“Imagine Amazon for Disabled Children & Families; that’s SENDirect.”

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It’s a year since we interviewed SENDirect on behalf of School for Social Entrepreneurs Australia. SENDirect is a new concept of personalised information and support for disabled children and their families. They’re one of our UK case studies on SSE Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme Accelerator Program. For the first time, here’s the case study in full:

SENDirect is a brand new online brokerage portal for disabled children and young people’s services. Conceptually, a close comparison would be to imagine an Amazon-style website where disabled children, their families and professionals can browse services in their area, read reviews from others and book those services online using their personal budgets or direct payments.

The site launched in September 2014 with 150 services on offer and SENDirect hopes to list 3000 services on the site by March 2015. The service is not independently constituted and exists as a consortium hosted by Contact a Family and working in partnership with a number of national disability organisations, including Scope, Mencap and The National Autistic Society.

Key government departments, including the Department of Health and Department for Education, have invested £1.2 million in developing the service, but SENDirect needs to be self- sustaining by April 2015 when this start up capital comes to an end and the consortium is considering social enterprise as a potential model to secure a sustainable future for the service.

The Business Model
The SENDirect model is structured in three main parts; the website enables families to set up a profile with details about their needs and a wish list that can be viewed by their social worker or other commissioners, or shared with providers who may consider developing new services in response to demand.

Secondly, there is a wiki-element to the site whereby families and commissioners can access a range of relevant information to inform decisions about services, such as advice for employing a personal assistant using direct payments or support for local councils to deliver their statutory duty to disabled children.

SENDirect commits to maintaining accurate information for families and will remove anything that’s out of date or no longer relevant. Thirdly, the business seeks to develop the market for disabled children and young people by proactively monitoring search information and site activity to determine which services are most in demand, identify gaps in service and develop a shared language to increase the understanding between families, commissioners and providers to as to what each party needs in order to deliver services most effectively.

Supportive Factors
SENDirect is a trailblazer, the first service of its kind in the UK. Its development is largely in response to new legislation which came into force in the UK on 1st September 2014 as part of the Children and Families Act 2014. The Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) reforms, as they’re commonly known, have introduced a raft of changes designed to improve services, increase the focus on outcomes and give disabled children and their families greater say in the services provided on their behalf.

The concept of SENDirect was being discussed by partners prior to sweeping financial cuts to services for disabled children and young people which increased the need for local councils to develop new delivery models and do things differently, which has enabled conversations that would not have been possible before.

The consortium is supported by an expert advisory network of 600 parents and professionals who assist in developing the offer but, whilst the legislative context and initial government funds have been a boost for SENDirect, the service is very much a startup and the challenges it faces may resonate with other young social enterprises at a similar stage in their development.

Challenges
The greatest challenge for SENDirect is that the concept is currently unproven and, despite extensive consultation with families and relevant professionals, it’s very much a leap of faith.

SENDirect provides a platform for families to take control of their support and, whilst individual budgets and direct payments have been available in the UK for some time, it’s still a relatively new concept of providing support and is not universally understood, so the consortium works hard to explain the key benefits.

Furthermore, openness and transparency is key to the site functioning well, but there has been initial concern from some providers who would prefer not to disclose their costs to competitors who may bid against them in other tender processes. SENDirect also tries to manage the natural conflict that can exist between families who want services that make their children happy and commissioners who want children to be happy but also have an eye on positive outcomes and costs.

The final challenge comes from building a strong portfolio of service providers when the benefits remain unknown; it’s an unusual ask for a sector that prefers to see things work before deciding to invest their limited time and limited resources.

Sustainability
SENDirect is designed with sustainability in mind and, when its grant ends, the consortium have four income streams in mind.
In the UK, local authorities are required to publish their local offer of services for disabled children and SENDirect provides a platform for them to do so, combined with tracking tools. Commissioners can see everything on offer and their liability is reduced by the quality assurance undertaken by SENDirect.

Although providers can currently advertise their services on the site for free, the long term plan is for providers to pay to promote their services and via tiered packages and support levels.

SENDirect seeks to develop its own services to generate income and enhance its offer to disabled children and has had early success in delivering training in personalisation. Finally, SENDirect receives a transaction fee of 4-7% when a service is purchased through the site, which mostly goes to Paypal.

Next Steps
The main priority for SENDirect at the moment is getting the platform right for disabled children and young people and commissioners and providers in the UK.

With the balloons from its September launch barely deflated; the consortium is already considering how to develop the service further down the line and is exploring the potential to licence the software and framework internationally, or replicate the model entirely according to the needs of potential host countries.

The advantage for SENDirect is that, as a truly user-led model open to market forces, anything is possible; but it’s widely anticipated that the service will create huge improvements for disabled children and young people with support and a wide range of services to choose from only a mouse-click away.

Want to be NDIS ready? SSE Australia are recruiting for the second round of their NDIS Accelerator programme, aimed at preparing the disability service sector to overcome obstacles and embrace opportunities ahead of the NDIS roll out. The next programme kicks off in October 2015 and expressions of interest are now open – register your interest today.

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