Monday, 27 August 2018

More fiddling while Rome burns

They say that the Roman emperor Nero played his fiddle while the city burned. The phrase ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ means doing something ineffectual at a time of great crisis. Somebody certainly seems to have been playing a fiddle while the cash-strapped Northamptonshire County Council has been edging closer to collapse. 

An article in Children and Young People Now details a sorry story of messing about with plans to establish a limited company, to be called Children's First Northamptonshire, to deliver children’s services. This idea has now been scrapped because of uncertainty about the future arrangements for local government in Northamptonshire with the possibility of two new unitary authorities being created. How much time and effort and money has been frittered away, I wonder, in planning for this outsourcing only for it all to be put on hold.

Not that putting outsourcing on hold is altogether a bad idea. I have a lot of sympathy with the Unison Northamptonshire branch secretary, Penny Smith, who is quoted by Children and Young People Now as saying that outsourcing is unpopular with staff and that adding yet another layer of responsibility is not good for the children who are receiving services.

Messing about with structures and flirting with outsourcings and privatisations can squander time and money to no good end. And it focuses attention in the wrong place. Good high quality services don’t miraculously come about because governance arrangements are altered to reflect the ideologies of leaders. They come about because careful detailed attention is given to understanding the causes of poor quality and service failures and empowering staff at all levels to make the necessary improvements. 

Big plans often end in tears. On the other hand, frequent small changes, based on the knowledge and experience of frontline workers, can cumulate quickly to improve continuously the quality of services. Let’s hope that what happens next in Northamptonshire is based on a sensible improvement strategy; not an ideological pipe dream. 

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Act in haste ….

“Act in haste, repent at leisure” – so says the old proverb. But acting in haste appears to be what failing local authority children’s services in England are being required to do by the inspectorate, Ofsted, and by central government, in the shape of the Department for Education, which is responsible for child protection policy.

An article in Children and Young People Now reports that Ofsted is to require failing councils to produce a draft improvement plan within 20 days, as opposed to the existing arrangement of 70 days.

To some that may sound like good news, because prompt action sounds business-like. But to my mind it is likely to encourage a rush to judgement and even more top-down imposition of so-called ‘improvements’. 

When things go wrong in an organisation, and the quality of its services declines, the first thing to do is to put in hand activities which will establish what has gone wrong and why. That’s what I call ‘analysis’ – understanding the extent and causes of poor quality. Now whatever else it is, analysis is not easy. It requires reflection and self-criticism and insight. It requires data collection and probing and evaluation. It requires thought – lots of it. And it requires time.

Shooting from the hip happens when management reacts to a situation too rapidly: quick, we need to act, do something. Nearly always shooting from the hip leads to more problems than it solves. There is one thing worse than not tackling a problem; it is tackling the wrong problem. 

Twenty days is a very short period of time – less than three weeks. I would guess that rapidly composed improvement plans will be disproportionately influenced by senior managers, because there will not be time to include people across the organisation in a rush to get the plan agreed. That means that it is likely that the people who know most about the extent and causes of poor quality – those who work at the front line of service provision – will not be involved. And when senior managers begin to implement their plan it is more likely than not that it will not be received with enthusiasm by practitioners. It is likely to appear to them as being off-target and unrealistic. 

The key to better children’s services is not flash-in-the-pan rapid reaction. It is systematic, careful and insightful analysis. Somehow I don’t think that Ofsted and the Government have learnt that yet.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Worcestershire - musical chairs?

I struggle to see why transferring children’s services from Worcestershire Council to a company wholly owned by Worcestershire Council is likely to have much impact other than making governance more complex. 

The Government seems preoccupied with issues of ownership and organisation, which seem to me to be only indirectly related to improvement. You don’t get better services by changing ownership arrangements or by reorganising or by adopting a new name.

You do get better services by gaining a full objective understanding of how current services fall short and by putting in place arrangements for everybody to be involved in continuous improvement. 

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Northamptonshire … and the rest

With English local councils such as Northamptonshire and East Sussex succumbing to the long-term impact of austerity and embarking on savage cuts and major reductions in their services, it is only right for England’s Children Commissioner, Anne Longfield, to issue a dire warning about the impact of sustained shortfalls in funding on the extent and quality of services to vulnerable children. 

A key part of her analysis is that available funds are being increasingly concentrated on children with extremely high needs, leaving little for anyone else. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that approximately 50% of spending on children’s services in England is devoted to the 70,000 children who are in care and a further 30% goes to children for whom there is a child protection plan. That leaves only 20% for preventative work and early intervention. And now authorities like Northamptonshire are struggling to maintain even the core work. In short, they are teetering on the cliff edge.

Ministers appear bizarrely sanguine about this dire state of affairs. They have been told for years that the rising workload of children’s services combined with austerity funding is a recipe of eventual meltdown. And they have just sat there and done very little.