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.