Monday, April 29, 2013

Making the Public Services (Social Value) Act a reality

In a previous blog written when the Public Services (Social Value) Act came into force, I argued that “notions of ‘efficiency’ and ‘value’ are not solely defined by the objective measurement of experts, rather there should be room for negotiation and co-creation with those who pay for, those who deliver, and those who benefit from public services”. I further argued, as others have, that legislation notwithstanding; we really need to monitor what is happening in practice. We all have a responsibility for making sure that this piece of legislation makes a real difference. It is not simply a commissioning conversation but a real opportunity for us to work together, as part of local communities and as wider society, to help ensure our public services continue to generate public and social good despite significant challenges.

The challenges are obvious. Against the context of austerity and public spending cuts, how likely are services to be procured and commissioned by ‘social value’? After all, the full scale of the impact of spending cuts has yet to be felt, as there are more cuts to come. Will those in procurement and commissioning roles be bold in taking decisions that may not be ‘lowest cost’ but may represent ‘social value’ even if the latter may not manifest itself in the short term?

How seriously will the Act be taken, and how will it be enforced and monitored? Of course, the aspiration is for an active embracing of the spirit of the Act rather than a rigid approach to ensuring compliance. Nonetheless, lessons from previous initiatives point to the fact that changing the culture and practice of contracting and commissioning is fraught with difficulties. After all, if the spirit of ‘best value’ reviews has been actively embraced, we would not be needing an additional piece of legislation on ‘social value’. Likewise, the Compact between the government and the voluntary and community sector has not led to sustained improvements in commissioning practice.

Worryingly, research conducted by The Guardian in January 2013 and referenced in a subsequent OPM blog just before the Act came into force, reported that 48% of 300 council staff and strategists with responsibility for driving change in local government admitted that they had not heard of the Act. While similar research has yet to be reported across other areas of public service, it is likely that levels of awareness are low. In fact, one respondent articulated frustration that: “Despite our best efforts to inform the workforce there appears to be a ‘don’t care, it’s going to happen anyway’ attitude”.

There are further concerns that the way the Act has been formulated could mean that smaller providers may still not benefit as technical procurement procedures still place emphasis on risk avoidance and financial security (as evidenced by the size of reserves, etc). Additionally, those going for smaller value contracts may also not benefit from the Act as it applies to public services contracts whose value exceeds the relevant financial thresholds in the EU Directives and Public Contracts Regulations.

Nonetheless, there is emerging and growing evidence of success stories, for example case studies reported by NAVCA and the NCVO. These are to be celebrated and shared more widely. At the same time, we need to recognise that changing the culture and practice of procurement and commissioning requires new skills, which many of the respondents to The Guardian’s research indicated they lacked. There must also be creative spaces for different approaches to emerge and to be tested; where communities of practice come together to bring their skills and resources to bear on making the Act bear fruit. While there may be a desire for making the Act a reality, there may be barriers in terms of knowing how this can be done in specific local contexts. We should create safe spaces for people to share experiences, both from the service commissioning and provision perspectives, so that innovative solutions may emerge in a supportive environment.

It is in this spirit that we formally launched our Valuing Public Services publication on Friday, at a breakfast seminar focusing on how the Act can be translated into action. The publication is available for free download on our website and offers practical ideas about how we measure and demonstrate the value of our public services, based on OPM’s real life experiences of working with a broad range of public organisations, including charities and professional bodies to achieve this.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Why building integrated communities requires having difficult conversations

The combination of a revised UK Citizenship test, the ongoing debate about anticipated Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, and ONS census data around the languages spoken in the UK, has once again brought the issues of integration and immigration to the forefront of people’s minds.

Let’s be clear: Britain has one of the most diverse populations in the European Union, if not the world. But we are also an extremely well integrated and tolerant nation, with for instance; 92 percent of the “usual residents of England and Wales aged three years and over” speaking English as their main language, and two-thirds of people believing the welfare state should be continue to be open to those born abroad.

