Sunday, 6 November 2011

Ageing Well Dudley and social network analysis

Doreen Collins
Last week I attended a meeting to scope an Ageing Well initiative in Dudley. Ageing Well aims to provide a better quality of life for older people through local services that are designed to meet their needs and recognise the huge contribution that people in later life make to their local communities. Local authorities are being supported to improve their services for older people while there are the dual challenges of public sector cuts and an ageing population. Support is through Local Government Innovation and Development

I haven’t been to this sort of meeting for some time and was pleased that the session was being facilitated, and was done so excellently by Carol Hayden from Shared Intelligence

During the meeting, Maggie Venables (Assistant Director in Dudley Council's Directorate of Adult, Community and Housing Services) shared information about Ageing Well in Dudley (see below), and Bridget Brickley from Dudley Community Partnership gave us an overview of what a whole systems approach is and how this had given insights in to other services in Dudley.

A core proposition that underpins Ageing Well Dudley is:

That Dudley MBC and its partners can, despite the challenging financial context, promote the health and wellbeing of older people thereby reducing or delaying their need for acute support for as long as possible, through:

  • Meaningful and sustained involvement of older people in their communities and in a wider range of service areas than health and social care;
  • Realising a vision of a whole system offer for older people through improved links between relevant organisations and services (including the voluntary and community sector) at a borough-wide and locality/township level;
  • Improving intelligence about how older people access services and using this information to improve access routes
And that this proposition is best explored in detail at a locality/township level.

My reflections on the meeting and the above core proposition led me to three questions:

  1. Could work on social network analysis helpfully inform Ageing Well initiatives?
  2. In order to achieve the social change desired, are systems approaches enough, or do we also need (for example) approaches which analyse and develop understanding of power?
  3. To what extent is this work likely to lead to changes in the roles and work of employees across a range of organisations, and if so, what should we be doing to prepare for this?

I will consider the first in this post and the second and third in future posts.

Social network analysis

During the meeting Maggie Venables suggested that the Ageing Well in Dudley initiative could ask older people how they would like things to be more joined up, and how they could be more involved in decisions. I think it would be great if, in addition to this much needed look at how services could work better together, Ageing Well also asked older people how they join up to different sorts of support.

This sort of questioning and mapping would help to answer another question Maggie posed in relation to information about support services and the fact that there is lots of information out there, but: on the day an older person needs some specific information, where do they go to get it? Her question reflects a key issue of concern described in the meeting briefing paper, which is related to how a wide range of older people access services that are appropriate to their needs.

I feel that a really helpful thing that those involved in Ageing Well Dudley could do at this early stage is look at the RSA’s work on Connected Communities. I think this would fit well with the systems approach being proposed.

The report suggests that: “Taking social networks seriously means recognising that the elementary unit of social life in neither the individual nor the group. Social networks allows us to move beyond this classic theoretical distinction.” 

And that: “The network perspective offers a distinctive explanatory tool because it reveals patterns of relationship and exclusion that would otherwise remain invisible. Patterns of connectivity can serve as a diagnostic, revealing opportunities to connect those who are disconnected, and ‘spreading’ constructive social norms through highly connected individuals whose behaviour is likely to be imitated by those in their network”

The Connected Communities report includes descriptions of the research methods used and generously shares an example of a research questionnaire used. The fieldwork undertaken in two areas suggests that:

  • A potential benefit of social network analysis and reflection is that it is a process which can itself strengthen networks – it can be both an intervention and a diagnostic.
  • A networks approach gives a clearer understanding of patterns of social inclusion and exclusion, so can help in addressing the problem of loneliness and social isolation. Mapping bridging nodes and organisations was identified as critical for building network structures that offer mutual support and reduce isolation and loneliness. (p59 of report)
  • There is a developing understanding of how community resilience can be understood in network terms. The strength and variety of hubs and the propensity for network decay were considered key elements of resilience.
  • Empowerment is likely to be a function, in part, of a person’s social networks. Key aspects include network position, the nature of the network core, and the degree to which local organisations are co-ordinated.

A related note on geography

The Ageing Well Dudley work intends to focus on two areas which have different demographics so that interventions can be compared and contrasted. I was pleased to hear that although demographic data is often collated by political ward boundaries, the two areas for this work won’t be defined by a line on a map drawn for the purposes of political representation. Cllr David Vickers usefully suggested that the areas chosen might helpfully comprise of a mixture of wards.

And in relation to geography:“The principal lesson we have drawn from community policy and practice over the last two decades is that defining ‘communities’ solely in geographic terms has major limitations.” (Connecting Communities Report)

I am confident that while Ageing Well Dudley work will focuses on two geographical areas, it will recognise that individual’s networks and relationships reach beyond whatever geographical boundary is used to manage focus of the project. I wonder if it also possible to use social network analysis to develop an understanding the patterns of connectivity (or lack of them) in the two areas to compare and contrast.  I would anticipate network maps relating to demographics, however I think the network maps provide more in the way of pointing to solutions than does data which says that one area has greater levels of home ownership, for example.

Rebecca Daddow from the RSA who works on Recovery Capital explains that they use social mapping wherever they can because “understanding social networks and relationships between individuals, groups, communities and organisations is the key to changing lives, reinvigorating communities and increasing wellbeing.” 

I think that the importance of relationships is illustrated by the work of the Dorset Partnership for Older People Programme, which I blogged about here. I was really inspired listening to Sue Warr from the partnership explaining that amongst other fantastic things, the programme has made over 250 small grants to groups in Dorset. 14 of these projects run by local people are estimated to have saved the taxpayer £600,000. A £370 investment in a table tennis table has led to a social network which supported a man to leave hospital days earlier than expected after an operation.

I therefore advocate use of social network analysis and network mapping in the Ageing Well Dudley initiative, because it will help to take thinking beyond the boundaries and mindsets of public services and place the focus on individual older people and those around them.