Friday 21 August 2020

Not alone

Southampton City Council Children’s Services Department has been found by an independent investigation to have fostered a ‘culture of fear’ and allowed senior managers to override practice decisions taken in children’s best interests. 

Southampton is not alone. The same report could have been written about many local authorities in Britain today. Cash-strapped and overstretched, managers resort to coercion and oppression to get the job done. The victims are children (service users) and frontline staff. 


It is not good enough. No, it is unacceptable!


One of the most telling findings in Malcom Newsam’s report is that Southampton Council fostered a culture of fear in children’s services. 


He  found the following:

  • “An expressed fear of speaking out- this included highlighting errors, challenging tactics, offering a different opinion to some leaders
  • “The current working environment is chaotic. It was described as a blame culture
  • “Communication at all levels was considered to be ineffective and uncoordinated
  • “There was a strong sense of a top down imposition. A high number of the problems and challenges were known about and had been reported however it was considered the front-line staff were not engaged openly or respectfully by some senior leaders
  • “The style, tone and timeliness of communication from the leadership team or insome instances the lack of it has created resentment confusion and anxiety.”

This is not just bad management practice, it is dangerous management practice. Silencing dissent and blaming hapless individuals results in only one thing: employees who are too frightened to speak out when things go wrong. Organisations which allow those conditions to develop and persist will eventually discover, too late, that the latent conditions for disaster have been developing unreported because the people who knew – frontline staff – were assured that they would not be listened to and blamed for raising concerns.

Friday 20 December 2019

West Sussex – a toxic culture?

It is difficult to imagine an organisation less likely to succeed in delivering good quality children’s services than that recounted in a report on West Sussex County Council. An article summarising the report in Community Care uses the word ‘toxic’ to describe the organisation’s culture.

The report identifies the following problems many of which it says have been modelled from the top of the organisation:
  • a significant bullying problem
  • unacceptable behaviour by senior managers and politicians 
  • a longstanding and casual disrespect for individuals
  • lack of organisational self-awareness 
  • refusal to accept criticism or bad news 
  • reluctance to raise or address problems
  • no room for respectful uncertainty or challenge
  • unnecessary layers of management 
  • confused thinking
  • disagreement not tolerated
If you wanted to create a badly run organisation it is hard to see how you could be more certain of getting one than by doing what is recounted here. It beggars belief how a toxic organisation such as the one described could have been created and sustained in the light of all we know about how to do difficult tasks well. 

After years and years of Ofsted inspections, and a litany of serious case reviews and public enquiries, how on earth can people still be so deeply ignorant of how to motivate and develop staff and managers? It is as if there are still pockets of children’s services in Britain that function like medieval fiefdoms. And despite all the fanfare of inspection and audit and scrutiny, they somehow survive, wrecking the lives of the people they employ and failing to safeguard, protect and meet the needs of the children they are designed to serve. 

It makes me wonder if the whole inspection/audit panoply does any good at all. After more than ten years of Ofsted, surely toxic organisations should be a thing of the past? But inspection has not resulted in improvement across the board and pockets of awfulness seem to persist unrelentingly. We need to think again.

The report concludes:
“What is also clearly evident from almost every discussion, is that there has been little space in the council or the service at any senior level, for respectful uncertainty, discussion, consideration or disagreement. This has been critical in the systemic failure of Children’s Services which are, by their very nature, complex, contested and uncertain. Managers talked about being unable to raise problems and that disagreement was not tolerated.” (p 33)
That of course is what concerns me most. You cannot hope to create safe, high quality services if you do not allow people to raise problems or if you do not tolerate disagreement. It is completely unsafe to try to silence those who want to report problems or issues or to dissent from current orthodoxy. A culture of denial and blame creates dangerous organisations in which leaders do not know where the edges of many perilous cliffs are located. Sooner or later it results in tragedy.

Sunday 3 November 2019

Understanding ‘deeper causes’

Kenan Malik has written a very thought provoking article in today’s Observer

Looking at two recent tragedies - the Grenfell Tower disaster and the deaths of 39 migrants trapped in a refrigerated container – he argues that there is… "a deeper cultural tendency to focus on the proximate causes of social tragedies and to ignore, or downplay, more distant but often more significant issues”. 