However as Eric Pickles said in his recent Integration in 2013 speech, there is still real need for communities to find better ways for to come together, including increasing the number of people who speak English, and breaking down barriers between people of different faiths.

That said however, overcoming these divisions, particularly in areas which have experienced high levels of friction between communities in recent years like Luton, Rochdale or Oldham, will be far from straightforward. And even before this process of integration can begin, there is often a need for dialogue to either correct misconceptions, or discuss certain grievances that may be prevalent.

High-profile and often controversial issues such as: the status of religious law and tribunals in a largely secular society; balancing the right to freedom of speech against the right to be protected from religious hatred; and the wearing of religious dress at work and in schools – have the potential to divide communities and may be difficult to overcome through standard engagement processes like community events or focus groups.

Good engagement starts by trying to gain a deeper understanding of people’s concerns, motivations and fears, even if some of theses fears seem unpalatable or misplaced. Unless this process leads to the unpacking of these issues and constructs a mutual understanding of what they mean and why they arise, solutions that can take the community forward will be hard to come by.

Although local authorities and their partners have a duty to build integrated communities, they often lack the resources and skills necessary to engage people on these difficult subjects. Often they also fear that engagement might make matters worse and provoke new tensions rather than resolving them. In divided communities, sensitive and considerate approaches to community engagement that address these divisions, build understanding and acceptance across communities, and find common solutions, offer the best chance of building more integrated communities in the future.

The following approaches and techniques can help guide a successful engagement process in which difficult issues need to be confronted:

Thursday, January 31, 2013

What does the Public Services (Social Value) Act mean for the future of public services?

The following blog is an edited excerpt from OPM’s forthcoming Valuing Public Services publication, a practical guide to economic evaluation which includes ideas about how we measure and demonstrate the value of our public services. Valuing Public Services will be available to download on the OPM website in the near future.

The Public Services (Social Value) Act, which came into effect today, means that for the first time, all public bodies in England and Wales are required to consider how the services they commission and procure might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the area.

Whilst this legislation has been received well by many in theory, it will now be vital to track its impact in practice ‘on the ground’. After all, evaluations have found that commissioning practice is at times inconsistent, with some commissioners motivated by ‘lowest cost’ rather than by ‘added value’. This leads us to believe that although improvements are being made, we are still some way off where we want to be.

The RSA has argued that social value that can be created through better relationships between citizens, society, business and public services. The Public Services (Social Value) Act may help create the conditions for social enterprises and charities to, for example, secure more public contracts and create new forms of cross-sector collaboration. But it also raises questions about metrics and accountability. One of the key challenges will be managing the tension between conventional ‘cost’ based approaches with the much heralded ‘value’ based ones. This tension is not new.

Despite the rhetoric around consideration of ‘value’, ‘cost’ is king when it comes to practice. There is real concern that cost considerations will continue to rule, particularly against the backdrop of austerity – new legislation notwithstanding. Moreover, ‘cost’ has always been a more straightforward concept to understand and operationalise in comparison with ‘value’.

It would be naïve however, to posit ‘cost’ and ‘value’ based approaches as being mutually exclusive. After all, public services do need to be far clearer about the true costs involved. For far too long, voluntary and community sector organisations have been complaining that commissioners of services have under-estimated the real costs of service delivery. The sector has been motivated to adopt full cost recovery techniques to avoid being commissioned ‘on the cheap’.

Value cannot be understood properly until we have a robust picture of the real costs involved. At the same time, understanding costs is only the first step. A value-based approach takes us into an arena that requires a fundamental culture change, and a reconfiguration of different sets of relationships in practice. Metrics can only do so much in this territory.

Instead, pragmatic decision-making, informed by greater engagement with a wider set of stakeholders, is required to determine what we mean by (social) value, and to consider how this may be realised. It is not simply a commissioning conversation or a measurement issue, but a wider civic call to action.

Notions of ‘efficiency’ and ‘value’ are not solely defined by the objective measurement of experts, rather there should be room for negotiation and co-creation with those who pay for, those who deliver, and those who benefit from public services. The future of public services rests on the success of this ongoing dialogue.

