Saturday, 3 March 2012

A Head for Figures?

I’ve been spending some time working through the British Government’s “Draft of Children’s Safeguarding Performance Information for Consultation” which was published in January and relates to England. A number of statistics surrounding child protection and related activity are proposed.

The consultation closes on the 16th April 2012, so there is still plenty of time to respond. I think doing so is a really important – although it is a somewhat technical issue – because if these ‘performance indicators’ are got wrong the child protection system, and those who work in it, could suffer the consequences for years ahead. 

So if you have strong views, a talent for constructive criticism or some good ideas, I would strongly urge you to contribute to the consultation, which you can do by visiting the following

It will take me sometime to prepare my response to this consultation in full, but my initial reactions are very mixed. I think that the Government has rightly accepted some of the suggestions made in the Munro Review, but  some odd additions and elaborations are being proposed, which begin to make the list look formidable. There is no point having lots of statistics if they do not relate clearly to what you want to achieve.

A deep and fundamental flaw in the whole presentation is the careless use of the word ‘performance’. In the first place there is no definition of whose performance is being referred to. And a lot of measures that are suggested do not measure any-one’s performance at all, such as the rate of violent and sexual offences against children, or the rate of attendance of children and young people at accident and emergency units for assaults, deliberate self harm and other accidents. It is vital to understand that these are important items of contextual information, but they are influenced by factors beyond any-one’s control, so they are not 'performance information'.

I think it would have helped greatly to have divided the whole lot up into four clearly demarcated areas:

  • Contextual information relevant to the demand for particular kinds of services at both national and local level
  • Information about inputs into locally based services, especially staffing
  • Information about the local operation itself based around quality, speed and cost
  • Information about outcomes, where this is available

I have also found the consultation document to be sloppily drafted. For example statistics are proposed about ‘newly qualified social worker posts’ (whatever they are?) when what is clearly intended is ‘the number of vacancies filled by newly qualified social workers’. And the authors also seem to have forgotten the word ‘children’s’ in front of the words ‘social workers’, because there is no point measuring lots to do with the health and morale of the adult social care workforce in an exercise devoted to understanding services to children.

Then there are the usual problems associated with ‘performance indicators’. I fear civil servants have still to come to terms with these difficulties. As long ago as 1966 Peter Blau*, an American expert on organisational behaviour, found that performance measures often result in behaviour that conflicts with organisational aims; employees are able to improve their performance on an indicator, while, and often as a result, organisational performance actually declines. Nearly 50 years later British civil servants still do not seem to have fully got the point!!

The dangers are perhaps greatest with indicators that measure the speed at which parts of the process are completed. Over the years there has been a pervasive failure to understand that speeding up a particular stage of a process may not result in speeding up the whole process; and in some circumstances may actually result in slowing it down. Processes run at the speed of the slowest bottleneck, so speeding up stages other than the bottleneck will have no positive effect, and, if resources are diverted away from the bottleneck, will slow the whole process down.

I will be publishing on this blog a summary of my full response to this consultation, so watch this space.

* Blau, P. M. The Dynamics of Bureaucracy, Chicago UP, 1966.