In the case of Grenfell Tower this tendency, he argues, is evidenced by the way in which the inquiry has first focused on the actions (or inactions) of individual and groups of firefighters, while shelving issues relating to the building’s cladding, the deregulation of fire safety and failures of policy and ministerial oversight for the inquiry’s second stage. 

In the case of the migrants’ deaths he argues that the tendency is evidenced by focus on the ‘evil’ smugglers, rather than on factors which predispose to creating a demand for smuggling people into countries like Britain. 

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to see how this analysis can be extended to child protection tragedies. So often the focus is on individual workers’ failings and shortcomings, while there is frequently a tendency to ignore the deeper causes – factors such as pressurised working environments, excessive caseloads, lack of resources and political malaise.

Understanding the deeper causes of any tragedy requires an open responsive safety culture in which there is a willingness to go far beyond laying the blame on the usual suspects. We need to focus on uncovering and analysing information which can really help to make systems safer. And to do that we have to have an open, just reporting culture in which people feel free to talk about what went wrong without the fear that they will be singled out and blamed if they do.

We need to ask the question why? again and again and again. Why did a particular worker fail to see something which with the benefit of hindsight seems obvious? Why was a communication ignored or misunderstood? Why did a particular decision seem reasonable at the time? 

The answers to these ‘why’ questions are likely to be found in the design of systems, the availability of resources and the cultures of organisations – not in superficial accounts of individual failings. 

Wednesday 31 July 2019

Compliance and Cover-up

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to conclude that there must have been a toxic culture of cover-up and denial in Nottinghamshire and the City of Nottingham. The Guardian quotes Professor Alexis Jay, chair of The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse as saying:  
“For decades, children who were in the care of the Nottinghamshire councils suffered appalling sexual and physical abuse, inflicted by those who should have nurtured and protected them.
“Those responsible for overseeing the care of children failed to question the extent of sexual abuse or what action was being taken. Despite decades of evidence and many reviews showing what needed to change, neither of the councils learned from their mistakes, meaning that more children suffered unnecessarily.” 

What takes a great deal more thinking about is how a toxic culture of cover-up and denial came about. Of course there may have been some very bad, and very incompetent, people in key positions, but that does not explain why the abuse went unaddressed for years and years, persisting for decades despite scrutiny and audit and inspection and all the other apparatus of local government.

I suspect that an important factor must have been a corporate mindset in which people knew what happened if they raised concerns or spoke out. Rather than an open reporting culture in which everybody is encouraged to speak out if they see bad or dangerous practice, or if they see wrongdoing, it seems likely that there must have been an expectation that people kept quiet and toed the line. If you had a suspicion something was not right, you didn’t talk to your boss or your colleagues about it. You buttoned your lip, convinced yourself that you must be paranoid and kept your head down.

The frightening thing is that many of us have been there. On a few occasions in my own career the thought that something might be seriously amiss with the behaviour of a colleague crossed my mind. And on each occasion I convinced myself that I was over-reacting and when I woke up the following morning I had convinced myself that my own judgement was wrong and I felt relieved that I wasn’t going to make myself hugely unpopular.

But perhaps I should have said something? Who knows? In one instance things came to light many years later and it all made sense, but at the time I would have needed someone to help me overcome my own self-doubts and what I have to confess were not unreasonable fears about what happened to whistle-blowers in the organisation I worked for. 

Only a change to the culture of local authorities and other health and social care organisations will make a difference. Somehow we all have to become much more committed to openness and frankness. Those who perpetrate abuse in organisations survive and sometimes flourish because they understand how the toxic culture of cover-up and denial works. If it wasn’t there, they probably wouldn’t be there either; but if they were, they would not dare to abuse a child.

Compliance cultures – in which employees are expected to toe the corporate line – not only frustrate proper learning and corporate development. They foster exactly the kind of silence that nurtures and protects abusers and puts children at risk.

Sunday 28 July 2019

Children's Minister

No sooner had I lamented the tardiness of the Johnson government in appointing a children’s minister than one popped up!

Mrs Kemi Badenock MP is the new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families. You can read about her at:

A cursory glance at her biography does not provide much evidence of previous involvement in children’s issues (apart from having been a school governor). In that she does not differ much from many of her predecessors.

The Conservative Home website featured an interview with her in 2017, with the prominent quote: “I’m not really left-leaning on anything.. I always lean right instinctively”. 

That might give us a clue about how she will approach her new job, but, of course, we need to wait and see.  

Saturday 27 July 2019

What’s happened to the Children’s Minister?