As a public interest organisation, OPM has a role in engaging and shaping conversations relating to the future of public services. Few topics could be as crucial to get right as how we make decisions about which aspects of public services are more and less valuable. We have recently published an edited volume, Valuing Public Services, that offers practical ideas about how we measure and demonstrate the value of our public services, based on OPM’s real life experiences of working with a broad range of public organisations, including charities and professional bodies to achieve this.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Charities jumping on the Blue Monday bandwagon – a bit of harmless fun or a does it undermine the importance of evidence-based science?

This week began with the scientifically proven most depressing day of the year. Except that it didn’t, really. We all know that Blue Monday started off as a marketing stunt based on nonsense science, and who can blame companies for jumping on the bandwagon using it to try and sell holidays, coffee, banking services, and whatever else. However, should respected charities like Mind, who used ‘the most depressing day of the year’ as a platform to raise awareness of mental health at work, be associating themselves with pseudoscience? Is it a harmless bit of fun in aid of a good cause or does it undermine the importance of evidence-based policy and practice in a field as contentious as mental health?

On Monday, Mind placed volunteer collectors at ‘blue line’ tube stations, made a station announcement at Holborn. and covered their activities on Twitter. They were pretty successful too, raising £600 in just the first half of the day and getting a fair amount of media coverage. They were careful not to endorse Blue Monday itself, saying that they know that there’s no one day of the year that’s more depressing than the rest, but they did actively use the opportunity it presented as a chance to raise awareness, and money.

Mind is not the first mental health charity to play the Blue Monday card. In previous years the Samaritans and the Mental Health Foundation campaigned on the day, attracting some high profile derision from Ben Goldacre. Mind weren’t exempt from criticism either. They did indeed receive some Twitter backlash but handled it well, stressing that they hadn’t taken the decision lightly and they just hope that their activities ‘contributed to a day of positive discussion’.

Indeed, after working for almost 70 years to reduce the stigma of mental health, Mind are hardly the type of organisation who would embark on activities they felt would risk implying that depression is something that the whole nation suffers from and insulting people who genuinely suffer from mental illness.

They most likely felt that the opportunity to raise awareness and raise money outweighed the potential risk of trivialising their cause,  After all, if marketing stunts like this can be used to promote social good and spark debate, rather than just to sell more products, surely that must be a good thing, mustn’t it?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The public sector’s moral maze

We’re not accusing you of being illegal; we’re accusing you of being immoral”. That’s how Margret Hodge, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, addressed representatives of Google, Starbucks and Amazon during a parliamentary committee investigating the firms’ tax contributions to HMRC last month.

All three organisations were being questioned on the issue of tax avoidance: a minimization of tax liability obtained through lawful methods. This is quite different to tax evasion: the illegal non-payment or underpayment of tax. And this is really the point.

Rightly or wrongly, central government is deciding not to legislate on certain matters it considers to be fundamentally moral, subjective issues. Some will interpret this as an abrogation of responsibility, others as the preservation of law-abiding businesses’ rights. Another good example of this is The Living Wage, a campaign to encourage employers to pay staff an independently calculated rate of pay, in excess of the National Minimum Wage, which researchers estimate it is necessary to earn to lift low paid workers out of poverty.

There are currently approximately 140 employers who choose to pay their staff The Living Wage; a number, which according to The Living Wage Foundation, has taken some “45,000 families out of working poverty”. But of each of those employers have implemented the scheme on a voluntary basis.

In the absence of central direction, both public and private bodies, particularly those at local level, have been left to use their own judgment on these – and similar other – ethical dilemmas. It has been really pleasing to see many organisations – such as the 140 plus employers choosing to pay The Living Wage – making the decisions that exert the greatest positive influence in their respective localities. What’s more, in many towns and cities, despite cutbacks, the public sector retains its role as the de facto employer and source of contracts for local businesses, wielding an enviable capacity to both affect change locally and influence the media agenda nationally.

