Monday, 12 October 2015

No, Minister

Over the years I have probably had more contact with the upper echelons of the British civil service than most people. In a variety of contexts I have had to deal with civil servants in the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Department for Education.

I was therefore very interested to read an article in the Independent that speaks of a ‘snake pit’ and ‘poisonous’ culture in the civil service that rejects outsiders. Apparently a report prepared for Government has found that senior officials are resistant to change and care more about process than results. Civil service structures are described as ‘unnecessarily hierarchical’.

Sadly I have to say that this reflects much of my experience of trying to persuade officials to consider various ways of improving child protection. Recent attempts by groups I work with to get some discussion of simple and cost effective ways of making practice safer through better understanding of how mistakes happen, and how a human factors perspective can help reduce and mitigate error, have fallen on what may only be called stony ground. A common response I have received involves endless, torturous, but ultimately fallacious, arguments against change and innovation combined with high-sounding statements that something similar is already being done, even when it manifestly is not. The impression I gained was that I was dealing with a small group of people whose jobs consist solely of finding reasons for doing nothing.

I was recently involved in preparing one paper arguing that Serious Case Reviews are poor guides to learning from mistakes and proposing a more promising alternative – critical incident reporting. After a long correspondence we were eventually assured that the problems we raised were already being dealt with – by Serious Case Reviews! We despaired.