A Service Punching Below Its Weight – Martin Cresswell in The MJ

October 31, 2013

It wouldn’t be an understatement to suggest there is a crisis developing in Children’s social care however we’ll reserve judgement over the next few months in anticipation of not just the governments movements but councils as well. The trajectory of Ofsted judgements is heading south, tougher inspection regimes and a new cadre of ‘serial offender councils’ who seem to bob in and out of inadequate from inspection to inspection. The Le Grand review is the latest manifestation of government frustration with the promise of ‘sector led improvement’ and the search for alternative delivery models.

What interests us is whether the nature of the difficulty that councils face is different in different places. Once in the serial offender bracket does the nature of the problem shift, and hence the content of solution needs to shift with it? Do Ofsted improvement plans only ever fight the last war, naming symptoms at the expense of causes? Is this increasingly noxious atmosphere shallowing the pool of Directors of Children’s Services? The answer resoundingly for us is yes.

The system we have in place to keep children safe and allow them strive is prone to sensitivity and fragility and once broken can take time to fix. Whilst there is often consensus that to make it work multiple agencies need to work together more effectively and trust one another we have noticed four universal stages of difficulty that services often face.

  1. The initial stage of difficulty can be characterised as losing grip. The service loses sight of its performance, flow slows down and the system begins to choke.
  2. This can quickly progress into service breakdown, this is where the difficulties begin to become chronic and the service fragments.
  3. The penultimate phase is best described as ‘systemic crisis’ where the service breakdown begins to affect other partners and agencies and they modify their behaviour to remain in touch with services. The service becomes insular and in a sense quarantines itself, making it difficult to work with partners.
  4. Finally we move into last phase, ‘Complete Lock’, where behaviours are altered by other parts of the system in anticipation of social care service difficulty. Reputation suffers greatly, leading to recruitment failure and in turn performance suffers further.

The point being that, that whilst some of the early stages of difficulty can be addressed quite rapidly by quick fix improvement plans the more complex issues will be poorly served. These are problems years in the making and will take time and commitment to rectify. The first stages of difficulty can be rectified by looking, predominantly, internally. Recruitment targets, tweaked reward package, new benchmarking etc. However, the later stages are when more profound changes are required and being external looking becomes the dominant posture, you must rebuild reputation and some cases create a whole new identity.

Fundamentally this about the prolonged mismatch between problems and solutions that has exacerbated those councils in ‘Complete Lock’. Successive mismatches lowers the sum of capacity available for change, belief begins to drain from the system, as such no one believes can ever get any better and in turn no one will invest in it. Until we collectively face up to this reality then it is difficult to see how we can break the cycle.

The answer is therefore one which has a fundamentally different approach to performance management. One which allows local authorities to make the sorts of intelligence based decisions that were otherwise impossible. This whole system needs to be underpinned culturally by a different way of working. One which places a pre-eminence on the child’s voice and values the consciousness this provides. This approach will force councils, Ofsted and Whitehall to consider their current attitude towards improvement in Children’s services and radically alter their behaviour in support of what we hope will be a new generation of service pioneers.

However, this can’t happen if councils focus exclusively on the obvious, like case load volume, at the expense of shifting the focus of the service. The former being a short term fix and the latter being the answer not just to the immediate questions of difficulty in the service but how it is made sustainable for the years ahead.

This focus on the causes of the problems as opposed to the symptoms will then open up the service to change in a way that means you can start to address the fundamentals such as; workforce stability, crucial to making any major transformation stick, however, nationally a 4% reduction in social work vacancies since 2010 and the varying degrees of agency social worker usage within councils have made this issue more acute for a number of councils. Or, Management vs Leadership, councils have invested significantly in leadership development but we have been unable to find any data that shows local government has been matching that with investment in management training. Big shifts in services require competent and well trained managers; can we be confident we have enough of those based on the level of investment in the development of these skills?

At its core we’re talking about a sector wide movement for change in Children’s services. This can’t be achieved by a single pioneering authority and its partners. Rather we need a concerted effort by local government, external providers, Whitehall and Ofsted to create the latitude for councils to deal with these long term issues. In doing this we can begin to move away from expensive and futile short termist measures towards a more viable and responsive service.

Therefore, we believe there needs to be a new national conversation. The issues we are confronting are not isolated to the few most public cases. They are universal. The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. We need to talk about Children’s services.

As featured in The MJ, 3rd September 2013

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