Friday, 25 April 2014

Openness, honesty and power in child protection

Professor Ray Jones makes some good points in his article in the Guardian about how to improve inadequate child protection services.

Top of my list is his insistence on an ‘honest and open’ culture.

Jones argues that it is likely that services will have become inadequate because there is a pre-existing “culture of top managers being uninformed”. Thus there is a need:

·       To build trust and commitment
·       For managers to be visible and available
·       For there to be reduced distance between tiers of management
·       For “difficulties to be heard, rather than to remain unspoken”

What Jones does not explore, however, is why these factors are so often absent. The list above sounds eminently sensible, but all too often we encounter organisations providing children’s services in which top managers are remote and sometimes even arrogant. Elaborate hierarchies have developed and senior managers do not want to hear about difficulties. As I was once told by a senior manager when I was a team leader, “We don’t want to hear about your problems, we only want to hear about successes”!!

The greatest dangers are encountered in the territory of admitting to mistakes and errors. Recent experience suggests to me that there is still little national or local commitment to developing cultures in which people are not just allowed to talk about errors and failings, but positively encouraged and rewarded for doing so. But without open, honest frank and widespread discussion of how things go wrong, however will they be put right?

In the meantime organisations that willfully fail to learn from mistakes will continue to provide services that are inherently unsafe.

My own view is that the difficulties stem from longstanding authoritarian attitudes at the top of children’s services, in which small powerful groups wish to retain for themselves the ultimate say about how services will develop and be structured. Openness and honesty imply distributing power more widely, which is anathema in certain quarters. All my experience in policy work suggests that whatever political persuasion holds sway, or whatever ideas are fashionable, there are small groups of authoritarian individuals who do not want widespread discussion and open learning: they want control and compliance.

Sadly getting rid of ‘inadequacy’ forever will only be achieved if these power structures are dismantled; and open, honest and just cultures are put in their place.