How not to apply for a job in psychology

I’ve been shortlisting for a new post today, as we’ve already received 43 applications for the advert I put up yesterday morning*. For a profession in which there is a narrative that prestigious Assistant Psychologist posts are almost impossible to get, the quality of applications is surprisingly poor. I don’t mean that the applicants themselves are surprisingly poor, as they seem to generally be alright, but the way they have applied for the post is, for far too large a proportion of those applying, pretty disappointing. It isn’t going to affect the outcome of the process, as there are some really good applications so we won’t have any trouble finding enough to interview, but there are far too many people who rule themselves out of the running unnecessarily. Many of these applicants might be quite good, but their applications fall far short of my shortlisting criteria for really obvious and easily avoidable reasons. That means that for people who do follow a few simple tricks** you greatly increase your chance of successful applications – not just in my post, but in any application within the field of psychology, and probably most of the advice will generalise to other job applications too.

Before you think that I’m a control freak with unreasonable expectations of applicants, please remember that the context is that 70+ candidates will apply for my vacancy before I close it, and NHS posts will typically attract 100-200 applicants within a short period of time, leading some to close in just a few hours. The balance of supply and demand here means that it’s a shortlister’s marketplace, and only the best applications from the best applicants will lead to an interview. That means that qualified CPs selecting for AP posts have to set high standards to let them narrow down the number of applicants quickly to a manageable amount that they can then shortlist in more detail. And having spoken to many other people who have been responsible for shortlisting similar posts and seen the posts on the thread on this topic on the clinpsy forum, my expectations and frustration with candidates who fail to do the simplest things to present their application properly are echoed by many of my peers.

Whilst these posts are particularly competitive and the application process has some sector-specific features, like the nature of GBC, and the relative values given to particular kinds of experience, what I am talking about are basic job seeking skills that should be taught by every career service or recruitment website. Not only that, but if you do a search on clinpsy you will see that the expectations held by people shortlisting for AP posts are clear, and there is a lot of advice available on this topic in the public domain. We are not expecting people to crack some secret code or have access to hidden insider information: Most of the things that would make the difference are things that require common sense and a bit of effort. My main grumble is as simple as people not reading the instructions on how to apply that are given in the job advert and firing off applications that aren’t specific to the post or don’t contain the required information, or that are really badly presented.

When it comes to my current post I’m not even asking anything too onerous. I haven’t set a task or asked anything unusual. I just want candidates to send a short CV and a covering letter saying how you fit the requirements of the post, with details of two referees. Surely that’s the minimum expectation when applying for a job, and pretty parallel to the NHSjobs expectation of giving education and employment history and then writing the supporting information and references? Yet a significant proportion have submitted applications with no covering letters, no references, or no information about why they want the job or are suited to it. To me that’s like going fishing but not taking a rod or a net.

In terms of essential criteria I’ve asked for a degree conferring GBC at 2:1 or better (or a degree level qualification in statistics or research), along with a driving license (or a transport plan for candidates with a disability to be able to complete the job). Yet many applicants have told me they will complete their undergraduate degree this summer, or don’t have a driving license. There are international applicants who haven’t shown me they can lawfully live and work in the UK. There are then applicants who haven’t given me information I need in order to see they meet my essential requirements. Perhaps they qualified abroad or with joint honours and they haven’t told me that they have GBC. Several haven’t given me a degree grade. Others might tell me that they had a particular job, but not give the hours or the dates so I can’t see how much experience they gained.

The process has really taught me how NOT to apply for a job in psychology, and I thought that might be expertise worth sharing. If you follow the advice I’ve numbered below, you too can be confident that you will maximise your chance to not secure a post!

So my first set of tips on how not to apply for a job are:

  1. Apply for jobs where you don’t meet the essential criteria
  2. Do not read the instructions on how to apply
  3. Do not write a covering letter (or supporting information section) at all
  4. Do not specify your degree grade
  5. Do not mention if you have GBC, even if you have an atypical qualification
  6. Apply from abroad but don’t worry to mention that you have the right to live and work in the UK
  7. Don’t tell me whether posts were full time or part time or the dates when you worked there

The next issue is that many (and in fact probably most) applications don’t tell me why you want this particular job, or how you meet our person specification. They fire off information that tells about their experiences and skills, but does nothing to show how they meet our shortlisting criteria, which are spelled out in the person specification. Few have told me why they want this job in particular as opposed to any job with an AP title or a CP supervisor. Some tell me about their aspirations to gain a training place and/or to have a career in clinical psychology, but (whilst I am aware that the post is a good developmental opportunity and I’m happy to support the successful candidate to develop) I’m not recruiting someone to help them achieve their aspirations. I’m recruiting to get a job done within my team, and their aspirations don’t tell me why they will be better at that job than the other 30+ people who have similar aspirations.

A significant proportion of applications consist of just a CV, perhaps with a very brief generic covering note. Many look like a mass mailing that the candidate sends out to every job listing that contains particular keywords. The result is that they feel like someone reading me a script to try and sell me double glazing or PPI claims without knowing anything about me – they have invested minimum effort but hope that if they apply to enough posts one might bite. In fact, many applications feel like they’ve taken less time to send out than they would take for me to read, and the impression given to the short-lister is that the person doesn’t care about the post at all.

Maybe it’s something about the internet age that people expect to be able to apply for a post with just a couple of clicks, like putting an item on an online store into their basket and then clicking to check out. If you had to invest the effort in phoning up for an application form and then filling it in by hand, as you did when I applied for my AP post in 1995, it might seem more obvious that you needed to make that effort count. But even then not every candidate would explain why they wanted the post. However the internet age also makes it easier to cut and paste the right chunks of information or to edit existing text. So it also makes it easier to tailor an application to a specific post.

So my next set of tips on how not to apply for a post are:

  1. Don’t read the job advert – the job title, pay and location are all the information you need
  2. Fire off a generic CV with no information about why you want the post or how your skills are suited to it (for bonus marks express interest in a different client group or service)
  3. Don’t even worry to read the person specification, that’s not important
  4. Don’t tailor your application to the job, just send the same application out to every post, regardless of the context or population.

The other big advantage is that the internet lets you check spelling and even grammar, so you really don’t need to submit applications that are peppered with typos and spelling mistakes. If you are dyslexic, get someone else to check it before submitting. If you feel too much time pressure to delay individual applications for proofreading then prepare the content you will need to configure most applications in advance so you can get someone to proofread your main blocks of text in advance. Word processing software also lets you count the number of characters, words and pages before you paste content in to your application, so you can easily follow any specified requirements. Which is why it is so puzzling to get six page CVs when I set a limit of two.

There are then other issues with how people present their applications. I get that pasting a CV into a recruitment site can mess with the formating, but you can normally use a preview feature to get the chance to see how it will appear to a recruiter, so it is worth checking. Simplify layouts and fonts and remove massive gaps that appear so that the CV looks neat and tidy. Keep it as short as possible. If I can write my CV on two pages, having worked in psychology for 24 years, managed teams in the NHS and now running my own business, I’m pretty sure that you don’t need six pages by the age of 23. And I’m sorry to break it to you, but I don’t care what your responsibilities were when you worked in that shop, or pub, or holiday resort in the summer before your degree. If you really want to mention it, I’m fairly sure one line would cover it. Otherwise it looks like you can’t prioritise – which is off-putting because being able to pick out the most salient information is an essential skill when deciding what information needs to go into a report.

So my next set of tips on how not to apply for a post are:

  1. Make lots of typos, and ensure to include as many spelling mistakes, punctuation errors and examples of poor grammar as possible (for bonus points, you could spell the name of the organisation or short-lister wrong, or try some text-style abbreviations)
  2. Lay your CV or application out so it is as unintelligible as possible, and definitely don’t check how it will appear in the application system
  3. Don’t worry about any requirements with regard to length, more is always better
  4. Put in lots of information about irrelevant experiences, such as work in retail and hospitality

I hope this blog doesn’t seem like I’m putting people who are just starting out in their psychology career down, or criticising those who have applied in a hurry for fear of the post closing before they have time to submit anything at all. My goal is entirely more positive – to share how simple it can be to make that impossible aspiration of gaining interviews for AP posts come true. There are certain really simple behavioural changes that can remarkably increase your odds of success.