Take the Living Wage campaign for instance; some of the largest employers to adopt it have been local authorities like Cardiff, Birmingham and Newcastle whose decisions have generated national column inches. And what about Liverpool City Council’s recent decision to use its procurement process to actively support social enterprises and jobs and skills development for local people? The publically funded BBC has even taken the step to change its employment structure to make it harder for freelance staff to pay lower tax tariffs.

If these issues are moral, then the public sector should take pride in its track record of being an arbiter for good. In the field of disability rights for instance, the public sector paved the way for important legislative developments that shifted the focus away from merely tackling discrimination, to the active promotion of disability equality. This shift was significant, as it acknowledged that ‘good’ isn’t simply about providing redress when a wrong has been done – a process that leaves the structure that produced such a wrong fundamentally unchanged; instead, it involves positively and proactively embracing an aspiration to be better. The disability rights lobby recognised that while legislation can send out important signals of intent, it is also a blunt instrument. Advancing proactive and positive approaches that promote fairness and equality is ultimately far more important

On many occasions the public sector has demonstrated that it understands this lesson better than most. Simply adhering with existing legislation is not always enough. Sometimes organisations have to go farther, not just doing what they are obliged to do, but doing what they believe it is right to do also.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Reflecting on our work in Cantelowes, Camden

OPM has recently been working with residents of the Cantelowes ward in Camden on a project that successfully encouraged people to get to know one another, whilst simultaneously making improvements to their local area.

The Cantelowes initiative followed a three stage process: first discovering resident’s preferences and priorities for projects that involved the community; then developing practical and positive projects that met these criteria and which also brought residents closer together; and finally implementing these ideas in the ward.

Throughout the project we were overwhelmed by the passion, energy and all round commitment of local residents to change their community for the better. However, whilst all parties enjoyed the invigoration of the discovery and development stages, it soon became apparent that taking these ideas forward in practice – a process which is still ongoing – is an altogether more challenging task.

Reflecting on our experience of this process to date, we’ve observed first hand how the capacity to make positive change is not always evenly distributed across communities and that in order to become successful, community-led actions need dedicated support.

So here are the top tips we think it’s crucial for all those dedicated to unlocking capacity in communities to bear in mind:

– Focus on the issues that have the widest appeal: In Cantelowes, ideas tabled to improve local communication were those most enthusiastically backed by the majority of residents because they were deemed beneficial to the entire community. It is therefore no coincidence that the project that has proved most successful so far, involved creating a series of notice boards and an online community events calendar that provides community organisers with a helpful resource to avoid meeting clashes.

– Prioritise the process as well as the project: A key and reoccurring aspiration for residents was to become more connected with their neighbours and the wider community and to create bridges across this diverse ward. The projects, even in their planning stages, have helped to forge and extend connections between residents and networks – this shows that the process itself can lead to positive outcomes even if the project itself does not achieve ‘lift off’.

– Ownership and responsibility are vital: The local communications group has succeeded in attracting a core of committed residents who feel a sense of ownership for taking various projects forward. This has been a key success factor.

– Don’t get caught in a meeting cycle: The delivery of projects invariably involves asking residents to come together to plan and resource tasks. This can sometimes make maintaining good levels of attendance challenging. Rather than arranging meetings, projects could be tackled during events and activities that have a fun, social, or cultural focus. This helps to make participation more attractive to potential volunteers, rather than asking residents to attend yet another meeting.

– Work with established community and voluntary sector players: Established voluntary and community organisations can offer community-led projects vital access to their networks and resources. In the Cantelowes project for instance, ‘borrowed’ community centres proved to be dynamic hubs generating huge amounts of intelligence and insights about the landscape of the community and connecting different projects with the right participants and partners.

– Good things come to those who stick at it: Looking at some of the older groups and projects in Cantelowes it’s clear that community initiatives often take time to grow. Some have taken years to establish, and they have periods when levels of participation either expands or contracts. The local communications work stream for instance has taken some time to organise and there have been several stops and starts in the process. But as many of the residents involved in the process emphasised, community projects undoubtedly bring positive changes, it’s just these changes are more likely to occur gradually than overnight.

