Why social care is like a Jackson Pollock painting

By Rich Watts, Programme Lead, Mental Health at the National Development Team for inclusion

SCIE opinion – 23 March 2015

Jackson Pollock was an American abstract expressionist painter who used to ‘drip’ the paint on his canvas. If you try to work out where the lines go, it can be impossible. It was a complex set of webs he painted.

Our concept of social care as a cohesive ‘system’ can compromise our ability to understand how complex it really is. I think that the need to change social care, to meet all future demands, requires us to think in a much more sophisticated way.

Let’s start by questioning whether social care is even a ‘system’ at all. The formal definition of a system includes ideas like having a fixed structure with a range of defined parts. Effects tend to follow causes, no matter how complicated the arrangements are. If one thing is changed over here it probably alters another thing over there.

This way of thinking has its attractions, not least of all to politicians, because it suggests that if only the right levers can be pulled, then the right sorts of changes will happen. But to me, social care feels like it’s too mechanistic. The picture we have of social care is less like a Pollock painting and more like one by Dutch ‘De Stijl’ artist Piet Mondrian. He used a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and the three primary colours. It’s cohesive, it makes a sort of sense, it has patches of bright colour but it all of which exists within a rigid structure. Just like some would like to see in social care.

Breakfast guests at a recent roundtable hosted by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) suggested that a better way of thinking about this is to recognise the complexity of what we might call the ‘social care ecosystem’. So, let’s celebrate Pollock, and give Mondrian the brush-off.

I think that this complex concept of social care, working as an ecosystem, better reflects reality. Its ‘living organisms’ are the vast array of stakeholders in social care. But what’s its goal: More money? Less demand? More integration? Less integration? More care homes? More community provision? Better care for people? Better lives for people?

To change social care, we therefore need a much more sophisticated way to approach change. What does this look like? SCIE’s roundtable identified three possibilities to start things off:

  1. Creating spaces in which the right mix of people, organisations, power, expertise, experience, styles, and cultures is brought together. SCIE call this co-production.
  2. Putting people at the centre of their care and support, through personalised approaches
  3. Recognising that some approaches, particularly by smaller provider organisations, are working well precisely because their distinctive characteristics work best at a certain scale.

I love the work of both of the painters I’ve talked about here, but it’s Pollock who we should think of when we look at improving social care and its complex ecosystem.


SCIE’s co-production resources

SCIE’s Care Act 2014 resources

Better Care Fund implementation support programme

National Development Team for inclusion