By Bryony Shannon

To create change we need a guiding vision, and the vision we must aim for is good lives well lived. This bold vision – which creates a sense of purpose, sparks our energy and sets a shared direction of travel – returns us to the original intentions of the welfare state and reinvents them for our time.”

Hilary Cottam[1]

As we emerge from the ravages of the pandemic and learn to live with Covid-19, we have an opportunity to reflect on what’s important, on what works and what matters, to gather our learning and look ahead.

Nationally this is a critical time for the future of adult social care. So much, and yet so little, has changed since the Prime Minister announced in the summer of 2019 that he would “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”.

In the recent Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) White Paper, the DHSC assured us it remains “committed to the sustainable improvement of adult social care and will bring forward proposals this year.” In the meantime, the narrative around adult social care from the government and much of the media continues to focus on “protecting our most vulnerable”, “caring for others”[2], reducing pressure on the NHS and preventing people from having to sell their homes to pay for care.

In local authorities, we’re well aware that Covid-19 and the measures introduced to control the spread of the virus have had a disproportionate and devastating impact on the lives of people who draw on – and work in – adult social care.

However, the pandemic has also demonstrated the power of thinking local, the importance of connection, and just how much individuals and communities can and do care about and support each other. It’s helped us focus on what matters, build relationships with people and organisations within our localities, appreciate the abundant resources available in our neighbourhoods, and cut through some of the endless red tape. It’s brought about a strong sense of collaboration and a recognition of – and associated sense of pride in – what we can achieve when we work together. These are all important foundations to build on going forwards.

There are many dedicated, innovative people working in councils who are desperate to escape the social care sorting office, with its associated tick boxes and labels and processes, and work alongside local people and organisations to build something that works better for everyone. We know we need to change. To move forwards. To build back better. And organisations including the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADASS) and the Local Government Association (LGA) have also acknowledged this need for, and opportunity to create, a very different social care future.

“We face many challenges as a result of Covid-19, but we are also presented with a huge opportunity to rethink, redesign and reorientate care. Rather than simply reinforcing and protecting what we have, we have an opportunity to do something fundamentally different. We have the chance to reimagine the care that we all want for ourselves and our families. Care and support that meets our needs and wants. To design care that is fit for the future we want.”

ADASS[3]

As Hilary Cottam writes, to create change we need a guiding vision, and the vision we must aim for is good lives well lived. The #socialcarefuture vision is just that – a succinct, values-based articulation of the fundamentals of a good life: a place to call home; love and a sense of belonging; things to do; hope.

I believe we can use the #socialcarefuture vision and associated narrative in local authorities in many ways.

Within our portfolios or directorates, adopting the vision “creates a sense of purpose, sparks our energy and sets a shared direction of travel”. It provides a framework for our practice and serves as a commitment to a cultural shift away from the deficit-based, care management approach towards a strengths-based way of working alongside the individuals and communities we serve. From assessments for services to keep ‘service users’ alive, to conversations with people about the life they choose to lead. From ‘placing’ people in ‘settings’ to supporting people to remain in, find or return to the place they call home. From focusing on needs and risk and abuse, to focusing on capabilities and possibility and love. From transactions and institutions to relationships and communities. From assuming and doing to, to listening and working with.

The #socialcarefuture vision serves as a prompt for our conversations. Do we talk with people about what home looks and feels like to them? Do we ask who and what they love, the relationships and connections they want to experience, build or maintain? Do we understand the communities they are – or could be – part of, the contribution they do or could make? Do we discuss what they want to start or keep doing? Do we understand – and act on – what matters to them to live their lives in the way they want to?

The full #socialcarefuture narrative presents a challenge for us to think differently about the support we organise and fund. To shift our focus from providing services to ‘look after our most vulnerable’, to working alongside local people and communities to learn about and invest in what works, and to draw together a web of informal and formal support and relationships around what matters to people. To stop viewing social care as a destination or end in itself, and starting thinking about social care as a vehicle to enable all of us to live the lives we choose to lead.

