Let’s talk about directories. As more and more services are being designed to help people navigate an ever more complicated health and social care landscape, directories have become seen as one of the first things that any self-respecting health economy commissions.

It makes sense to try and understand the range of services in your locality. It makes sense for that information to sit in one, accessible, resource. Taking all that on board we don’t see directories as being a practical way to achieve either of these aims.

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time working in the field of health and social care knows, all projects are working towards the critical point where somebody says, “Let’s do a mapping exercise”. Everyone groans because we’ve all been there before. What we don’t address is why it keeps coming up.

The reasons are simple, mapping exercises are generally a snapshot in time and not created with an eye on how they will be sustained in the long run. They are perceived as providing an evidence base to support an individual service development but with little consideration of any practical value they might provide in day to day work.

Projects to create directories are beginning to replace mapping exercise as the default process of duplication and they suffer from many of the same problems.

The barriers to creating a directory have been vastly reduced due to the relative ease of creating websites. The pitfall many have fallen into is seeing the success of tools like Google and believing that it would be a great idea to replicate a search engine on a local level but with local services.

This misses the thing that makes a search engine unique. It isn’t the data it holds. It is the method it uses to gather new data, interpret that data and relate it to each search that is carried out. The background process is the key. Google would not be successful if they had taken a snap shot of the Internet in 1996 and hoped people would come and let them know if anything changed.

Which raises the question of how do you make directories current? Local directories rely on a relatively labour intensive manual process. Without the benefit of the ability to scrape and analyse data this must be done on a case by case basis.

In the West Midlands alone you have over 11,000 formal and informal community agencies operating. The churn in those organisations is going to be significant, the process required to monitor whether agencies still exist is significant. The cost of working out relevant search criteria is even more prohibitive. Do you interview the agency? Do you make an assessment based on their website? If the latter how do you achieve that consistently?

We decided to turn this process on its head in developing our Referral Tool.

We worked to a few basic principles: –
• Agencies only need to know about the partner agencies that are relevant to their clients
• Agencies know what they can deal with better than anyone else
• Integrating referrals into workflow makes the process current
• Crowd source the information
• Disperse the ability to keep information updated

We ask agencies to think through the most common issues that clients present to them. Not just the issues they can help with, all of them. Usually this breaks down as a maximum of twenty different issues.

We then ask them to identify at least one local agency who can support those issues. This can be through local knowledge or even through Google. To make the process even more responsive we also encourage agencies to contact each of those twenty to ask what the most appropriate way to refer to them is. This doesn’t need to be detailed contact, just an email. This is a useful test, if an agency cannot get clarity on the referral path then it can indicate how difficult making a referral can be in the future.

We also encourage every agency to list all the issues that they can help people with and the best method for making contact. That means they are managing their own listing and in control of their own referral process.

Each client that is assessed by a service can list all the things they want help and support with and instantly be given a list of all the most appropriate local services for those issues. No searching for individual issues, just one report that covers everything.

Because Referral Tool is integrated into the assessment process it is constantly used, which means that there is an incentive to keep the data current.

This approach to crowd sourcing a relatively small number of local agencies means that you can be up and running very quickly. Through spreading the responsibility for keeping information current, to the people that use it day to day, costs are massively reduced.

We make the software to do this available for free under an open license. Don’t waste money on building directories that lose relevance from the day they are finished, work together to control how you work with your partners.