So what can I do to improve my chances of gaining an interview?

First, apply to non-NHS job vacancies. It takes a little more effort to find them, and the quality can be more variable. However, they are a great foot in the door, and much easier to secure than their NHS equivalents as they tend to have lower numbers of applicants and to stay open a bit longer. If an NHS AP post means you have a 1 in 50 chance of an interview, a post outside the NHS might increase your odds to 1 in 15 for a fairly popular post, or even 1 in 3 if the post is only advertised on a company’s website and social media and not on a major recruitment platform. Yup, that one simple trick** can increase your chances by a factor of five!

Second, follow the instructions. Read the advert carefully and do what they tell you to do. If they ask for a two page CV make sure that you send one the right length. A 600 word essay? Well worth the effort, as sending it will double your chance of success compared to applying to a post without this requirement, as fewer other applicants will make the effort, whilst sending an application without it is posting your application straight into the no pile.

Third, tailor every application.  to show how you meet the person specification for that particular job, and to show you understand and are enthused about what the job will involve. Ideally you need to respond to every point of the person spec in a way that is clear and obvious to the shortlister, and probably in a similar order to that used in the specification. If they want a 2:1 or higher that confers GBC then you need to give your degree grade and specify it confers GBC, rather than assuming that the shortlister will know or be willing to check on Google whether this is the case. If you are applying from abroad or have international qualifications then it is worth stating whether you have the right to live and work in the UK, and explaining the scoring system and/or the UK equivalent of your degree grade.

Fourth, pick your battles. It is better to write fewer applications but to give each one more time so that it is of really good quality and tailored to the particular job than it is to send out hundreds of generic applications. Choose posts that you are enthusiastic about rather than applying to every AP post you see. Think about whether the location can work for you and whether you have relevant experience and/or transferable skills to bring. Make sure every application is up to the highest standards, even if this means they will sometimes close before you submit them***. In such a competitive field it is probably only worth applying for posts where you meet all the essential criteria.

Finally, check your working. Make sure you have spelt names and organisations correctly, and not made any silly typos or cutting and pasting errors. If you can, get someone else to read your text so you can get feedback on how to improve it. Even if that isn’t in time for the application you wrote it for, it will mean you don’t make the same mistakes next time. Preview the application to check the formatting if this is possible.

Then fire it off and cross your fingers!

 

*I’ll be reading more over the coming days too as we normally keep the advert open for a week or 75 applications, whichever comes first.

**cliche internet phrase

***In this circumstance it is worth sending an email to the appointing officer or point of contact given in the advert explaining what happened and attaching your application. They may consider it anyway, and even if they don’t you risk little by trying.

The misrepresentation of evidence

About a week ago I was involved in a heated twitter debate about this blog post. I felt, as I said on twitter and in my extensive comments about the blog, that it entirely misrepresented the evidence about Adverse Childhood Experiences by implying that because of risk multipliers within particular population groups, certain negative outcomes were almost inevitable for people with multiple ACEs. The author repeatedly asks rhetorical questions like “If 1 in 5 British adults said they were abused in childhood in the last CSEW (2017), why hasn’t our population literally collapsed under the weight of suicides, chronic illness, criminality and serious mental health issues?” Likewise, she asks how anyone can be successful after childhood abuse if the ACEs research is correct. I replied to explain that this simply isn’t what the data tells us or what risk multipliers mean, so the exceptions are expected rather than proof the finding is incorrect. For example the claim that a 1222% increase in the risk of suicide amongst people with 4 or more ACEs meant these people were doomed, in reality means that the odds increase from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 92, meaning that 91 of every 92 people with 4+ ACEs do not die by suicide.

ACEs are a very useful population screening tool, and have provided incontrovertible evidence of the links between traumatic experiences in childhood and numerous social, psychological and medical outcomes that has been highly informative for those of us designing and delivering services. To me it seems like an example of how a simple piece of research can have a massive impact in the world that benefits hundreds of thousands of people. Yet that blog repeatedly implies ACEs are a harmful methodology that “targets” individuals and to is used to “pathologise and label children, arguing that those kids with the high ACE scores are destined for doom, drugs, prison, illness and early death”. It has been my experience that ACEs are used not to pathologise individuals, but to to highlight increased vulnerability, and to identify where there might be additional need for support. For example, I have used this data to argue for better mental health services for Looked After Children.

I felt that the repeated misrepresentation of the maths involved in interpreting risk multipliers undermined the entire message of the blog, to which I was otherwise sympathetic. (For the record, it is entirely appropriate to highlight bad practice in which it seems certain professionals are applying ACE scores to individuals inappropriately, and making people feel that their life chances are restricted or their parenting under scrutiny because of their childhood experiences of trauma). But unfortunately the author took my polite, professional rebuttal of elements of her blog as a personal attack on her – to the extent that she misgendered and blocked me on twitter, and refused to publish my response to her comments about my reply to her on the blog. That’s a shame, as the whole scientific method rests on us publishing our findings and observations, and then learning from the respectful challenge of our ideas by others with knowledge of the topic. But I guess we are all prone to defending opinions that fit with our personal experience, even if they don’t fit with the evidence.

Thinking about how uncomfortable it felt to see someone I considered to be a peer whose expertise I respected misrepresenting the evidence and being unwilling to correct their misconceptions when challenged, but instead trying to discredit or silence those making the challenge, it struck me that this was an example that highlighted a wider issue in the state of the world at the moment. Evidence is being constantly misrepresented all around us. Whether it is the President of the USA saying there is a migrant crisis to justify a wall (or any of the 7644 other false or misleading statements he has made in office) or the claims on the infamous big red bus that Brexit would give the NHS £350 million per week, or Yakult telling us their yoghurt drink is full of “science (not magic)” now that they can’t pretend live cultures are good for digestive health. There are false claims everywhere.

I stumbled into another example just before I started writing this blog, as I (foolishly) booked accommodation again through booking.com, despite the horrible experience I had last time I tried to use them (which remains unresolved despite the assurances from senior managers that they would reimburse all of my costs). I booked a room in a property in London which they have euphemistically called “Chancery Hub Rooms” to stay over whilst I delivered some training in Holburn. It wasn’t a hostel or a hotel, but just a small terraced house. This time it had keypad entry to the property and to the individual room, which is a system that I have used successfully several times in Cambridge. Unfortunately it didn’t work so well in London, as they changed the codes twice without informing me. Once this resulted in locking me out of the room on the night of my arrival (and meaning that the beeping on the door as I tried the various codes they sent me woke the lady in the neighbouring room, due to the total lack of sound insulation in the property) and then by locking me out of the property the following evening, when all my stuff was locked inside. It also had glass inserts above the room doors that meant your room lit up like Times Square when anyone turned the landing light on. I then discovered that the building (which I already recognised to be small, overcrowded and not complying with fire regulations) had walls like cardboard, when the couple in the next room had noisy sex, followed by noisy conversation and then a full blown argument that lasted from 3am to 4am – despite me eventually in desperation asking them quite loudly whether they could possibly save it for a time that wasn’t keeping everyone else in the building awake. Of course Booking.com didn’t see it as their problem, and the member of staff I got through to after a 15 minute call queue didn’t even seem to comprehend what the problem was (though I couldn’t tell if the barrier was language, accent or simply not understanding the situation). The property management company just blamed the other guests for being inconsiderate, whilst denying that the building was inherently problematic and saying they had no alternative accommodation or staff intervention to offer.

