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IMPOWER Advisor, Mark Owers, shares reflections on NCASC – 2022 and beyond

Mark Owers

I attended the National Children and Adult Services Conference (NCASC22) earlier this month in my new role as advisor to IMPOWER.

It was wonderful to catch up with so many friends and colleagues that I have not seen for such a long time. It was also heartening, as ever, to be in the company of people who care so deeply about improving the lives of our countries most vulnerable children, young people and adults.

But, it was very difficult to be amongst people struggling to meet the needs of those they try so hard to serve. In the past, we have used the terms “unprecedented”, “perfect storm” and “crisis”, too lightly. They are now very accurate ways to describe the challenges local authorities are facing – significant demand, greater complexity of need, insufficient care settings, a failing children’s mental health system, the impact of the pandemic, funding gaps, the rising cost of living, and more children in poverty. And all this at a time when it is incredibly difficult to attract and retain high quality social workers, and managers, and the multitude of other roles critical to the success of public service delivery.

Desperate times. But what hope?

It was abundantly clear from everyone that I spoke to that Directors of Children’s Services and Services for Adults, and their teams, remain as passionate and resolute as ever to do their very best for children, young people and adults.

The independent review of children’s social care brings many opportunities for change. It is clear that the sector wants to – needs to – get behind the recommendations, albeit with understandable caution given the multitude of day-to-day issues being tackled. The proposed Regional Care Co-operatives are causing the most anxiety, and we must ensure we do the ‘hard thinking’, and test them thoroughly, as their wholescale rollout could cripple the system.

I particularly enjoyed the session on the work that ADCS and ADASS do via Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliances, which is evidently having a real impact – for example, the changing profile of Ofsted judgements. Sector led improvement, and peer-to-peer support, with the right balance of complimentary inspection, is clearly the right way forward.

The workshops throughout the week demonstrated there is much that can be done that doesn’t require changes to the law or the regulations. The power of innovation was palpable when there is courageous and determined leadership.

The session on Transitional Safeguarding was an excellent example of the extent of change that is already in the gift of local authority children’s and adults’ services.

Local government has long understood its responsibilities and accountabilities. But, it is less clear who is responsible and accountable for the children’s social care system. As Steve Crocker aptly put it in his opening speech, “We are entirely aware of the irony of a legislative framework that places 298 (at the last count) statutory duties on us, but not a single lever that gives us significant influence over the system as a whole.”

There is a serious vacuum in leadership for all to see. This has long been the case, but the gap is more apparent than ever before, when we are faced with such a multitude of obstacles and challenges to delivery. The system needs strong, unambiguous, and determined leadership. This was a message I heard time and again throughout the week, particularly in the absence of Ministers and senior government officials.

I think system leadership should come from local Chief Executives, Members and Directors themselves, through a more robust, proactive and integrated Solace, ADCS, ADASS and LGA. We need the four membership organisations to come together to agree how best to lead the system, and to meet the collective needs of their members. They are perfectly placed to bring together all the local intelligence on context, needs, costs and sufficiency, to inform national planning, delivery, innovation and review. Of course, they must work closely with Government, and other national stakeholders, but they are best placed to ‘seize the day’.

And we most certainty need more money – another key message throughout the week! But to be fair, we don’t really know, and nor does the Treasury, what the current expenditure buys, and whether we get value for money. We need local leaders, through their national membership organisations, to develop a better understanding of needs, spend and outcomes, and what that tells us about the state of local delivery, and the system as a whole. A key aim of my work with IMPOWER is to help the sector to respond to this challenge.

My hope for next year’s NCASC, is for all delegates to be convened, to consider the national achievements and obstacles since this year’s conference, including value for money, and a space to debate the strategic priorities for the system in the year ahead. How we work effectively on the front line, and collectively and collaboratively to improve the system, should be a key reason why we all attend NCASC.

I am already looking forward to next year’s conference…

Written by

Mark Owers




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