Boris Johnson’s government reshuffle resulted in the person appointed children’s minister by Theresa May, Nadhim Zahawi, being moved to a new job at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 

As yet there is no news of who will succeed him and indeed the Department for Education’s website is mysteriously uninformative about what is happening. Other ministers in the department are listed, but there is not even a ‘situation vacant’ mention of the children’s minister role. 

Hopefully they haven’t forgotten about this important post altogether or, worse still, abolished it by stealth! 

Sadly Theresa May reduced the importance of this post to Parliamentary Under Secretary of State level, whereas previously it had been filled by a Minister of State. Yet it is vital to have a senior figure in charge of children’s social care to co-ordinate, among other things, safeguarding and child protection services. 

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Children’s social workers: are tea and coffee cures for sickness absence?

I didn’t know whether to be amused or whether to be driven to despair when I read that researchers from the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care were planning a study into whether providing free, high-quality tea and coffee at work reduces social worker sickness absence rates.

I did go to the trouble of reading their project outline and was impressed by the statistical sophistication of their randomised control trial design and by the impressive affiliations of members of the project team (Harvard Business School and UCL School of Management). 
What I wasn’t impressed by was the thinking behind this study.

My first thought was: have these people heard of Herzberg? 

Every management student learns at the beginning of their introductory course in organisational behaviour about Herzberg’s two factor theory. In the 1950s Herzberg distinguished between what he called ‘motivators’ (achievement, recognition, growth, advancement, responsibility and the work itself) and ‘hygiene factors’ (salary, status, company policy, security, supervision and working conditions). He argued that only the motivators were sources of satisfaction at work while hygiene factors were sources of dissatisfaction. We can include tea and coffee in hygiene factors because they are a part (and only a small part) of working conditions.

The outrage of some of the tweets quoted in the Community Care article on this research seems to be due to children’s social workers feeling patronised by the suggestion that all they need to work more effectively may be unlimited free hot drinks. Very rightly some say that what they want is more scope for achievement and more responsibility for their work. 

One, Tracey @traceycjwright, is quoted as saying: “It's absolutely patronising. We need more staff, less paperwork and much less arse covering processes. Give us the time to build relationships and provide actual support. Maybe even throw in some positive reinforcement and appreciation in supervision.” It seems that Tracey wants more motivators, not more hygiene factors and I expect that most children’s social workers would agree with her. 

Most children's social workers who burn out or go off sick with stress, chronic fatigue, anxiety or depression do not do so because of domestic arrangements in the office. They go off sick because they find their jobs overwhelming, anxiety provoking and deeply dispiriting.

My second thought on reading about this research was: do they know anything about sickness absence? 

Nearly 20 years ago now, I did some research for a medium sized local authority in the south of England, which provided the full range of services including children’s services. The chief executive wanted to know about sickness absence and how to reduce it. I was able to download many years of sickness absence data from the authority’s HR IT system and analyse it. The first thing that was apparent was that sickness absence was very much higher in certain units of the council than it was in others. Employees who daily faced members of the public in what might be called ‘challenging circumstances’ were hugely more likely to sign off sick than employees who worked in offices and had little contact with the public. 

The highest sickness absence rates were among emergency housing officers, parking wardens and social workers. Children’s services, in particular, had alarming rates of sickness absence compared to the finance and IT and other administrative departments of the council.

The second thing I found was that the pattern of sickness absence was characterised by what is called a Pareto distribution (sometimes known as an 80:20 distribution). In fact about 80% of the sickness absence was caused by less than 20% of all employees. There was a small group of people who were chronically and seriously sick and who had to take off many days each year. In the administrative jobs (finance, IT etc.) these tended to be people who had heart attacks, diabetes or cancer. In children’s services the main causes of sickness absence were anxiety, stress and depression.  
My guess is that most of the sickness absence in the children's services departments where the What Works Centre’s research project will take place is explained by a few people who have serious chronic conditions, some due to the stressful work they undertake. Rates of sickness absence are unlikely to vary greatly as a result of most people taking a few more or a few less ‘sickies’ and they are very unlikely to be influenced by hygiene factors such as the provision of hot drinks. 

Tackling this kind of sickness absence requires not simply nudges – it requires serious thought about the design of the services and the effect of the design on the health and happiness of employees. That, in my humble opinion, is what the What Works Centre should be researching.