So I felt like I should be able to reflect my negative experience in my review. But oh no, Booking.com don’t let you do that. You see, despite seeing that properties appear to have scores out of ten on every page when booking, you can’t score the property out of ten. What you can do is to determine whether you give a smiley that ranges from unhappy to happy for each of their five ratings (which don’t, of course, include quality of sleep or feeling safe). So if you think the location was convenient, the property gets a score above five out of ten, no matter what other qualities mean you would never wish to sleep there again. But worse than that, the Booking.com website forces reviewers to give a minimum length of both positive and negative comments, but only displays the positive comments to potential bookers. So my “It was in a quiet, convenient location” gets shown to clients, but you have to work out how to hover in the section that brings up the review score, then click the score to bring up the averages, then click again to access the full reviews, and then shift them from being ranked by “recommended” to showing them in date order to actually get an objective picture. Then you suddenly see that at least half the guests have mentioned that the noise from other rooms is a problem, the bathrooms were inadequate or failed to provide hot enough water, the fire exits were locked, the beds were cheap, the pillows flat, there was a strong smell of air conditioner that left people itchy or wheezy, the TVs in the rooms don’t work and not a single person had got the free wifi to work. It really made me wonder whether Advertising Standards might have something to say about it.

But just as Boris has faced no consequences for his bus claims (even though he stretched them further still after the ONS said he had misrepresented the truth), and Trump no consequences for his lies, and the consultants selling contracts worth hundreds of thousands of pounds of public funds to children’s social care departments proudly told me they just wanted to get on with the doing without that slow process of validation, so the world carries on with little more than a tut of disapproval towards people and businesses who intentionally mislead others. Maybe I’m in the minority to even care. But I do care. I feel like it is the responsibility of intelligent people and critical thinkers, people in positions of power, in the professions and particularly in the sciences, to ensure that we are genuinely led by the evidence, even if that makes the picture more complicated, or doesn’t confirm our pre-existing beliefs. To counteract this age of misinformation, we all need to be willing to play our part. That is why I have always placed such a focus on evaluations and research, and have developed my screening tools so slowly and thoroughly, despite the fact that potential customers probably don’t see this as necessary. I believe that as much as possible, we should be promoting the value of evidence, educating the public (including children) to be able to think critically and evaluate the evidence for claims, and stepping up to challenge misleading claims when we see them.

 

Holding the buck: Some thoughts about accountability in the modern marketplace

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk to the Institute for Recovery from Childhood Trauma at the House of Lords. I decided it would be too stressful to travel down that morning, so about three weeks in advance I booked an apartment through booking.com. I’ve stayed in apartments and rooms through online sites quite a few times before without incident. Normally they send a code for the door by text or email, or instructions to open a key safe. However, this booking was confirmed with instructions to collect the key from a nearby address by 9pm (I was told if I arrived later there would be a £20 late collection fee). So I caught an earlier train and got a taxi to the pick-up address, which transpired to be an office building, locked up for the night. The security guard on site who came out to see why I was loitering had never heard of this being a collection point for apartment keys. So I spent 45 minutes waiting at the pick-up address and checking the apartment address just down the road, with no ability to check my email or find the phone number of the owner due to the o2 outage. I then found a restaurant which let me use its wifi to contact the apartment owner. He answers the phone as Booking.com and says the pickup address sent to me by email was never given (despite me having it in writing on my screen as I spoke to him) and that I had not confirmed the time. He says he will send a man to meet me with a key. But he isn’t willing to send the man to the restaurant in which I am sitting, I have to go wait across the road outside Patisserie Valerie (which is also closed) for a man in a red jacket.

In about 15 minutes that man arrives. He greets me by name, but does not offer me any apologies or identification. I can’t tell if he is the man I spoke to on the phone or not. He does not provide a key to the apartment, but tells me to follow him and walks off in the opposite direction to the apartment. I ask him where we are going, he says “to the apartment”. I say that it isn’t the right way, and I don’t feel comfortable following a strange man to an unknown address. He is short with me and tells me that he is taking me to an alternative apartment, because a cleaner snapped the key in the apartment door 20 minutes previously. I find this suspicious as a) I’ve been waiting at the apartment and just up the road for 90 minutes and nobody has come or gone from it in this time, and b) why would a cleaner be in an apartment at 10pm that is supposed to have check-in from 3pm to 9pm, and c) why did the man on the phone not notify me of a change of address or email me with a change of booking through the site on which I had booked?

He leads me down less busy streets and alleys across Soho. I start to get anxious that I’m in a part of London that is unfamiliar to me, and have no idea where I am going. I will not be at the address I have booked and nobody will know where I am, its past 11pm and dark, and I’m being led by a total stranger who has shown me no ID. So I call my husband, explain the situation and start reading out street names so he knows where I am. He says that I sound nervous, and that if my gut doesn’t feel like this is safe I should trust it and go somewhere that does.

My mind goes into overdrive. I start worrying I’m being taken to an unknown address, where I might be robbed or attacked or anything. I’m thinking perhaps they gave the fake address as a means to be harder to trace, or perhaps they use the photos of one apartment in a good location to put people in cheaper accommodation in less favourable locations. Perhaps he is nothing to do with Booking.com and is just a confidence trickster. Did he definitely use my name? Was he the man on the phone? I have no way of knowing. I can’t just follow a stranger to an unknown address in the middle of the night with no explanation. I find an open wine bar to run into and hide.

Suddenly, all those feelings are right at the surface and I’m sobbing with fear and hiding behind the counter of the wine bar until the man has gone. Then the man who claims to be from Booking.com (I still can’t tell if he is also the man in the red jacket, or someone different) calls me and asks where I am, and I say “I don’t feel safe dealing with you and being taken to an unknown address, I’m going to find somewhere that feels safe to sleep”. It seems like something I should be able to take for granted, that now seems out of reach.

The staff at the bar are super-nice and patch me up, give me some water and use of their wifi. They offer me wine and fancy olives. I take the latter (and they are the best olives ever, as well as thoroughly nice people, so do check out Antidote if you are ever in Soho). When I calm down a bit, I start searching all the usual websites to find a hotel room. I then find out there is nowhere else to stay. And I mean that literally. Even when I increase my parameters to travel up to an hour from my location, nothing is coming up on any hotel booking site that isn’t fully booked. So I’m sat there in a random wine bar in Soho, 200 miles from home, and there are no longer trains to get back there even if I didn’t have to be in London by 9am the next morning to speak at the House of Lords.

At nearly 11pm I find one, very expensive, hotel with a single room available through LastMinute.com. I book it, pay and then pay £20 to get a taxi there only to find it is overbooked and they’ve already turned away 4 other customers. It is a converted Georgian townhouse with a small number of rooms, so I’m sat in the only chair in a tiny lobby. I’m repeatedly calling LastMinute, and it has gone past midnight so there is no longer even a means to find another hotel (as you can’t search for availability for the previous night), and they tell me they don’t have a room. It takes me four calls and 47 minutes on the line to speak to Last Minute’s customer services, who conclude they can’t find an alternative room for me, and don’t see that as their responsibility. At 1.25am they suggest a room is available at the Taj St James Court hotel and they have reserved it for me. I call them, they have no rooms and have never heard of me. It is now 1.30am, and I am making plans to sleep in the bucket chair I am sitting in, in the hotel lobby, as I have nowhere else to go* and it is raining heavily. Eventually at 2am the hotel say that one guest has not checked in yet, and agree to take the gamble and let me use the room. I get less than four hours sleep for twice-the-price-I’d-normally-set-as-my-upper-limit-for-a-room, before having to head out to speak at the House of Lords.

Having given the talk** I decided to complain to both Booking.com and LastMinute.com. The response from the former was “You got a refund for the apartment, so it’s all settled” and the latter offered “€20 as a goodwill gesture due to the 2 hour delay checking in”. No recognition of the fact the experience was traumatic, wasted 5 hours of my evening, cost me 3 extra taxis, and left me 200 miles from home without somewhere safe to sleep. I am faced with the realisation that trauma is subjective, and to many men hearing the tale I might have taken fright for no reason and brought the events that followed upon myself. I am forced to say “imagine if your Mum were in this situation” when explaining it to try to trigger sympathy. But nobody really cares. The apartment owner feels he has done his bit by refunding (and the website has conveniently blocked me from leaving a review). The men in the call centres were in another country, abstracted away from the problem. The customer service teams are seeing the facts in retrospect, not the feelings the experience generated, and are motivated to protect their brand rather than genuinely caring about me as a customer. The night manager of the hotel cared, because he met me in person, and saw I was upset. As a result he tried his best, but he wasn’t in a position that could resolve the problem.