Friday, November 23, 2012

How to move from giving the public a voice, to enabling them to have a role

This is an edited version of a speech given by OPM Fellow Rob Francis at yesterday’s annual iNetwork conference in Manchester, on the future of public services.  

“The idea of ‘unlocking local capacity’ has emerged as a common theme that runs through much of the work we do with local councils around the country.  In our Unlocking Local Capacity report, we explored the different things that councils are doing to make the most of the assets, ideas and energy around them. In it, we talk of an important distinction between ‘unlocking’ and not ‘unleashing’: arguing that a more active, engaged, responsible society won’t come about from councils just ‘getting out of the way’.

In practice, unlocking local capacity requires many different things of public organisations. These typically include: using resources to build, strengthen or augment the assets of others; forging new sorts of relationships with voluntary groups and their work; and undertaking different sorts of engagement and consultation approaches that prioritise citizens and their energy.

Over the last decade, public services have become much better at consultation and engagement, involving the public in decisions about how services look and feel. But reflecting on the push towards localism and the many examples of citizen activism up and down the country, it feels as though that isn’t enough. If we’re really going to unlock capacity, we have to move from giving citizens a voice in decision-making to enabling citizens to have a role in actually making things happen.

The notion of unlocking capacity also encourages us to challenge our traditional conception of what we in public services mean by  ‘resources’ . It begs the question: ‘what resources are out there in the community, and how do we bring those to bear?’ This isn’t about giving councils an excuse to step back and tell local people ‘over to you’, but it does potentially change their role. That’s where the message about The Big Society became problematic – for too many people it felt like a euphemism for ‘we’re going to do less, so you’re going to do more’. But it shouldn’t be that black and white, and it shouldn’t start with the cuts, it should start more positively with the people and what changes they want to make in their lives or in their community.

Take Castlehaven Timebank in Camden for example. Hosted by Castlehaven Community Association and jointly financed by the council, the volunteering scheme generated over 2,500 time credits exchanged in its first year, and with over 150 members it has successfully engaged people who might not otherwise get involved in community work.

Or what about Shropshire, where the council has been exploring how best to support elected members to play more of an enabling/facilitating that makes the most not only of their time, but of the ideas and energy in their communities?

Based on the work we’ve been finding out about and supporting in local areas over the last year, here are a handful of practical tips we would suggest councils bear in mind when working to both unlock and foster capacity in their communities.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

At what age should we get the vote?

There has, of late, been a spate of nations campaigning for expanded franchises that would give 16 year olds the right to vote. Last week Argentina approved a law to lower its voting age from 18 to 16, which in turn followed an announcement last month that Westminster was removing its challenge to allowing 16 year olds to participate in the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014. Then, on Tuesday, politicians from two separate parties in Stormont tabled a motion to give Northern Irish 16 year olds the vote, a move that may force the House of Commons to debate whether similar rule changes should come into force for future UK General Elections.

According to Sinn Féin MLA Megan Fearon, “Lowering the age to sixteen would be an important step in allowing more people to participate in the democratic process”. Similarly, the Scottish Youth Parliament, a democratically elected charity representing young Scottish people, argues that they’ve “seen many capable, confident and well-informed 16 and 17 year olds who have a real interest in politics, but are unable to play their full part as citizens by exercising their democratic rights on election day”. As far away as Buenos Aires the message is the same: “It is a very important initiative because it expands the frontier of rights” Agustin Rossi, an Argentine politician told the BBC.

Of course, there are those who see the issue differently, either arguing that young people are not mature or responsible enough for the vote, or interpreting these changes as self-serving realpolitik designed to support nationalists’ separatist agendas, or galvanise the support base of beleaguered parties. But cynical or otherwise, given the worldwide momentum for such a radical extension of voting rights, the issue deserves to be considered seriously.

At OPM, we’ve been working with a number of charities and youth programmes, which, among other things, aim to support young people as they make the transition into adulthood. One such initiative, the National Citizen Service (NCS), encourages young people to see that they have valuable roles to play in their communities and the capacity to make meaningful contributions.

