Choices4Doncaster: Martin Walker

Martin Walker was working for the local authority in Doncaster when he was asked to explore more interesting options than day care centres, where the elderly are taken by bus each day for bingo and other activities. In his work as commissioning officer he began to look into other ideas and was staggered with the range of activities on offer, from vintage tea parties to day to day care. With help from the Hive and Co-operatives UK, Martin left the local authority and formed Choices4Doncaster to bring together these businesses under one banner and offer a real alternative the vulnerable and those who care for them. 

What do you do?
I work in social care policy and change. For eight years or so that was within a local authority. I’m now doing that part time for a highly respected national organisation in the sector called Think Local Act Personal.

I’m also setting up Choices4Doncaster, a new co-operative company, and I am contributing to caring for my dad who has Parkinson’s disease at an advanced stage.

What is the point of the project?
To help people live good lives when they need some support due to some vulnerability, like age, disability or a health condition. Despite all the talk of change or improvement in health and social care, I saw few changes. 

I can see now that what I experienced in one locality is much the same experience for many professionals like me up and down the country. I think the solution lies within the community.

We think the community, not institutions, should drive transformation.

Big organisations like the NHS and Local Authorities want to be in charge of changing things. I think that’s where they are going wrong. In my role I have been involved with many people working towards change. It felt to me there was a disconnect between what policy was saying, which is that we must stimulate a diverse market to personalise support with the help of individuals and the community, and how the system  actually behaved. The system actually buys support cheap and at scale and uses contract management to drive up quality. You don’t have to look far to see that this isn’t working. 

I could also see that many people and organisations in the sector wanted change. The system was getting in the way. So we want to bring together a range of people and organisations who have shared values. They can deliver great support in the best, most efficient way possible, and make this offer to people in Doncaster who need it.

We think the community, not institutions, should drive transformation.

When was the moment you decided to do this?
In January 2016. I’d got myself out of Local Authority land, with its restrictions on how I could act, and had exploratory conversations with a range of people who I felt shared my values.

I shared my thoughts about how we might come together to do something new in a positive way and got a really good reaction, enough to make me feel confident it was worth exploring.

How do you fit in?
I guess I’ve been the man with the original idea. I have been the glue that’s brought and kept people together until they came to trust one another, after they understood one another’s values.

Now we’ve got past planning and formation, we’ll be forming a board and starting operations. I’ll be leading this next phase.

What’s been your proudest moment?
The end of our first meeting, where there was clear desire and appetite across a wide range of organisations to make this happen.

Close second is the interest there seems to be in what we’re exploring.

What’s been the hardest moment?
Just before Christmas last year, when it seemed to be taking an eternity to work out the best legal form to use.

What kept you going then?
Support from the Hive and Coop UK. They really helped us unpick it.

What’s the next step?
To get operational. This will start with a communications and engagement phase where we begin to raise our profile in the town and secure our first customers.

All the organisations within the cooperative are small, but well regarded in their own right. We will be exercising the muscle of coop mutuality to provide bespoke support solutions for customers rapidly, efficiently and to the highest possible standard.

How did you vote in the EU referendum and why?
I’m not sure that’s relevant, but as it happens I voted out.

I think we’ve lost sight of border control and in the current global situation, this concerns me. The US and Australia have border controls. I value the notion of citizenship and as a citizen, I recognise that I have both rights and responsibilities.

How could the result of the referendum affect you?
Well, one of the key stumbling blocks in stimulating a diverse market in health and social care support is regulations, for example EU procurement rules, or people’s interpretations of them.

If we aren’t bound by them anymore, that would really help transformation happen a lot quicker. There are some positives. And the demographic pressure of people needing health and social care support is well documented. Sadly, there will be no shortage of customers in Doncaster. Hopefully, we’ll be able to improve their lives when they do need support, an in a way much better than is currently available.

What would you say to someone wanting to do something similar?
Well, I guess we’ve modelled some of the detail, and you could draw on our experience of trying to do this, that’s one of the principles we’ve signed up to in becoming a cooperative. It seems to me to be the next logical step.

Commissioners talk about “alliance contracting” and I’m not sure what that would look like if it’s not a cooperative? Consortium approaches don’t seemed to have worked too well at scale.

What does community mean to you?
Good question. A place where I feel at home, a place where I feel valued, a place where I feel comfortable.

It has both a physical and an intellectual dimension. It’s both place and people. I have a sense of community in different places and with different people, at different times in my day to day life. It generally feels good, I love the sense of diversity community brings. Difference is good. Together we are better and stronger.

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