And that’s where I finally reach the point. In a system where you book with a middleman who doesn’t actually provide the product you are paying for, nobody really feels accountable for the service you receive. And, to bring this round to being relevant to a wider point for health and social care, this model is being increasingly replicated in public services, where the NHS or local authority commission the service from another provider, who is assumed to be responsible. That split between online broker and real life provider, or the public sector split between purchaser and provider seems like a good model for each of those parties, as the purchaser delegates responsibility whilst fulfilling their obligations (or making a profit, in the case of online brokerage sites) with much reduced staffing and without having to invest in any tangible assets. The provider gains access to a wider market, rather than becoming obsolete. But somehow inevitably, as in my experience, the recipient of the service misses out in the middle, and finds out there is minimal quality control and an absence of clear lines of accountability when things go wrong or aren’t delivered as planned.

For example, there is a level of risk aversion that has made local authorities anxious about providing residential care placements, because of the prevalence of historic institutional abuse and the increasing awareness of child sexual exploitation and involvement in county lines (and the accompanying risk of compensation lawsuits). The result is a marketplace where private providers (many of them owned by international venture capital groups who pay minimal UK taxes) use unqualified, low-paid staff to care for some of the most complex and vulnerable young people in the UK, and it is hard for recipients or commissioners to distinguish them from provision that has different financial or delivery models. Likewise in health (and public transport) private providers cherry pick off the profitable services, whilst the public purse is left holding the can when they don’t deliver. There is a move to entrench this even further with the push towards Integrated Care Providers, where private organisations can manage the entire health and social care services for a particular region of the UK, in a way that is potentially unaccountable for its decisions and not subject to the rules for public sector organisations (like Freedom of Information requests, public consultation, or being subject to Judicial Enquiries if things go wrong, or even their statutory obligations). I think that might be a recipe for disaster, but then, I’m not a fan of corporations and the super-rich profiting from the suffering of the rest of us.

Update: Booking.com have agreed to reimburse my costs in relation to the apartment (but have not yet done so), whilst LastMinute.com have not yet replied, telling me they take 28 working days to respond to customer complaints that don’t accept the initial boilerplate response. I suspect that just like in health and social care, the (explicit or implicit) policy is to respond to those who kick up a fuss and have the potential to create negative publicity if things are not resolved, meaning that those who are devalued most by society have the least redress when things go wrong.

*call me a wuss, but I declined the option of having one bed in a bunk room in a hostel shared with 8-12 strangers
** which I will give again and video as soon as I shake the cold that’s currently making me croak

Reaching the summit?

For a long time, I’ve had a metaphor in my mind about how it feels to run a small business aiming to change children’s social care. The image is of me rolling a massive boulder up a hill. Progress is slow, it is hard work and I often find it tiring. Even when I rest I have to do so holding the rock in place. At times I feel like I might be reaching the summit, only to see that there is another climb ahead. I sometimes wonder why I’ve taken on this mammoth task, or whether my goals are even possible, but I am stubbornly determined that now I’m so far up the hill I don’t want to give it up. Maybe that is about sunk cost. But I’ve chipped off the worst of the bumps from the rock and got my rolling technique worked out, so I keep telling myself that if anyone can get this thing to the top of the hill, I can. Over the years of my journey I’ve tried to encourage other people to help me to push, so I am not bearing all the weight, but whilst I’ve had good company at times and plenty of encouragement, it has always seemed like the task is mine alone. That has been reinforced by numerous people telling me how I’m uniquely skilled at rock-rolling, even though I know that I was no better than many other people at the start of my journey. In fact I’m pretty sure anyone with some pretty basic skills who rolled a rock for this long could be standing in my shoes.

Of course, that bypasses the fact that I had to be willing to spend a lot of time on this, be resilient in the face of obstacles, and give up other easier opportunities to stick with it. And the fact I had the intellectual, social and personal characteristics to work out how to do this, choose a viable route and make improvements along the way. And it also omits to mention that had I known the real scope of the task would take me over a decade I might not have taken it on at the beginning. On the other hand, perhaps the fact it was difficult enough for nobody else to take on was why I did it. I think those who know me might point out it isn’t the first time I’ve jumped in at the deep end, and that I don’t do things in half measures. I don’t like taking the easy route in life, and if I set myself a challenge I like doing the task properly. I’ve always thought about what I can do to make the most impact, rather than to have the easiest life or earn the most money. I prefer to cut my own path, than to take one that is already well-trodden, and to find a way to enjoy the challenges of the journey.

So here I am, pushing my boulder and feeling like I’ve come quite a long way over the years. I might be deluding myself, but the gradient appears less steep these days. In fact, it feels tantalisingly close to reaching level ground, and I am starting to imagine what it might be like to roll my boulder down the other side of the hill. I’m trying not to be complacent that I’ve reached a point at which the boulder is stable enough not to roll back the way we came up, but people are starting to talk about how this boulder is not just on the level, but given one more push might gain enough momentum to create a landslide that will divert the river to irrigate the lands the local population need to farm. That would be beyond my wildest dreams. I mean, the motivation behind all this is to improve the lives of people who are having a tough time, but to think that it could have impact on the scale some people are now anticipating is mind-blowing. That would mean my big gamble of investing so much time and effort into this project could pay off in terms of impact. In a way that’s the great thing about indirect interventions – that they can make change that ripples out on a much bigger scale. In my boulder metaphor I’m trying to make change not by trying to teach them new farming skills one by one, but by trying to address some of the systemic barriers that impair their life chances, so that they have the opportunity to find their own ways to thrive.

So this blog is a marker of me standing at what I hope might be the top of the hill, and crossing my fingers the gaining momentum part happens. The mixture of hope and uncertainty is stressful to balance. When it’s a bit more concrete I’ll write a bit more, and hopefully I’ll not need a metaphor to couch my cautious optimism in, and can tell you about the actual project and the steps I’ve taken to progress it.

The attraction of small rewards

I went to the Y Not Festival last month. It was a bit of a mixed bag because of the weather, and the terrible app that was supposed to function as a map and timetable was a daft idea on a site with limited mobile in the first place and totally useless in practice as it wasn’t updated when things changed. But we saw some good bands, and ate some good food, and it was only half an hour from home so we also slept in our own beds! But the reason I mention it was because of a trivial but unexpected thing: They had an incentive to recycle the plastic pint glasses that were being used and dropped on the floor. They offered 10p per glass to take them to a recycling point in sets of five. For the most part that wasn’t enough for people drinking to bother keeping and pooling their glasses to cash in. But a small economy developed amongst people who found it worthwhile to go around collecting the dropped cups. There were some sets of kids excitedly supplementing their pocket money by collecting piles of cups during the day, and also a few adults who increased in numbers in the evenings.

At £5 per pint the beer was not cheap, and I joked with my husband that I’d see if I could collect 10 cups to offset the cost each time he drank one. But as soon as we started collecting cups, we realised that there were loads of them, and it was easy to make quite good money from them. In three hour-long collecting binges, and whilst listening to bands I enjoyed, I stacked and recycled well over 500 cups. That was enough to pay for all our food over the weekend, and the couple of drinks my husband had. Of course my legs ached like crazy the next day, after all that walking around punctuated by 500 bodyweight squats. But I felt good about being part of the efforts to clear up the site and recycle the cups.

