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

How much do you have to prove? A tale of the modern NHS marketplace

I took a voluntary redundancy from the NHS in 2011. Since then I have run a small company providing clinical psychology services. I mainly do expert witness work for the family courts, which I have blogged about before, but we also offer therapy, consultancy, training, research and other services.

In 2012 we bid for a grant from The Health Foundation to offer brief psychological interventions into the diabetes service for people of all ages at the local hospital. We wanted the bid to be innovative, and so we were determined to think differently about how we structured the service and hoped for it to be commissioned. We decided we would use the grant to set up a Social Enterprise to deliver psychological services, and that we would aim to get commissioners to agree to fund the service in retrospect according to the outcomes we achieved. You read that right – we planned to deliver a service for no cost in return for an agreement to pay for the outcomes we achieved. No more “spend-to-save deadlock” in which the NHS can’t invest in the things that will save money; we were providing the service for no cost to the NHS during the project period and offering to continue to do so, based on retrospective returns dependent upon whether we improved people’s lives and saved costs for their medical treatment. We also agreed to survey the level of mental health need amongst the population using the diabetes service at the hospital, and look at whether this related to their blood test results (which are the best indicator of adherence to medication regimes and lifestyle advice, and of physical health prognosis).

Diabetes is a hot topic because it is predicted to “bankrupt the NHS” due to the rising incidence and cost of treatment. It already costs the NHS £10 billion to treat nearly 4 million people with diabetes in the UK, and this is set to rise to £17 billion by 2035 as the incidence increases to 6.25 million diabetics. Once the loss of working days, early death and informal care costs are factored in, these costs more than double. Even more shocking is the fact that 79% of this expenditure is preventable, if patients followed the lifestyle advice and medication regimes recommended. Studies consistently show that around 40% of people with diabetes have mental health problems, and around 14% of this cost is prevented if there are services to support the psychological health of patients. That is £2.4 billion pounds of avoidable NHS expenditure per year, and around £3.2 billion more in the wider economy. Yet psychological services for people with diabetes are far from universally available.

The Health Foundation loved our proposal and gave us a £75,000 Shine Award to deliver it.

We set up our Social Enterprise which we called Evolving Families. The name is designed to reflect the fact that people change in their thinking, behaviour, learning and roles over their lifespan (and a fair chunk of our work is with adults reflecting on childhood, with parents or with young people whose family circumstances have changed). A Social Enterprise is a business that is run for the benefit of a community, society or environment, and invests the majority of their profits towards that good cause. Our Social Enterprise was designed to invest in delivering psychological services that might not be otherwise funded, like doing research or subsidising people who could not afford to pay for therapy but were not eligible to get what they needed on the NHS.

We used our agility as a small company to employ staff very quickly, and we were up and running for the project to start on 1st Jan 2013. We accepted 65 referrals in the following year (52 adults and 13 children), and closed the project at the end of December 2013. Of those 48 (36 adults, 12 children) attended for psychological therapy and completed pre and post therapy measures, with an average of 6 therapy appointments each. We were able to see people at their homes, at schools, in the community and in our offices. We saw people in the evening if this was more convenient. We went to multi-agency meetings about some of the young people. And most importantly we didn’t have defensive service boundaries – if we felt we could improve psychological wellbeing then we offered services that didn’t directly relate to their diabetes or mental health, for example cognitive assessments, advice about employment, exploration of the impact of neuro-developmental difficulties or sensory impairments.

We screened 750 adults and 100 children who attended the clinics, using the PHQ-SADS (a measure of depression, anxiety and stress used in the IAPT scheme) and the Problem Areas in Diabetes questionnaire. This showed a highly significant relationship between all areas of mental health and HbA1c (the blood glucose score that is the best indicator of how well controlled the diabetes is). There was a very high rate of mental health problems, including a very worrying level of suicidal ideation in both age groups. There was also a very poor level of diabetes control; only 20% had an HbA1c score in the range considered to be optimal (<7) whilst 60% had dangerously elevated levels (>7.5), indicating that this hospital clinic serves a very complex and risky population group.

After the year was complete, we had clear evidence that our service was helpful and cost effective. We made a significant change to participants lives – not bad for 48 people getting  an average of 6 sessions of psychological therapy. Their mental health improved markedly. Fifteen people who were having frequent suicidal thoughts were no longer suicidal, 19 A&E visits in the months before therapy were reduced to 1 in the same number of months after therapy, 30 ward admissions in the same period were down to 5. The cost saved by this reduction in physical treatments was greater than the project cost to deliver. All in all we had pretty impressive results for providing psychological interventions at a cost per head that was lower than IAPT. We were Highly Commended in the HSJ Efficiency Awards.

But did commissioners bite our hand off to take up the offer of paying for the service based on the results it achieved? No. We couldn’t even get to talk to commissioners in person. The hospital told us to talk to the CCG, the CCG told us to talk to the hospital. They told us they need fixed cost contracts to put in their budget, not this outcome based stuff. The contract value is too small to be separately commissioned, and we are outside providers. The service closed to referrals a year ago, and although our service users are passionate about the need for the project and the impact it made on their lives, nobody seems to be listening. So we’ve written a business case and given it to the various service managers at the hospital, and we’ve presented our results locally and we wait, with dwindling hope that it will be picked up at some point in the future. Maybe in the next financial year. Maybe when they reconfigure the diabetes provision.

So I ask: how much do you have to prove in the modern NHS marketplace? If we can deliver a highly effective, life-changing service, and save the NHS more than it costs within the financial year, and we are prepared to accept payment in arrears based on the outcomes we achieve, what more can we do?

Video flash of powerpoint showing outcome data for the project is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdyVfGOkdD0

Service user comments about the project are here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsQDgs-yDq4