‘Moving at the speed of trust’ – the journey to integrated care systems

Anna Charles writing at the King’s Fund: In May of this year, NHS England announced four new integrated care systems (ICSs) to join the ten existing systems. But ‘announced’ is not really the right word; as we have found in our work with the systems, creating an ICS is most definitely a journey and not an event. 

We’ve been tracking these journeys over the past year, conducting interviews with more than 70 NHS and local government leaders and other stakeholders in eight of the first ICSs. Our new report, published today, sets out the findings from this work and identifies emerging lessons for local systems and national policy-makers.

Integrated Care

ICSs (and the new care models that came before them) have been introduced in a very different way to the NHS reforms of the past. Instead of central bodies passing legislation that enforces a uniform organisational model across the country, ICSs are being designed and implemented by local areas, within a broadly permissive national programme that emphasises peer learning and support. In the words of one local leader:
 
The honest discussions about the wicked issues and how they can best be navigated has felt, to me, like a breath of fresh air…You can’t just impose a blueprint from Skipton House or Whitehall. This has to be more iterative and co-produced.

There are some drawbacks to this approach in terms of the clarity and consistency of the changes taking place, but our work suggests that an ICS can only be developed in each place, by each place; they must evolve and be owned locally if they are to succeed.

Why is this? After all, we found strong similarities in the governance arrangements that the different systems are developing and in the service changes that they are putting in place. ICSs have much in common, and there is much they can learn from each other. But the strongest message that came through loud and clear from our interviews was that this had to be founded on collaborative relationships and trust between partner organisations and their leaders:

It’s relationships, relationships, relationships…all the governance structures and technical things in the world are great, but if people don’t have an aspirational intent to work together, it doesn’t really matter what you write down.

The systems have used a variety of strategies to address this, including bringing leaders and staff from different organisations together to spend time face to face, working through collective challenges, and creating a shared purpose. Building relationships cannot be rushed or centrally imposed; it takes time and commitment and can only be done locally.

We can’t do any of this quickly. This is very big change for a lot of people across the system. I think that to do it any quicker we would have just fallen over.

Individuals spoke candidly about how developing an understanding of other organisations’ priorities and challenges had altered their own perspectives and behaviours. They described greater openness and transparency across different organisations and new ways of collectively managing finances and performance as a result:

I’ve learnt more about how local authorities work in the past 18 months than I’ve done in the past 42 years…it’s been spending time with one another and understanding one another’s problems and issues.

It is still early days for ICSs. Local leaders need to continue the work they have begun by giving priority to strengthening relationships and trust, redoubling their efforts to involve key partners, and focusing on delivering further changes in service models to improve heath and care for their populations. They also need to take active steps to listen to and work with members of their local communities on an ongoing basis, ensuring they design services that meet their needs and reflect their priorities.

National leaders must hold their nerve in allowing ICSs to be built from the bottom up, while also offering guidance and support and doing their upmost to remove the barriers that ICSs encounter.

To end on the words of one ICS leader:

The ICSs will move at the speed of trust…this is really about relationships and trust between the partners.

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