Of course I’d much rather they used reusable cups as they did at Timber festival, or ones that are biodegradable as they did at Woodside. And it doesn’t really make much sense to pay random people more per hour than they pay their bar staff or rubbish pickers, let alone to pay the people who were simply emptying out the plastic recycling bins, stacking up the plastic cups and taking them to the recycling point like their own little black market scheme. And I wasn’t persuaded that they were actually going to recycle the cups at the end of the weekend. But I was interested in the fact that I somehow found it fun to do a dirty, smelly, physically demanding job earning way less than I can earn from work. Apart from the novelty and fact it filled in the gaps between artists, the reason was as obvious as those demonstrated in Pavlov and Skinner’s seminal experiments: The small but proximal rewards were enough to reinforce the behaviour, and make me want to repeat it over and over again. In fact it became quite addictive. The small payments made it feel like a game in which I was succeeding and earning five to ten pounds per trip to the recycling point made it really tangible that I was being rewarded. I could have spent the entire weekend picking up those crushed and broken plastic cups and straightening them out into stacks to cash in, and my kids were jealous that they’d missed out on the opportunity to earn cash because they had chosen to go to their grandparents rather than the festival.

In another example, I’ve been playing a really rubbish game on my iPad called Hidden City. It is a hidden object game, where you have to find items within a picture of a scene before the time limit runs out. For example, there might be a picture of a greenhouse full of caged birds and exotic plants, and you will then be asked to find a pair of binoculars, a fan, an oil lamp, a walking cane, a string of rosary beads, a bunch of chilli peppers, a pair of shoes, a turtle, and various other objects to click on and collect. Each will be visible within the scene, some in plain sight and others tucked away or masked by being in front of similarly coloured items. In certain quests there are also keys to find in the scene that are smaller and better hidden. Whilst this has some inherent mental challenge and novelty, it really is a very simple premise for a game, and quickly becomes repetitive, so you’d think the game would be very boring – in fact it seems boring to have explained it in writing, so I hope I haven’t sent you off to sleep! You would therefore assume that people would drop out of the game very quickly, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, the makers are so confident that players won’t be bored enough to drop out that they make you search each scene for objects selected from the same list and placed in the same range of places in the scene many times. In fact, to complete some quests you search the same scene over a hundred times. The task becomes more difficult because you are expected to find more objects in a shorter time interval, and the scene becomes more cluttered so it is harder to pick out the specified items, and you have to alternative with searching other scenes to get the tokens required to go back to the main scene. To compound that, there are multiple locations in the game, and each needs to be searched a large number of times, so to complete the whole game you probably have to complete about ten thousand search quests.

It sounds like an enormous and monotonous task, and the game itself is full of bugs, glitches and poor translations, yet it is the most popular hidden object game in the world. More than half a million people have played it, and there are tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of players active at any one time. They are not only signing up to play in huge numbers, they are choosing to pay for the optional purchases to assist their searching, making this game and the multiple other games by the same company, and the multitude of similar games available, highly profitable.  Estimates suggest that over £3 million of in game payments have been made since the game launched four years ago, and tens of millions of pounds are being spent in in-game micro-payments across all the games by this maker each year. It seems illogical, but many players spend way more than they’d need to pay to purchase a really good game to play this glitchy game that is constantly interrupted by advertising for in-game purchases and other games by the same company.

So why do people keep playing, and why do some of them keep paying? I think it is the same idea of reinforcement through small rewards. As a player you experience a lot of small successes. They make the first few searches really easy. Then each time you search and don’t find all the items you are told to try again. If you find them all you are rewarded by a random selection of small icons, and you can collect these items in sets. Completing the set gets you a rarer icon, with some bonus points or magical powers to boost your energy or increase your ability to find other bonus items. In the bigger quests you might also get tokens to unwrap gift boxes containing more icons. You also get overnight bonuses, daily bonuses and components of a magical piece of jewellery each time you play again after more than 8 hours but less than 24 hours. They compound so an unbroken chain of about a month gets you the finished item, and 12% more items to find for a 10 day period. If you break the chain you either have to use or buy in game currency to restore it, or you lose the components you gained. Something about our psyche likes gaining these pseudo possessions and dislikes missing out or losing them, enough that these games are quite addictive. But they are all just small pictures of random things. Why should I care if I have a magical tuning fork in my collection, or whether I get the apple strudel icon that completes the huntsman set that gives me the Austrian clock? There is no intrinsic value in the drawing of the clock, or the strudel or the tuning fork. They bear little relation to the scenes I search, or to the token plot about the magical city trapping people, or the candy-crush style mini-games. My life is not better in any tangible way if I collect 75 keys and open the golden chest to receive 6 bonus items, or if I play the scene 100 times and get a new avatar of the lady of the manor, or the Samuri, or the gardener. Being at a higher level on the game doesn’t convey any greater skill that would garner respect from other players, let alone in the real world, nor does it teach me anything I can generalise outside the game.

So why is a badly made game with such a simple and repetitive premise so popular? I’d suggest that is intentionally designed to be rewarding to play, and to tap into what we know about reinforcement with the number of small rewards it offers. Our brains are set up to love rewards, no matter how meaningless they are, or what the longer-term cost is. Like scratching an itch, or eating something tasty but unhealthy, using drugs or smoking cigarettes, the immediate rewards are often much more effective as an incentive than the longer-term consequences are as a deterrent. The logical decisions we make about changing our behaviour struggle against these proximal sources of gratification. It doesn’t feel like a big effort or commitment, because we are only playing a three-minute mini-game. We are tempted to take the small action to sample the reward, but this then lures us in to take the next step with another small effort, and the result is that we repeat that for far longer than we planned. Even if this means losing out on sleep, or getting things we objectively rate as more beneficial or necessary done.

The same is true of our online behaviour. We chain from one news article to another, or one social media post to another, or one youtube video to another until whole evenings disappear into a black hole. Even when we are going about our daily lives, we constantly check for the small rewards of messages, likes or responses on social media. For many people this becomes something done obsessively, to the detriment of other activities in our lives. As well as hitting our reinforcement pathways, these small social connections also fire up our desire to feel belonging and acceptance in a group, and to gain the approval and/or attention of others. I’ve blogged before about the toxic aspects of social media. Studies have shown that stopping using social media, whether for a couple of hours per day, a day per week, a longer block of time, or permanently, makes people happier (journal articleanecdotes, article citing studies, more anecdotes, even more). Yet for most of us, we are enticed by the sense of connection (albeit often a much more distant and less authentic connection than we make in real life) and the promise of these small rewards.

It makes me think how despite all the progress of technology, we really are quite primitive creatures in some ways, tied to the way our biology has evolved to reward behaviours that had some adaptive function that had evolutionary benefits. So can we make a conscious choice to use these inherent reward systems for more positive purpose? Possibly. For example, we can benefit by building chains of positive behaviours that we don’t want to break – like a colleague who told me he hasn’t drunk alcohol for 92 days after realising he was drinking almost every night. That challenge of having a dry month, or to do without meat, or caffeine, or cigarettes for a set time period seems an effective way to change behavioural habits. It is less final and impossible sounding to have a break from something than to give it up permanently, but it can give you a chance to see what life is like without it, find alternatives that fill that gap and build up some of these rewards for going without. It then becomes easier to continue that pattern, and there can be a reluctance to break the chain, particularly if there have been social or financial or health rewards for the change.

Likewise we can gamify exercise. When I used to weight lift I would share my achievements with a group of other weightlifters online. This gives a sense of a peer group who can reinforce your behaviour and some social pressure to sustain the pattern (though I was never one to post every gym visit on facebook the way that many runners/cyclists use their apps to, or to post lots of philosophy and photos the way that yoga fans seem to – I just posted to a weightlifters group when I made gains, and could compare my progress to others in the group). But even without this online support I had a sense of achievement each time I went to the gym, or completed my routine, or increased the weight I could lift in a specific exercise. I liked to record my weights in a journal and to feel that I was making measurable small gains. I also liked confounding expectations by being an overweight middle-aged woman who had hidden physical strength. I’ve mentioned my joy in having “ninja muscles” before. I’d like to get back to it, and I’m sure my core strength would return. I’ve still got surprisingly muscular legs, though I wouldn’t risk picking up an 18 stone barbell these days!

So I guess the knack is working out how to make our innate reward systems work for us in a modern world. I’m certainly far from achieving that. Change is hard. But maybe I can at least recognise the patterns better now I’ve thought about it more. Maybe I’ll come back to that theme in a future blog.

