Interview: Alex Fox OBE, CEO at Shared Lives Plus

| Anna Eaton

Alex Fox of Shared Lives Plus has been a leader in the movement towards greater personalisation over recent years. He is the Chief Executive of Shared Lives Plus, the UK network for Shared Lives and Homeshare. Alex helps lead on Building Community Capacity for the Think Local, Act Personal partnership. 

We interviewed him following the release of the briefing paper he authored, Asset-Based Area. We like the paper for its straightforward feel and the 10 steps for developing strong communities and sustainable public services and making an area truly asset-based.

Tell us about what you’ve done Alex

The Asset Based Area paper is trying to put a really simple set of actions together by which an area can look at an asset based approach. It’s not just adding in bits of pieces of volunteering or time-banking or community development but actually thinking what would it look like if we wanted to reform everything. Some are practical things to do, like mapping, and some of them are about ethos of an asset based area.

Lots of people involved in public services are keen on the idea of volunteering for instance – citizens doing more – but experience suggests that doesn’t happen. And it doesn’t work very well unless there is a commensurate willingness to share power and resources on behalf of the people who hold those power and resources such as the service planner and local leaders. People need to see that they’re not just being asked to do stuff that the Council or NHS think is useful; but actually they are being asked to be a genuinely valued part of the local area.

In the paper, there are references to lots of organisations that can help with or do those kinds of processes. Organisations involved in whole community action such as Time Credits – a form of time-banking or Local Area Coordination. Places like Derby and the Isle of Wight and a number of other councils are using Local Area Coordination as their new front door. They help when people are starting to develop some support needs, at risk of needing long term support, but whose goal is not to get into the service system and instead stay out of it by staying connected and strong and well.

The paper is saying we need to come at this from every angle. It’s about community work, not just about preventative services, it’s about the whole system. It’s about people with low level support needs or none, or people with a lot of support needs. The only way it’s really going to work is if you do apply it across the whole system.

Tell us about your time at Shared Lives

I’m a real newcomer as I’ve only been there seven years and I regularly meet people who have been involved with Shared Lives for forty years!

Shared Lives is a model that has been around for a long time, but very low profile. It’s quietly grown to be genuinely national. There’s only a handful of areas that don’t have a shared life scheme. It’s available much more widely than people realise. Anyone can apply to become a shared life carer, it’s not a model that focuses as much on qualifications, as it does on attitude and values.

Shared Lives Plus is the representative body. We don’t provide the services ourselves, we have members. We have over five and a half thousand shared life carers who have joined us. And at the moment, all of the country’s shared life schemes are members. We provide them with support and we network them together in terms of policies, procedures and guidance, and we raise awareness about what they do.

What’s been your biggest or best mistake?

There’s something about the gap between what people say they like and are interested in, and what they will actually invest in. You can waste a lot of time talking to people and it leads nowhere. A ‘no’ can be better than a ‘yes’ when that ‘yes’ is not really a commitment or people think it is and then cannot follow through.

We found that being more specific about asking for money for the strategic advice we give gets you quicker to a yes or no. It forces people to make a decision and prevents endless conversations. We don’t want to be commercial, but we find we can help by bridging the gap between a vague idea people have about culture change and realistic, practical paid for things that demonstrate a culture change is happening.

Has anything surprised you?

I’m shocked rather than surprised about how people don’t see themselves as saints or saviours. They are just ordinary people spending time with other people. They see it as natural. But it’s so far removed from the way we talk about care and support services.

It has changed how I look at public services. The way we look at risk is from a professional lens, what can I be blamed for or what can my organisation be blamed for. It ignores the risks for people in not having meaningful relationships or a job or something we enjoy. Shared Lives is very different, it felt like a culture shock. Shared Lives carers allow people not to have to make the choice between support or being social.

Who is your greatest inspiration or influence?

My greatest inspiration doesn’t come from an individual, but from the 10,000 people who choose to share their lives and their family homes with people who need support. Those Shared Lives carers demonstrate, through living it rather than talking about it, an approach to caring about others, and to living socially, that is as ancient as it remains radical.

What next?

Ideally, we want to build into a movement of shared living. Because we’ve got a lot of social care at the moment, which isn’t social and lots of community services which haven’t really thought about what communities need.

We’d like to be noisier. We’ve got to the point where Shared Lives and Homeshare are well known in the social care sector, but the general public don’t often know about them. We need to breakthrough into their awareness.

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