While the Scottish Youth Parliament, SNP, Sinn Féin and others argue young people are mature enough and ready for the responsibility of voting, the existence of schemes like NCS and others seem to suggest that young people are still making that transitional journey at the ages of 16 and 17. This year, the government commissioned 30,000 NCS places, “to develop the skills and potential of teenagers” and so far 85% of participants have said the scheme enabled them to learn something new about themselves.

A fundamental tenet of the NCS programme is transitioning young people to adulthood; a transition which our research has shown young people are embracing. Yet in British society at least, the right to vote has been long since been an established sign that this transition is already complete. There are, without doubt, 16 year-olds for whom the maturity and responsibility associated with voting would not be an issue, just as there are also adults for whom it is. But any arbitrary age has its flaws and the case for change always has to be stronger than that for the status quo.

That’s not to say things won’t, or indeed shouldn’t, change. The current voting age of 18 was only set in 1969, before that it was 21 and going back further our society was considerably less and less democratic, restricting the voting rights of women and the working class. As recently as 2006 only those aged 21 and over were allowed to stand for public office in this country. Of course this ever downward, ever more inclusive trend cannot be inexorable, but the numerous historical and indeed international precedents would suggest that a decision on this issue may be looming on the horizon. Perhaps, given the fundamental importance of the change, it will be one made by the people via referendum? Though that too would beg an additional question, not too dissimilar to the one currently being debated: who gets to vote?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The polarised view of disabled people in the public and the media

A new report published yesterday by Hardest Hit, a coalition of 90 disabled people’s organisations, has highlighted the precarious circumstances in which many disabled people find themselves living in today. The headline grabbing statistics in the report are alarming. 450,000 disabled people for instance, could potentially get less money under the Universal Credit system than they do now.

Equally concerning, is the polarised public perceptions of disabled people which the report alludes to. Many have commented that this summer’s Paralympic games marked a watershed moment. The talents and achievements of Britain’s Paralympians were lauded on a scale never before seen in this country. Channel 4’s clever marketing slogans – Meet the Superhumans and Thanks for the Warm-Up – appeared to tap into a national-mood in which all of Britain’s athletes, Olympian and Paralympian, were celebrated on equal stages. As noted in the report: “For once it seemed like Britain truly understood what it meant to be disabled. Something more fundamental than spectator sport was taking place; it appeared the mood of the nation was changing.”

Yet this is only part of the story. As the report also makes clear, “around the same time we heard the number of recorded incidents of disability hate crime in England and Wales was at its highest total since records began” and September’s British Social Attitudes Survey showed a hardening of public attitudes towards the recipients of welfare.

How are we to make sense of these contradictory views? It seems that for certain sections of the public a deserving/undeserving dichotomy has formed: in which a relatively small number of successful disabled athletes are viewed with respect, whilst the majority of less privileged disabled people are treated with disdain.

Through our work with members of the Hardest Hit coalition, including Inclusion London, Scope and the RNIB, we’ve seen how the affects of the economic downturn and public spending cuts have hit disabled people particularly hard. And whilst there has undoubtedly been progress, as the glitz and the glamour of the Paralympics fade away to leave the harsh economic reality that preceded it, perhaps we have to accept that on the whole, people’s attitudes towards disabled people haven’t moved on quite as far we thought they had.

During the days of the Disability Rights Commission for example, we know that the annual ‘Attitudes and Awareness’ surveys showed that despite high profile campaigns, understanding of disability and attitudes towards disabled people did not really improve over time. Similarly, the first-ever Disability Module of questions in the British Social Attitudes Survey revealed beyond doubt that prejudice towards disabled people, particularly those with mental health conditions, are prevalent.

Conflicting representations of disabled people in the media do little to help change these attitudes. A joint report commissioned last year by Inclusion London and carried out by the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research and Glasgow Media Group showed how media coverage of disabled people in the context of government spending cuts has led to a significant increase in the number of articles that focus on disability benefit fraud, despite the fact that the DWP’s own figures show that only around 0.5% of claimants are fraudulent.