 

 

Runway: A blog about whether being self-employed or starting a business is a viable option financially

If an aircraft runs out of runway before becoming airborne then it will have to stop or it will potentially crash horribly. For this reason, runway is used as a metaphor for the relationship between the money available in a business and its running costs. If the business does not generate enough income to keep the cashflow up to cover costs, then it will either come to a stop or come to a horrible end. But unlike an airport, where sufficient runway already exists for the purposes of launching planes, with a new business you have to find or create the money that will hopefully let the business become self-sustaining. And unlike an airport, at which planes get up into the air uneventfully every few minutes every day for many years, most businesses fail within the first three years, often because of not being able to generate enough income to sustain the business in the longer term.

I think a lot of people in employment have fantasies about being self-employed or starting their own business. For clinicians, the fantasy is often about offering therapy in private practise to insured or well-heeled clients with milder problems. Whilst the hourly rates for private practise might seem attractive compared to a salary divided down into an hourly rate, the figures represent something really different. Salary is paid on leave days, bank holidays and when you are sick. It covers maternity/paternity leave and redundancy if you are no longer needed. You get supervision, CPD, equipment to use and premises to work in. You also have a team of other professionals supporting you in the background from admin to HR, finance, operational management, procurement and maintenance. You don’t have to think beyond providing the clinical and associated psychological services. Salary packages, particularly from the NHS, also contribute to very favourable life insurance and pension schemes. When you are self-employed you need to think about premises, insurance, supervision, CPD costs, DBS checks, accountancy, advertising, tax and how you will generate income if you don’t or can’t work. You may also need equipment from computers and stationary to psychometric tests (which are enormously expensive both to purchase and for record forms).

Remember that the bills need to be paid immediately, but clients may not pay you as promptly – and some may not pay at all. This is particularly true for me when doing expert witness work where the timelines from accepting the work to receiving payment for it are amazingly extended. If I accepted an instruction in principle on 1st January, I would typically receive instructions for it 1-3 weeks later. My appointments would take place 4-8 weeks after that, and my report would be submitted a fortnight later, perhaps in late March. There might then be further instructions or clarifying questions, before the case is heard at the end of May. Any invoices will only be processed when the case closes in June, and then sent to the Legal Aid Authority for scrutiny in July. If there are no queries the LAA then send payment to the solicitors, who eventually send it on to the expert in the August or September, though some will drag their heels for several more months. So I have to wait six to twelve more months to receive payment. And about 8% of the work is never paid, because the solicitors closes after the Legal Aid claim is made, or because the LAA determined that some of the work wasn’t “reasonable” or because there was a problem somewhere in the line of communication and one of the parties doesn’t claim a share of your invoice. Meanwhile the work is taxable in the financial year in which it is completed, and the VAT is payable at the point the invoice is issued. I also have to pay any staff who contributed at the end of the month in which we did the work.

Even as a sole trader working from home in a service industry with relatively low set-up costs, most of us need to earn some money to cover our living expenses, and can’t go for months or years unpaid. That means that unless you have a massive inheritance or lottery win to draw on, it might not be possible to give up salaried work to take the gamble of trying something independent. My rule of thumb is to have a minimum of three months living expenses saved before you consider leaving salaried employment. You might get this from a redundancy or mutually agreed resignation scheme, or by putting money aside whilst you are planning. You should also compare your current and projected earnings. My way of calculating this to calculate your annual salary plus 25% (the approximate value of the pension and protections) divided by 210 (the actual number of days an average NHS employee turns up to work). You can then compare this to what you think you could earn in a day if you had private clients, a contract with a large company to deliver training or services, a calendar full of supervision or consultancy, or whatever you imagine doing. You really need a multiple of three between the first number and the second to make being self-employed pay equivalently after costs, though if you really hate your job or are prepared to take a reduction in income (at least in the short-term) you might consider a multiple of two. I don’t believe it is viable to go below this because in my experience people never properly account for the amount of expenses involved, or the for the amount of non-income generating time required. As well as the fact that not all of your available slots will be filled until you are well established, it is worth bearing in mind that most full-time clinicians spend about 15-18 hours per week on direct clinical work, and the rest on work tasks that would be non-income generating in the private sector, such as screening referrals, setting up appointments, phone calls, email, supervision, meetings/indirect work, writing letters/reports, other admin and CPD.

That said, money isn’t everything. I know some amazing selfless people who have earned less than minimum wage for many years, but followed their heart because they cared passionately about what they were doing, and the impact it could make in the world. I’m not quite that altruistic, perhaps because I am the main earner for our family unit and feel an obligation to sustain our quality of life, but I’ve had to learn to live on a much less regular income. I pay myself minimum wage then supplement this with lump sums when the business is profitable. To make this even more unpredictable, I have often had to loan money into the business in order to pay salaries when others have been slow to pay us for work we’ve done. Overall I’d say my income is lower than when I worked in the NHS and did some court expert witness work on top, but nowadays on balance it probably matches my consultant grade salary. The amount I earn feels sufficient for our needs – and probably stretches a little further as some expenses have been absorbed (eg my mobile phone bill is paid by the company, as is the cost of any CPD I want, the costs of my accountant, and some little things like a sandwich and soft drink when I’m away from the office on business).

There are also some things that money can’t buy. I’ve loved the freedom and flexibility of being self-employed, even though there have been times that have been quite tough financially. Whilst it initially increased my workaholic tendencies to quite alarming proportions (peaking at working 9.30am to 6.30pm in the office and then 10pm until 2am at home most weekdays, and fitting in 5-10 hours of work per weekend), more recently I’ve been able to achieve more of a work-life balance. I’ve stopped doing as much consultancy and training that involved staying away over night, and reduced the court work that created so many high-pressure deadlines. I’ve started to cluster meetings in London once a month, arranging other meetings over videoconferencing where possible. I’ve withdrawn from the committee and policy work that was taking up a big chunk of my time. I’ve also recognised the wise advice of a past supervisor that said I needed to fill up life outside work with commitments that would compete with work, rather than expecting to ever be the kind of person who can ring-fence free time. So I’ve started putting social appointments in my calendar, made a commitment to swimming regularly, I’m doing more adventurous things with the children, and I’ve even been able to sneak out for the afternoon with my husband from time to time. Running my own business has also given me a chance to relocate to an area that I love, where my qualify of life and working environment is much nicer.

When weighing up the options, bear in mind that working as a sole trader can be quite isolating. In the NHS or other organisations we usually work within teams, often with the benefit of colleagues to bounce ideas off, or who can contribute to formulations from other perspectives. Working with others also allows you to collaborate or to delegate work to people with complementary skills or interests. It shares the risk of complex cases, and means you don’t feel solely responsible for the waiting list or the stuck cases. It can allow you to prioritise work and manage your workload. When you are the only one doing the work this becomes much more difficult, and the pressures and sense of responsibility for clients can increase substantially. Even though the waiting list might be shorter, you might feel more guilty if there is a delay in starting work with a new referral, or more responsible for ensuring a good outcome for everyone. When your income literally depends on how much work you do it can be hard not to end up over-working to the detriment of everything else in your life. However, on the flip side you can feel pride in positive outcomes, and a waiting list becomes a marker of success (that people are willing to wait for you) rather than a mark of failure like it is construed in the NHS (where there is pressure to meet targets, and services don’t have enough resources to keep pace with need, and are the only available option for most people).

You also need to realistically appraise your business plan. Most people go into business in the belief that they have found a niche in which they can earn a profit, and hope that demand for their services or product will arrive as soon as potential customers know it is available. However, that can lead people to be overly optimistic about how fast they can gain traction in the market, or the level of profit they can make. Unless the plan is to seek external investment, most small business owners need for the business to become profitable fairly quickly, and few would be willing to pour their life savings into a new business in the hope of a return further down the line. When trying to start up a company or expand a sole trader enterprise into a business that employs others it can often feel like a Catch 22 situation, that you can’t afford the things you need to generate the income that will fund the things you need. But unlike on Dragon’s Den or in Silicon Valley, few people have access to capital investment and most professionals (in the health and social care field at least) are wary about taking on loans before the business has the means to repay them, even if they can access lending.

