Sunday, 21 December 2014

Storming Norman … perhaps not

Other than the dire warnings about a shortfall in finance, which are clearly important, I found little in Norman Warner’s second report on Birmingham City Council’s Children’s Social Care Services that grabbed me. Much of it was a dreary disappointment. Although to be fair the only copy of the report I could find on-line lacked the appendices that might have contained something more upbeat.

The document speaks of an ‘improvement plan’ and an itemised budget to support it, but it seemed to me to be more like a list of things that Warner and the Government and key people in Birmingham had agreed should be done. What I missed entirely was any sense of sustainable improvement based on continuous learning. Looking at some of the items on the list will illustrate what I mean.

On the positive side the document calls for “…a credible recruitment and retention strategy that minimises use of agency staff….” On the negative side it doesn’t provide one – perhaps it is in an appendix! Sadly Warner doesn’t seem to give much attention to retention which to my mind is much more important than recruitment. Cynically I can’t help thinking that is because retention is much more difficult. To recruit people all you need is a credible spiel and an advertising budget. To retain people you have to treat them well, help them develop and grow, make them feel safe and encourage their loyalty and commitment.

I also warmed a little to the call to  “…review, integrate and upgrade the various dysfunctional IT systems used for social work case management.” Sadly the document does not say how this will be done. To my mind the trick is to realise that the IT system should support practice and not vice versa. IT that helps people retain important information and to retrieve it easily and which reduces, not increases, the bureaucratic burden is what is required.

Less welcome to me was the call for “… a more credible and useful performance scorecard/dashboard that measures safety and performance.” That sounds rather like crude management by objectives, which has been the bugbear of ‘managerialist’ approaches to children’s social care over the last 25 years. I would have preferred Warner to have recommended hands-on management. Rather than looking at screens and reading reports I think effective senior managers need to get involved at the coalface. They should talk to workers and to children and young people and their families, hear their opinions and note and learn from their concerns and their ideas; and then go away to think about them and to act on them.

Warner also discusses “… assessing the capability of existing social work staff and team mangers and assisting them to improve their skills with a more effective system of supervision and appraisal.” There is something horribly top-down in the way that is expressed. Although he talks of devising something ‘less bureaucratic’ than the existing appraisal system, what he seems to be thinking about still seems to resemble the end of term school report with lots of ‘could do better’ entries. I would have preferred to have heard something about how staff could be motivated to learn and develop: more of that anon.

Warner goes on to mention “… the development of an effective quality assurance framework within which good social work practice and corporate parenting is likely to flourish with a professional head with assured access to top management.” Again this sounds very top-down to me and seems to gloss over all the well-canvassed difficulties in devising quality management approaches suitable for complex services. Quality management has to be much more than a few bright young managers being paid large salaries to say what other people should do. And it has to be about much more than just reading the files and looking at a few statistics.

But it is what is NOT in the report that I find most worrying. Bizarrely, given Birmingham’s long list of Serious Case Reviews concerning child deaths there little in in Warner’s report about safety. I would have liked to have seen a lot of space devoted to specific proposals to increase safety. I believe that there are some obvious quick wins: manageable caseloads, reduced and simplified bureaucracy, better support from line managers, senior practitioners and other experts. Then there are some wider objectives that are about reducing blame, encouraging discussion of error and equipping practitioners to learn from error, rather than simply fearing it.

Which neatly brings me to my next point. There was nothing in the report about learning. Creating the conditions in which people can learn is vital to the success of complex services; and there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that there is a long-established problem of not learning in Birmingham. But Warner doesn’t focus on how people can be helped to learn.

There is also nothing in the report about culture. Having myself worked in one or two places that are not wholly unlike Birmingham, I expect that at the very least there are some toxic aspects to the culture. I expect that a culture of blame still exists and that many people feel they have to watch their backs. In my view tackling the culture is key.

And there is nothing in the report about morale. Helping people to learn, tackling the blame culture and giving people a safe environment in which to operate should result in improved morale. But feeling unsafe, fearing blame, having to keep one’s head down and blindly obeying the rules are a surefire recipe for low morale.