Above all, adopting the vision articulates our values to the people we serve, and to the staff we want to recruit and retain. And it asserts our identity to our partners – distancing us from the paternalistic, medical model of ‘CARE’ and reasserting the vital, social dimension of genuinely social care. Of wellbeing and interdependence. Of choice and control. Of security and belonging. Of human rights and social justice.

I passionately believe that the language we use to communicate with and about people who draw on social care matters, and I’ve always thought the way we talk about social care matters too. Now the #socialcarefuture public audience research provides the evidence to demonstrate just how much difference the words we choose can make, and the guide for communicating about social care offers us a new narrative to help transform social care.

To create change we need a guiding vision. Let’s adopt this one, for all our futures.


[1] Radical Help, Hilary Cottam, 2018

[2] Adult social care recruitment care campaign launched to boost workforce, Department of Health and Social Care, 23 April 2020

[3] Adult social care – shaping a better future, Association of Directors of Adults Social Services, July 2020

There are things that everyone can do to help change the story of social care.  It just requires a bit of thought.  Here are some basic rules to follow.

People that draw on social care as the heroes in their own story

Given social care is all about people, it’s notable how little people that draw on social care lead the story of social care, which tends instead to centre either on the plight of ‘the social care sector’ or on the people who work in it.  Not only is the displacement of people that draw on social care from the story problematic in terms of our commitment to personalised care or independent living, it’s a huge missed opportunity to foster empathy and connection, to command people’s emotions and values and to communicate the relevance of care and support to everyone’s lives. 

A basic story-telling technique can help change this.  All stories broadly include a hero or protagonist, an adventure or mission, a villain or antagonist,  a mentor or sidekick that helps the hero on their way, some degree of peril, and a happy or sad ending.  When you talk or write about social care, or in the images you use, make sure people that draw on social care are always the protagonist, on a mission to live their lives as they choose to, just like everyone else. Be clear who the ‘villain’ is – it might be government for not investing sufficiently, or it might be a council for commissioning bad services, or for withholding power from people to take control of their own lives.  The mentor or sidekick are all those people and organisations working to support people to achieve their mission.  The peril is that people can’t lead the lives they choose to lead like everyone else can.  The ending is not yet known.  Basic rule: stop positioning the ‘social care sector’ or workers as the hero, and accept your status as best supporting actors. 

Be about creating something good, not making something less bad

Martin Luther King never gave a ‘I have a problem’ speech, yet left no one in any doubt about the evil injustice of racial segregation.  If we want to challenge ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ about older people and disabled people and in turn the potential of social care, we also need to start by setting forth an inspiring, compelling vision for the future. Without it, people have little sense of what is at stake.

The dominant story of social care has trained people to have low expectations. As the Director of Ipsos-Mori, Ben Page, recently pointed out, for most people social care is a ‘distress service’ that they only think about in a moment of crisis. Few have any conception of what it is, what it does, how it works or its broader value. Prior to having a need to engage with it most likely see it as something to avoid if they have thought about it at all. Insofar as their perceptions are being shaped it is overwhelmingly negative, through repeated stories of the need to ‘fix our broken social care system’, ‘end the social care crisis’ or ‘shore up social care.’ These messages are all about ameliorating harms, and they bring to mind shovelling water out of a sinking boat, rather than reaching for the stars. 

At the same time, people that have cause to draw on social care now or in the future are often talked about as growing problem, through metaphors such as ‘the demographic timebomb’ or ‘silver Tsunami’ which suggest an unavoidable catastrophe. When we do this we position social care as a threat, not an opportunity and we risk generating fatalism about the potential for change.  Remember: the fact that we get extra time to live our lives is a good thing, we just need to make sure we can all make the most of it.  Hence we all share an interest in investing together to reap the dividends of our longer lives, and to unlock the gifts and talents of everyone in our society to build a better world together.