My point is that even if you have a great business idea and an established reputation getting enough money to start and sustain a business is tough. Cashflow is a make or break issue. Generating sufficient working capital is one of several elements that challenge new start-ups. In fact, of small businesses that fail (based on figures from the USA), 82% attribute this to cashflow issues and 29% say that they ran out of cash, whilst 42% said that the issue was a lack of market need for their products or services, 23% don’t have the right team to deliver the business, and 19% can’t match a competitor.

I guess that makes me a survivor. I launched my small business seven years ago this month, and it is gratifying that we’ve managed to weather the politics of adversity to still be trading. However, making money is still something I find quite challenging. I’ve come out of a career in the NHS in which the financial transactions involved were far removed from my daily life, and the idea of making a profit was quite aversive. But I’ve had to learn to make my business financially viable. Whilst there have been times that have tested me almost to my limits, the business is still functioning and financially we are still on the runway. I view that as a success. However, I feel like we have never quite reached the position of being airborne, where the business is self-sustaining without me personally doing income generating work as a substantial proportion of my time – and that would be an enormous issue if I ever needed time off sick.

My penultimate piece of advice is to speak to people who understand business and finance before you embark upon your journey, and regularly as you go along. I’ve had the benefit of great guidance as I’ve travelled outside of the NHS and into the world of business. As well as my fantastic ongoing mentoring from Impact Hub, which has included some work on the financial elements of the business plan, I recently won a place on a scheme sponsored by Barclays bank to help social purpose businesses to scale up. I’ve been attending Judge Business School at Cambridge University with several other small businesses, where we have had a series of days to explore our options and make a growth plan for the business. Having identified gaps, I’ve then taken actions to rectify them. For example, we’ve built a website for BERRI so that prospective subscribers can see what our tools have to offer, and that has brought in a flurry of new subscribers. I’ve also explored the options to help me scale up more rapidly and increase the impact of what we can deliver. Thankfully we have a strong business case, and I’ve been increasingly able to articulate that as a result of the work I’ve been doing. Over the last month I have spoken to two potential sources of investment. That would give me more runway to play with, but I need to work out whether we are fully aligned in terms of the destination and route to get there before I can be sure that is the right move to make compared to continued slow organic growth.

My final advice is to recognise your own limitations, and to find ways to delegate the tasks you are not good at or not enthused about, and spend time with people who share your passions or the skills you want to grow. For me that means having an administrator who makes up and chases up my invoices, accountants who can deal with payroll, tax, NI, pensions etc and advisors who guide me to apply for the right grants, tax rebates and training schemes. I also meet up regularly with other social entrepreneurs to share our progress and plan collaborative projects. I just appointed an experienced Business Development Lead for the company, who I hope will help me to weigh up the options for investment, and help us to grow quickly but in a way that feels right and prioritises making an positive impact on the lives of vulnerable children over maximising profit. I’m hoping we’ll reach sustainability by the end of the year, but there are still hurdles to overcome, and even when we get into the air I can’t imagine it will be a journey without occasional turbulence.

Communicating the value of evidence

I presented at a couple of conferences over the last few weeks about my BERRI system. And I was struck, once again, by how little weight is given to evidence when it comes to services that are commissioned in the social care sector. Various glossy marketing claims and slick consultants were successfully persuading commissioners and service managers that it was equivalent to use their systems and “metrics” (in which people gave entirely subjective ratings on various arbitrarily chosen variables) to using validated outcome measures. By validated outcome measures, I mean questionnaires or metrics that have been developed through a methodical process and validated with scientific rigour that explores whether they are measuring the right things, whether they are measuring them reliably, whether those measures are sensitive to change, and whether the results are meaningful. A pathway that then leads to an established scientific process of critical appraisal when those studies are presented at conferences, published and made subject to peer review.

But outside of the academic/scientific community it is very hard to prove that having a proper process is worth the time and investment it takes. It means that you are running a much longer race than those who work without evidence. At one event last week, I asked a question of a consultancy firm making hundreds of thousands of pounds out of “improving children’s social care outcomes”, about their basis for what they chose to measure, how they measure it, and how they had validated their claims. The answer was that they were confident that they were measuring the right things, and that having any kind of scientific process or validation would slow down their ability to make impact (aka profit). My answer was that without it there was no evidence they were making any impact.

They couldn’t see that their process of skipping to the doing bit was equivalent to thinking that architects, structural drawings, planning permission and buildings regulation control slow down building houses, and selling houses they’d built without all that burdensome process. Thinking anyone can build a house (or a psychometric measure to track outcomes) feels like an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the idea that those with the least knowledge overestimate their knowledge the most. But the worst thing was that those commissioning couldn’t see the difference either. They find the language of evidence to be in the domain of academics and clinicians, and don’t understand it, or its importance. We are in an age where expertise is dismissed in favour of messages that resonate with a populist agenda, and it seems that this even applies when commissioning services that affect the outcomes of vulnerable population groups. I don’t know how we change this, but we need to.

For those who don’t know, I’ve been working on BERRI for 12 years now, on and off, with the goal of being able to map the needs of complex children and young people, such as those living in public care, in a way that is meaningful, sensitive to change and helps those caring for them to meet those needs better. For as long as I’ve worked with Looked After children, there has been a recognition of the fact that this population does worse in life along a wide range of metrics, and a desire to improve outcomes for them for both altruistic and financial reasons. Since Every Child Matters in 2003, there have been attempts to improve outcomes, defined with aspirations in five areas of functioning:

  • stay safe
  • be healthy
  • enjoy and achieve
  • make a positive contribution
  • achieve economic well-being

A lot of services, the one that I led included, tried to rate children on each of these areas, and make care plans that aimed to help them increase their chances in each area. Each was supposed to be associated with a detailed framework of how various agencies can work together to achieve it. However, whilst the goals are worthy, they are also vague, and it is hard to give any objective score of how much progress a young person is making along each target area. And in my specific area of mental health and psychological wellbeing they had nothing specific to say.

As with so much legislation, Every Child Matters was not followed up by the following government, and with the move of children’s social care and child protection into the remit of the Department for Education, the focus shifted towards educational attainments as a metric of success. But looking primarily at educational attendance and attainments has several problems. Firstly it assumes that children in Care are in all other ways equivalent to the general population with which they are compared (when in fact in many ways they are not, having both disproportionate socioeconomic adversity and disproportionate exposure to trauma and risk factors, as well as much higher incidence of neurodevelopmental disorder and learning disability). Secondly it limits the scope of consideration to the ages in which education is happening (primarily 5-18, but in exceptional circumstances 3-21) rather than the whole life course. Thirdly it doesn’t look at the quality of care that is being received – which has important implications for how we recruit, select and support the workforce of foster carers and residential care staff, and what expectations we have of placement providers (something I think critical, given we are spending a billion pounds a year on residential care placements, and more on secure provision, fostering agencies and therapy services that at the moment don’t have to do very much at all to show they are effective, beyond providing food, accommodation, and ensuring educational attendance). Finally, it masks how important attachment relationships, and support to improve mental health are in this population. I can see that strategically it makes sense for politicians and commissioners not to measure this need – they don’t want to identify mental health needs that services are not resourced to meet – but that is significantly failing the children and young people involved.

In my role as a clinician lead for children in Care and adopted within a CAMH service, I kept finding that children were being referred with behaviour problems, but underlying that were significant difficulties with attachment, and complex trauma histories. I was acutely aware that my service was unable to meet demand, leading us to need some system to prioritise referrals, and that there was a lot of ambiguity about what was in the remit of CAMHS and what was in the remit of social care. I wasn’t alone in that dilemma. There were a lot of defensive boundaries going on in CAMHS around the country, rejecting referrals that did not indicate a treatable mental health condition, even if the child had significant behavioural or emotional difficulties. The justification was that many children were making a normal response to abnormal experiences, and that CAMHS clinicians didn’t want to pathologise this or locate it like an organic condition inside the child, so it should best be dealt with as a social care issue.

