It is ten years since the Government committed to a strategy to transform the way support is planned through personal budgets. Colin Slasberg, an independent consultant in social care - and familiar to readers of Chief Social Worker for Adults Lyn Romeo's blog - offers his personal view of progress to date.
Personal budgets were originally defined as sums of money, calculated using a resource allocation system, and provided ‘up-front’ to enable service users to choose the support right for them.
The 2014 Care Act subsequently placed personal budgets on a statutory footing.
How to judge progress? The evidence has been mixed. Last year, the National Audit Office could not find evidence that individual success stories had extended into system wide change for the majority. Think Local Act Personal (TLAP), the body charged with progressing the strategy, are planning how councils might generate such evidence.
In the meantime, we now have two recent High Court judgements that are the first to test the way needs are assessed and support planned under the Care Act. They involved two councils against whom service users sought judicial reviews of their assessment and support plans. The judgements are detailed - between them they run to 35,000 words. They are a good test of the changes brought about by the new legal provision of personal budgets.
The judgements are notable in that the concepts central to the personal budget strategy - 'up-front allocation’, ‘resource allocation system’ and ‘indicative budget’ are not mentioned at any point in either judgement. The concepts played no part in either of the claimants’ cases against the councils, nor in the councils’ defence against their claims, nor in the deliberations of either judge.
The phrase ‘personal budget’, on the other hand, is used. It describes the financial value of the council’s offer to the service user. This, indeed, is precisely the meaning the Care Act gives to the phrase. It is calculated after the council has decided both what needs will be met and with what resource. It requires councils to subsequently tell service users what their ‘personal budget’ is as part of their support plan. The Act itself makes no mention of up-front allocations or resource allocation systems.
The net effect of this definition is that the term ‘personal budget’ has replaced the term ‘care package’ to describe the support a council offers to a person. This is to be welcomed. Care packages were likely to be expressed in terms of services. It lent itself too easily to the service menu driven approach to assessment and support planning. ‘Personal budget’, on the other hand, is suggestive of a more flexible approach to the support a person is offered. Money, not services, is the currency of support planning.
However, it is a quite different definition of what a personal budget is from the one used in the launch of the strategy. It falls short of the vision of transformative change, where up-front budgets transfer power from the council to the service user. The original meaning has been lost in translation from drawing board to implementation. This perhaps explains TLAP’s findings in its recent survey into the relative impact of the Care Act.
The term ‘personal budget’ is now firmly in the day to day vocabulary of the service. However, its diminished interpretation means the search for ways to personalise the system - given that councils remain firmly in control of how needs are defined and met - is still on.