Even the more positive “superhuman” representations of disabled people can be seen somewhat problematically in promoting the idea that all disabled people can ‘overcome’ barriers if they put their minds to it, and if they don’t it’s because they haven’t tried hard enough.

Depressingly, it would seem that another unwanted consequence of recession is a menacing atmosphere in which suspicion and cynicism flourish and compassion sadly withers.

We’ll be blogging on this topic throughout the next month following this week’s NCAS conference considering, in particular, how Local Authorities can use asset-based approaches to help society’s more vulnerable groups to cope during these tough times. We’ll also be hosting a public interest seminar on this topic in the first week in December, so if you’re interested in hearing more about this event, please get in contact for more details.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Does the RCN’s ‘This is Nursing’ campaign hold the key to reversing the decline of the nursing workforce?

The Royal College of Nursing’s current high profile advertising campaign has the potential to make a significant, and very much needed, contribution to reversing the decline in the number of people choosing nursing as a career. But is the RCN’s decision to not shy away from highlighting the difficult bits of a nurse’s day (as well as the rewarding aspects) a risky move?

The reputation of nursing has taken a bit of a beating over the last few years. With damaging media reports of poor care, unprofessional service and bad management, it’s not surprising that public trust in the profession had hit an all time low. However, as anyone who works in or around the nursing sector knows, in reality these cases are few and far between. This is why the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has launched their ‘This is Nursing’ initiative to help turn around public perception of the profession and to remind us how valuable and dedicated nurses really are.

Featuring adverts on 1000 buses across the UK and accompanied by an emotive YouTube video, a dedicated website and social media channels, the campaign aims to show the reality of nursing – the highs, the lows and the mundane bits in-between. In just over two weeks, they’ve already clocked up nearly 27,000 views on YouTube, over 16,000 Twitter followers and almost 18,000 likes on the associated Facebook page. This is pretty good going by most standards, although of course it’s difficult to calculate how many of these people are already in the nursing profession or in the RCN’s ultimate target audience of the general public.

The underlying aim of the initiative is to try to counteract the huge decrease in people wanting to pursue a career in nursing. According to the RCN’s 2011 Labour Market Review, there are fears that the nursing workforce could shrink by 100,000 over the next decade – a quarter of the total number of nurses in the UK. Studies show that potential recruits have been turned off by misconceptions about the profession via the aforementioned media scepticism, along with fears of poor pay and limited opportunities to progress.

If you’ve already watched the ‘this is nursing’ video ad, you can see that they’ve taken a risk with the content, as showing nurses mopping up sick and having to deal with abusive patients could be discouraging to many potential applicants. However, I think this is where the beauty of the campaign lies. They’re not patronising the viewer, they’re saying ‘yes it’s bloody hard and often under-valued work, but if you care about making a difference and helping people, then consider this as an option’. Then, via their dedicated site, they give the viewer easy access to case studies, articles and advice on how to get into nursing.

A lot is riding on this initiative and the big question is, will it work? Looking at similar campaigns in the past, a natural comparison can be drawn to the ‘Those Who Can, Teach’ campaign in the noughties. Following years of decline in the number of graduates wanting to get into teaching, the campaign contributed to a significant rise in applicants to the profession. Like the RCN’s, this initiative was both aspirational and myth-busting at the same – the myth in teaching’s case was pay. Notably, in the ‘This is Nursing’ initiative, although they highlight how you can rise to the top of the ranks of the nursing ladder, they gloss over the issue of salary and focus on the more altruistic aspects of the job, which may turn off some potential recruits. It will be interesting to see how this pans out over the coming months, particularly as the ‘those who can’ campaign was run before social media had become such a huge part of our lives, so the RCN’s has even more potential to reach a wide audience and to have a bigger impact.

At OPM, we work in partnership with the RCN to build capacity within the nursing workforce, so we’ll be following this campaign closely. If you would like to talk to us about these issues, please feel free to comment below or get in touch at