On the other hand, I was mindful of the fact that this population have enormous mental health needs, having disproportionately experienced the Adverse Childhood Experiences that are known to lead to adverse mental and physical health outcomes. Research done by many of my peers has shown that two thirds to three quarters of Looked After children and young people score over 17 on the SDQ (the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire – the government mandated and CORC recommended measure for screening mental health need in children) meaning they should be eligible for a CAMH service, and various research studies have shown that 45% of LAC have a diagnosable mental health condition, but the resources are not available to meet that need. As The Mental Health Foundation’s 2002 review entitled “Mental Health of Looked After Children” put it:

Research shows that looked-after children generally have greater mental health needs than other young people, including a significant proportion who have more than one condition and/or a serious psychiatric disorder (McCann et al, 1996). But their mental health problems are frequently unnoticed or ignored. There is a need for a system of early mental health assessment and intervention for looked-after children and young people, including those who go on to be adopted.

My initial goal was to develop a new questionnaire to cover the mental health and psychological wellbeing issues that this population were experiencing, as well as considering attachment/trauma history and the child’s ability to trust others and form healthy relationships, and the behaviours that these often expressed through. I was also interested in what issues determined the type of placement given to a child, and the risk of placement breakdown, as well as what opened doors to specialist services such as therapy, and whether those services and interventions really made any difference. I therefore ran two focus groups to explore what concerns carers and professionals had about Looked After children and young people, and asked them about what they saw that might indicate a mental health problem, or any related concerns that led people to want my input, or that caused placements to wobble or break down. One group contained foster carers and the professional networks around them (link workers, children’s social workers, the nurse who did the LAC medicals, service managers) and one contained residential care workers and the professional networks around them (home managers, children’s social workers, the nurse who did the LAC medicals, service managers). I wrote their responses down on flip-charts, and then I sorted them into themes.

I had initially thought that it might cluster as behavioural and emotional, or internalising and externalising, but my items seemed more complex than that. In the end there were five themes that emerged:

  • Behaviour
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Risk (to self and others)
  • Relationships/attachments
  • Indicators (of psychiatric or neurodevelopmental conditions)

The first letters gave me the name for the scale: BERRI. I then piloted the scale with various carers, and then with a group of clinical psychologists involved with CPLAAC (the national network within the British Psychological Society that contained about 300 Clinical Psychologists working with Looked After and Adopted Children that I was chair of for about six years). I then added a life events checklist to set the issues we were identifying in context.

The working group I chaired in 2007 on the state of outcome measurement for Looked After and adopted children (on the invitation of CORC) came to the conclusion that no suitable metrics were available or widely used. We therefore agreed to further develop and validate the various tools that members of the group had home-brewed, including my BERRI. There was acknowledgement that it takes a lot of work to develop a new psychometric instrument in a valid way, but a consensus that this needed to be done. So I resolved to find a way to follow that proper process to validate and norm BERRI, despite the lack of any funding, ring-fenced time or logistical support to do so. The first challenge was to collect enough data to allow me to analyse the items on the measure, and the five themes I had sorted them into. But I didn’t have the resources to run a research trial and then enter all the data into a database.

My way around this barrier was to get my peers to use the measure and give me their data. To do this I took advantage of some of the technically skilled people in my personal network and developed a website into which people could type anonymous BERRI scores and receive back a report with the scores and some generic advice about how to manage each domain. I tested this out and found my peers were quite enthused about it. We then had a formal pilot phase, where 750 BERRIs were completed by Clinical Psychologists about children and young people they were working with. I then talked about it with some young people and care leavers to check that they felt the areas we were covering were relevant and helpful to know about*. Then I started to use the system in a large pilot with residential care providers and developed tools to focus in on particular concerns as goals to work on, and track them day by day or week by week, as well as creating tools to give managers an overview of the progress of the children in their care. We’ve had a lot of feedback about how useful and game-changing the system is, and how it has the potential to revolutionise various aspects of commissioning and decision-making in children’s social care.

But I really wanted the process to be one in which we were truly scientific and based our claims on evidence. I’ve never marketed the BERRI or made claims about what it can do until very recently, when I finally reached a point where we had evidence to substantiate some modest claims**. But to me the process is critical and there is still a long way to go in making the data as useful as it can be. So from day one a process of iterative research was built in to the way we developed BERRI. As soon as it was being used by large numbers of services and we had collected a large data set we were able to look closely at how the items were used, the factor structure, internal consistency and which variables changed over time. We ran a series of validity and reliability analyses including correlations with the SDQ, Conners, and the child’s story – including ACEs, placement information and various vulnerability factors in the child’s current situation. But even then I worried about the bias, so a doctoral student is now running an independent study of inter-rater reliability and convergent/divergent validity across 42 children’s homes.

BERRI will always be developed hand in hand with research, so that there is an ongoing process of refining our outputs in light of the data. The first step in that is getting age and gender norms. But the data can also indicate what we need to do to improve the measure, and the usefulness of the output reports. For example, it seems that it might be meaningful to look at two aspects of “Relationships” being distinct from each other. If the evidence continues to show this, we will change the way we generate the reports from the data to talk about social skills deficits and attachment difficulties separately in our reports. We might also tweak which items fall into which of the five factors. We also want to check that the five factor model is not based on the a priori sorting of the items into the five headings, so we are planning a study in which the item order is randomised on each use to repeat our factor analysis. We also want to explore whether there are threshold scores in any factor or critical items within factors that indicate which types of placements are required or predict placement breakdown. We might also be able to model CSE risk.

The results to date have been really exciting. I have begun to present them at conferences and we are currently preparing them to submit for publication. For example, I am currently writing up a paper about the ADHD-like presentation so many traumatised children have, and how we have learnt from our BERRI research that this reflects early life ACEs priming readiness for fight-or-flight rather than proximal events or a randomly distributed organic condition. But the findings depend on all the groundwork of how BERRI was developed, our rigorous validation process and the data we have collected. It is the data that gives us the ability to interpret what is going on, and to give advice at the individual and organisational level.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m somewhat cynical about systems that request a subjective likert rating of five domains from Every Child Matters, or an equally subjective score out of 100 for twelve domains pulled from the personal experience of the consultant when working in children’s social care services, that then claim to be able to map needs and progress without any validation of their methodology, areas to rate, sensitivity to change or the meaning of their scores. Having gone through the process the long way might put me at a commercial disadvantage, rather than going straight to marketing, but I like my houses built on the foundations of good evidence. I can feel confident that the load bearing beams will keep the structure sound for a lifetime when they are placed with precision and underpinned by the calculations and expertise of architects, structural engineers, surveyors and buildings control, rather than cobbled together as quickly as possible, marketed with amorphous claims and sold on rapidly to anyone who will pay for them. After all, I’m not in it to make a quick buck. I know my work is a slow and cumulative thing, and BERRI still has a long way to go before it can create the greatest impact. But my goals are big: I want to improve outcomes for children and young people who have experienced adversity, and I want that impact to influence the whole culture of children’s social care provision in the UK and to continue to be felt through the generations. And to do that, I need to build the thing properly.

*I’m still intending to act on the advice to also have a strengths scale to recognise resilience and positive factors, so that it doesn’t feel like we see the children purely as a list of problems. However, I didn’t want to duplicate the work of others, so I am following up a potentially exciting lead in terms of a collaboration with the Mulberry Bush School, who have explored the positive factors they have seen as markers of progress in their environment.
** that carers, therapists and managers find it useful and easy to use, that using the BERRI pathway demonstrated an improvement of 14% over 6 months for the first 125 children placed on the system, and that BERRI has the basic statistical qualities that suggest sufficient validity for use. We also have some testimonials, including a commissioner who used BERRI to map the needs of 15 high tariff children and found four suitable to move to foster or family placements with support, saving nearly half a million pounds per year from his budget – a finding we would like to replicate with a much larger study, given the opportunity.