel very proud of how they are presented.
“My only worry about the programme is you don’t see any of the innovation we are doing, you don’t see how we are managing demand because that is not what Panorama were interested in. It was not part of what they wanted to get across.”
The second part of Panorama’s Crisis in Care will be on BBC One at 9pm on 5 June