So always start by painting a picture of the future you want to help to create and invite people to get behind it and the changes needed to get there. This offers a way to challenge complacency and low expectations about what social care can be and do and to offer a more appealing account of the role it plays, which in turn offers a more powerful way to reveal the inadequacy and injustice of our current system.

Sell the brownie, not the recipe

As the communications expert Anat Shenker-Ostorio reminds us, ‘we sell the brownie, not the recipe.’  Again, stop leading your messages with the problems of ‘the sector’ or ‘providers’ or by talking about the policy, model or approach you deliver or espouse. Separate means from ends in your headline story and always start by painting a picture of the lives that people either are or could lead because of great social care.   For example, don’t start your messages by talking about ‘delivering personalised care.’ Talk about people being able to live in the place they call home, with the people and things that they love, in communities where we look out for one another, doing what matters to them – the life that people should anticipate if personalised care has been delivered.

Invoke the right values

This past year has seen the ‘V’ word on steroids.  We will not achieve the future we want to see if social care is talked and thought of as being about ‘looking after vulnerable people that can’t look after themselves.’  Ditto, ‘looking after the elderly’.  Sometimes we might invoke such thinking inadvertently, for example by talking about people who are ‘in social care’ which paints social care as a destination rather than as a vehicle for pursuing a good life.  All of these ways of talking reinforce stereotypes and prejudices about older and disabled people and in turn about what social care is and does.  But we also have to take care in the way we invoke other values.  For example, if we rely only on promoting individual freedom it can lead people to imagine that people require less support. Or if we focus only on community and interdependence it can raise fears of government ‘offloading.’  That’s why #socialcarefuture’s vision is deliberately calibrated to invoke three interdependent values of self-direction (leading the life we want to lead), reciprocity (caring about and supporting one another) and security and belonging (in the place we call home with the people and the things that we love).   

A larger us, not ‘them and us’

Our research has found that unless people have experience of social care, they rarely imagine it having relevance to them, their family or wider community.  In sum, they imagine it to be for ‘other people’ and the language often used – the vulnerable, the elderly, elderly patients, service users – when talking about social care reinforces this over and over again.  We have so much to learn from other successful social movements here.  For example, in the past campaigns for ‘civil rights to same sex partnerships’ failed to hit the mark, because the language othered LGBT+ people and spoke to ideas that few people commonly associate with getting married.  The campaigns were actively reframed as being for ‘Equal Marriage’, the messages centred on love, commitment and family, and the faces of those campaigns included not only people from the LGBT+ community, but their mums, dads, siblings and grandparents, expressing their desire to see their children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters get married.  By creating a sense of a ‘larger us’ these campaigns helped change laws and ensured countless people can now express their love and commitment to one another and to their communities just like everyone else. Could we pull off a similar shift in relation to social care?  Well, we have a template, and it was called ‘Every Australian Counts’.   That’s why our headline vision addresses everyone.

Social care is the solution, not the problem

Most messaging about social care reform positions social care as the problem – ‘fix social care’ ‘social care crisis’ ‘broken social care system’ – not the solution.  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation started out its reframing poverty work focused on social security, but quickly found that by doing so it risked positioning it as the primary problem and through doing so re-enforcing the very narratives that needed to overcome – that the solution was to make social security tougher for people to access.  Instead it focused on ending poverty, framing it as something that ‘holds people back’, explaining how people are drawn into poverty by ‘strong economic currents’ and other factors, and positioning a well designed social security system as part of the solution, offering people the way to stay afloat. 

Doodle by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

This is how #socialcarefuture’s narrative positions social care: when organised well social care helps bring together the relationships and support that people can draw on to lead the life they want to lead. Crucially, this also explains to a largely unfamiliar public what social care does and how it works when working well.

