Saturday, 12 November 2016

Good News - Clause 29 may be dead

It is very good news that the House of Lords has voted to strike out Clause 29 of the Children and Social Work Bill which many feared would give ministers sweeping powers to exempt some local authorities from their legal obligations to act to protect the rights of children and young people.

Of course, the clause may be re-inserted when the Bill goes back to the Commons, but Lord Ramsbotham’s amendment is a very welcome shot across the bows of what promised to be very bad legislation. The government should now think again – and think very hard.

Clause 29 was under-pinned by what might charitably be described as ‘confused thinking’; but some may prefer to call it double talk, deception and spin. Ministers and civil servants have argued that council children’s services departments are ‘over-regulated’. In order to improve services, the argument goes, it is necessary to free local authorities from regulation so that they can to innovate and so develop better services. Ergo it needs to be possible for regulation (legislation including parts of the Children Act 1989) to be rolled back at the discretion of ministers to allow freedom of action to authorities willing to innovate.

As Isabelle Trowler, the Chief Social Worker for Children (a civil service post), argued in a recent letter [1]:

“If we don’t support this power (Clause 29) we can no longer complain that the system is too bureaucratic and that we are hamstrung by legislation. The title of the clause is ‘power to test a different way of working’. It is about testing, trialling, piloting, and researching other, better ways of delivery support to and protecting children. This is our chance to test different ways of working to do the right thing, and we must seize it.”

We could argue for some time about the extent to which local authorities are “hamstrung” by legislation. My own view is that most of the bureaucracy that hangs, like a dark cloud, over children’s services stems not from legislation but from custom and practice. It consists of ways of working driven by insistent demands for accountability and the pervasive fear that no-one wants to be caught out if things go wrong. It resides in complicated procedures and complex forms and labyrinthine assessment checklists and associated computer systems, which have been designed to meet the needs of managers and inspectors and auditors and central government officials, not practitioners and service users. It resides in a culture of management which insists that decisions are taken by laborious escalation and that resources are controlled centrally and that professional discretion and professional knowledge are not respected and not trusted. It stems from attitudes that it is better to undertake an assessment than to provide a service or that it is better to hold a series of meetings between managers and practitioners, rather than meeting with, and listening to, a child or young person.

In short, I think there are some more obvious culprits than legislation when it comes to deciding what is responsible for causing bureaucracy in children’s services. My view is: don’t blame the Children Act 1989 for bureaucracy, look nearer to home!

The other part of the government’s case for Clause 29 concerns the issue of innovation. ‘Innovation’ is one of those words that sounds like we should all be in favour of it; a word like ‘democracy’, ‘inventive’, ‘humanitarian’, ‘insightful’, ‘homely’, ‘comforting’. But first impressions can be misleading, not least because, as we all know, there can be both good and bad innovations. Atomic and chemical weapons were innovations once, as was sliced white bread, reality TV shows and apartheid. In all probability bad innovations out-number the good many fold.

Not only that but lots of innovations are failures. Recent research by Beth Altringer [2] of the Harvard Business School found innovation projects in global companies across diverse sectors failed between 70% and 90% of the time. That makes innovation an expensive and wasteful process.

I am not entirely against innovation, but it is no simple remedy for services in which there are widely acknowledged quality problems. Indeed, it is completely the wrong approach. Let me explain why.

An absolutely fundamental principle of quality management, stemming from the work of one of the founding fathers of the subject, William Edwards Deming [3], is that there is no point in making fundamental changes to an operation or process to improve quality unless you understand the causes of variation and poor quality in the process. If we want to improve quality, we must improve the system of production and to do that we must understand how the system works and where its failures and shortfalls occur. The kinds of innovations which the Department for Education’s ‘Innovation Programme’ has funded are mostly what might be called interesting, even inventive, ideas which may or may not work [4]. And those who are working to implement them (managers, practitioners, academics) and those that fund them (politicians and civil servants) have not based the designs on a rigorous understanding of what causes poor quality in children’s services; they have just said “It may be better to do it this way, let’s try”. That might be OK if we had lots of time and resources to “let a thousand flowers blossom” [5], but we don’t. Not only that, but blind experimenting on the live system – the services which are actually being delivered to children and young people – is distracting and disorientating for the people who deliver the services - and often also for the people who receive them; the more so if the familiar sign-posts and standards of legislation have been rolled back.

Deming also tells us that the correct approach to higher quality and productivity is to “… improve constantly and forever the system of production and service”. In trying to reform child protection the government should have realised that what is required is not innovation but improvement. Of course an innovation may result in an improvement, but equally it may not. Deming, on the other hand sees the true path to improvement as only being achieved when everybody in the organisation works on a regular daily basis to understand the causes of poor quality and to accomplish a transformation in the way in which things are done. The Japanese manufacturers who took Deming’s philosophy forward in the 1950s instituted a practice of continuous improvement which is called Kaizen [6]. The idea is that rather than large scale discontinuous changes being the route to higher quality and productivity, what counts most are frequent small changes which cumulate to greatly improved manufacturing or service processes. In an organisation committed to Kaizen every worker is expected every day to think not just about her or his job but also how her or his work, and associated processes, can be improved. Doing the job and constantly improving the job are simultaneous activities.

Kaizen is credited with bringing about the phenomenal transformation of Japanese manufacturing which began after the Second World War. I doubt very much that the government’s Innovation Programme will be credited with any lasting improvement to children’s services in England. Much more likely is that some new ways of working will briefly flourish, almost certainly with mixed, or very mixed, or (most likely) no results. Meanwhile serious service failures will continue to occur unabated and in a few years it will all be back at square one, with another government and another minister and another chief social worker coming up with yet another cunning wheeze.

What children and young people, and the people who provide them with services, want and need are not ill-considered innovations. They need services which are continuously improving; services which will always be becoming safer and better as time goes by. Not here today and gone tomorrow flashes in the pan – and certainly not Clause 29.


[1] A copy of this letter, dated 19th October, has recently been shown to me. It is not clear to whom it is addressed, but it is headed “Dear Colleagues” and I suspect that the recipients were Directors of Children’s Services.
[2] Beth Altringer “A New Model for Innovation in Big Companies” Harvard Business Review November 19, 2013
[3] Deming, W. E. (1986). Out of the Crisis. MIT Press.
[4] See the Spring Consortium website for summaries of some of the projects
[5] A quotation from a speech by Mao Zedong in Peking in February 1957: "Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land."

[6] Imai, Masaaki (1986). Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success. New York: Random House.