Academic research for a better society: through social entrepreneurship

The SUCCESS programme is helping social scientists transform innovative and marketable ideas into a business or social enterprise.

Dr Ellie Suh, Postdoctoral Researcher at Rees Centre (Department of Education, University of Oxford), talks about the Cost Calculator for Children’s Services venture – one of our SUCCESS programme projects – and the team’s motivations for focusing on the social enterprise model.

The Cost Calculator for Children’s Services (CCfCS, or Cost Calculator) is a research-based purpose-built tool that helps local authorities to assess and analyse the costs of providing social care to children in care. The current Cost Calculator team includes Dr Lisa Holmes (the director of Rees Centre), Helen Trivedi and myself. I am currently taking part in the SUCCESS programme which, funded by Aspect, provides training, support and funding to help social scientists transform innovative and marketable ideas into a business or social enterprise. In this blog, I explain the motivation for taking the Cost Calculator to the social enterprise model.

The tool was initially developed to facilitate analysis for academic research conducted by Dr Lisa Holmes and colleagues to understand the relationship between the needs, costs and outcomes of children in care. The research aimed to move away from aggregate costs that did not reflect the detail of the children’s social care. For this reason, costs were often understood at an aggregate level or using per head cost. Of course, these are useful summary figures; however, they do not provide analysis that is sufficiently detailed to assess cost-effectiveness or to inform strategic decision-making in service provisioning or commissioning.

The research team used a bottom-up unit cost methodology which makes it possible to analyse cost at various levels of detail, such as for an individual child, a cohort of children or by needs group. The tool can provide costs by placement type or service providers and to provide what-if analysis. Having more analysis provides greater room for local authorities to monitor progress and to evaluate new initiatives in a systematic and transparent manner. Around 50 local authorities at different points have been either engaged in research or worked with the tool, and there are a number of case studies that highlight the benefits that the analysis has provided.

The tool was initially developed as an Access database. Technology and the uses of data have evolved. Over the past three years, the research team have also moved from the University of Loughborough to the Rees Centre, Oxford University, so have used this time to reflect and plan next steps. This is why the Cost Calculator is moving to a web-based platform. As technology advances, users expect a more secure, efficient and intuitively designed interface. More local authorities are paying attention to collecting data and maintaining its quality. We have also seen more use of data dashboards and data visualisations. The sophisticated analytics provided by the Cost Calculator could empower local governments that are looking to make informed decisions and to strategise in response to increased demand for children’s social care.

To move to the next stage of development of the Cost Calculator we consider that the social enterprise model is best aligned to our needs. While it will make no profit, the social enterprise model provides an operable structure that enables both maintenance and development of the tool. Revenue will be generated through a clearly defined and affordable pricing model, which improves the financial sustainability of this social initiative. Revenue generation will be utilised for supporting the end-users and keeping up with the latest technology. Without a sustainable business model to support continuous development, the contribution of this academic research is likely to be short-lived.

The team is working on setting up the social enterprise so that this academic research can continue to make a contribution to a wider community in a meaningful and sustainable way. I will keep you updated on my journey through the SUCCESS programme – watch this space.

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