Follow these 6 basic rules and you’ll find yourself telling a better story about social care that can shift thinking and build support for change. Here is some more guidance and our research into how to build public support to transform social care

We’re delighted to be publishing our new research and practical guidance on how to build public support to transform social care.

This work is the culmination of research and development involving and supported by members of the #socialcarefuture movement.  We did not believe that we would be able to make progress on securing the future we wanted without changing the prevailing ways social care is talked about and thought about: as a broken system in crisis that ‘looked after vulnerable people that cannot look after themselves.’  So, inspired by other movements for change, we set about learning how to do so.

Over the past year, with our partners Equally Ours, research company Survation and a brilliant working group drawn from our movement, we’ve been exploring how to shift how people think and feel about social care. 

We have found that our new narrative not only causes people to express a greater understanding of and support for the values, principles and ideas promoted by #socialcarefuture, but crucially, that through doing so, people express greater support for investment and reform overall.   The research found that following exposure to our new narrative and messages, people were more likely to regard social care as:

More important to themselves & those close to them

As benefiting both those who need support and the wider community

A greater priority for government above other areas of policy

More worthy of investment by central government

Capable of being transformed

The route to doing so was by shifting how people thought about, felt about and understood social care.   Following exposure to the narrative people were also:

significantly less likely to associate social care with paternalistic ideas such as vulnerability

far more likely to associate it with words such as independence, community and relationships

More people also agreed with the statements that:

‘social care is about people having the support to live how, where and with whom they choose to’

‘social care draws together relationships and support’

‘living how we choose to live is dependent on the strength of the relationships that we have’

Of course, this is how our narrative and messages performed in the ‘laboratory’ of public audience research.  To have this impact in the real world will demand that more of us make use of and build upon this research and guidance, consistently, repeatedly and proactively.   To those ends, it’s been great to see lots of people and organisations already begin to adapt the way they talk about social care based on the advice we have shared.  Our vision has already been adopted by prominent national actors, from the Local Government Association to the Alzheimer’s Society, as well as across the political spectrum in the UK Parliament.  Some local councils, such as Kirklees, have embedded it in their own vision for the future of social care in their local communities.  Many of our members are taking this framework for communicating well, and using it in their own storytelling.

For #socialcarefuture to do more, we’ll need more support.  Some things we would like to do or to offer include:

  • An animation telling our new story
  • Companion work to change the visual story of social care
  • Bespoke advice and support on how you can adapt your messaging in light of the research
  • Free/affordable workshops on good strategic communications practice
  • To build on this work and share more advice, guidance and share examples of good practice via a new digital platform

If you are interested in and able to support any of the above ideas please get in touch to discuss socialcarefuture@gmail.com

In the meantime, you can download the research and guidance here:

Plain text versions

Click to read Survation’s full research report for #socialcarefuture on how to build public support to transform social care

You can also read our new blogpost 5 tips for changing the way people think about social care

Today (15 April 2021) we hosted a webinar to share the work we’ve been doing, the plans we’d like to put into place and the different ways people and organisations can support and get involved with #socialcare future.

You can watch the webinar here. Please get in touch socialcarefuture@gmail.com if you’d like to talk

Please join us and take part in our Spring gathering which will be held on 27th May from 9.45am until 4.45pm, via Zoom.

The online Spring Gathering combines:

  • Sharing great ideas and innovative practices that can help build towards the future vision.
  • Updates on what our movement has been doing and opportunities to get involved in taking them forward
  • Key debates about how to create the future we want, on issues identified by the Whose Social Care Future is it Anyway? inquiry group.

You can find out more information, glimpse some of the sessions and debates and book a place HERE

Or you can also book a place directly using this linkTowards a Brighter Future – On-Line Spring Gathering Tickets, Thu 27 May 2021 at 9:45 | Eventbrite

Everyone is welcome to our gathering, regardless of ability to pay, but if you can make a contribution, as an individual or organisation, it helps us cover our costs and do more stuff.