Practice Solutions is a training and consultancy organisation, providing flexible, out-of-the-box support for companies within the social care, health, voluntary and private sectors. Its aim is to help organisations to nurture well-being in their workforces and communities through implementing meaningful and sustainable change.
Having worked with many social care businesses since 1999, Practice Solutions recognised that smaller providers often struggled with ‘back office’ functions including finance, HR, marketing or tendering. In turn this reduced their ability to secure the larger-scale contracts they needed to grow.
This led to the idea of a localised support network for these businesses that could increase their capacity to deliver services and to win larger scale bids through providing shared ‘back-office’ functions as well as advice, support and relationship-brokering, particularly with the public sector.
This was felt to be particularly important for those working in social care, with SMEs and micro-firms already under growing pressure and a national campaign to recruit 20,000 more carers in Wales by 2030.
If successful, the model could then be rolled out to all those other foundational businesses that supported these, and other, service providers.
In 2019, the Practice Solutions team received a Welsh Government Foundational Economy Challenge Fund grant to test the appetite for such a model with businesses in Rhondda Cynon Taf.
Initially focused around social care providers, the Connect4SuccessRCT project aimed to deliver a systems-wide approach to ensure that the rising care needs of the future could be met by boosting both the local care sector, and the wider foundational economy.
The project would provide ‘back office’ support to local care sector SME’s including staff recruitment and retention advice, training to those working with vulnerable people, finance and marketing assistance and advice on tendering.
It would also work to connect local firms with public bodies to try to ensure that more public sector contracts were awarded locally, instead of to large corporate providers. This would include breaking down barriers to successful tendering and raising the profile of local providers to public sector audiences.
Although the project started well with successful outreach to all parties, the impact of COVID-19 inevitably limited the ability of social care providers and public bodies to engage with it.
In response, the project increased its focus on other foundational economy businesses that, by contributing to local community resilience, also support health and social care agendas and the community at large.
A key tool was the Connect4SuccessRCT website that aims to allow local providers to market their services and also potentially to collaborate in order to secure and deliver large-scale public sector contracts that would otherwise be out of reach.
To date, 54 local organisations have signed up including a radio station, cleaners, training organisations, builders, manufacturers and distributers of PPE.
Although the pandemic caused the project’s primary audience to change, Connect4SuccessRCT has not lost sight of its original aims to support the health and care sectors nor its holistic outlook.
Dafydd Thomas, the project lead at Practice Solutions, explains:
“The model works on the basis of providing co-benefits to all parties. Businesses are not only given support on how to tender, marketing tips, and other business advice when they join Connect4SuccessRCT but we’ll also be providing training so that their employees will be able to recognise when someone might be vulnerable, or at risk. This helps add to that business’ social impact and will ultimately help public services to intervene before the issues becomes more serious and costly.”
This additional ‘early-warning system’ by local firms that have daily contact with large numbers of the county’s residents can not only help reduce preventable hospitalisations and suffering but it also enables the responsibility of care to be shared and grown throughout the community.
Practice Solutions is also still working to bridge the gap between the public sector and service providers to enable greater collaboration and more public funds to be channeled through the local economy.
Staff have been liaising with procurement officers and local authorities to understand all the elements that businesses need to successfully secure contracts. This includes updated policies, certifications and information on upcoming work and means that businesses will be more prepared to go out and get contracts even when the initial Connect4Success pilot comes to an end in March 2021.
This work has also captured some valuable insights into how the process of tendering can be made more accessible, particularly for those who have less experience or who may not be as digitally apt.
Practice Solutions has been able to feed back this experience to Sell2Wales, Business Wales, Rhondda Cynon Taf Country Borough Council, and other local public services to help them understand the barriers that local suppliers face.
Dafydd Thomas went on to say
“One of the many things that the pandemic has taught us is that local services are only as good as their supply chain – think of the different challenges with supplying PPE. We want to see more local businesses supplying more services to the local public sector – providing more local jobs for people closer to home and ensuring that more public money is kept circulating at a local level.”
The team is also building a directory of all businesses in Rhondda Cynon Taf which in time, will help the public sector procurement teams to search for specific skillsets and approach businesses that meet contract requirements.
Although Practice Solutions believes that the pilot has proven successful, it has not been without challenges. Connections with partners were hard to forge during the peak months of the pandemic and in one case it had taken more than 9 months to just get a meeting with one of the target public bodies. Dafydd explains that “partners were simply not in a place where they could engage” despite the additional resource that projects like Connect4SuccessRCT can offer.
Similarly, economic pressures meant that the long-term holistic outlook of the project did not appeal to some of the target SMEs and micro-firms, with businesses being much more interested in ‘help me get something now’ than what may be available in ‘some golden future.’”
Despite these challenges, the project has proven flexible and responsive to local needs. Long-term, the organisation would like to adapt this model to become a formal membership co-operative and invite the community to be involved. In addition to the original aims of closer collaboration with the public sector, it would also connect local people with local, reputable businesses in property maintenance, transport or general support services.
As well as helping boost the local economy, it is thought that this could particularly help the most vulnerable people in the community to live independently for longer, increasing individual well-being as well as further reducing the pressure on local health and social care providers.