Thursday, 18 February 2016

When child protection agencies are under too much pressure

The British (Conservative) government is making swingeing financial cuts to local authorities (which are responsible for child protection) and often talks as if cutting funding is a spur to innovation – take money away and it concentrates the mind! Only recently Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, opined that that there is no “correlation between spend and quality” in children’s social care. 

The case of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services seems to provide evidence (if any were required) that once spending falls below a certain level, there is an inevitable knock-on effect on quality.

An article in the Advocate describes a situation in which Louisiana’s funding for child protection has fallen steadily since 2007-8, when the budget was nearly $300 million, to approximately $240 million in 2014-5. As a consequence the number of child protection workers has fallen from nearly 1,350 in 2007 to 1,125 in 2015. At the same time caseloads have been rising, reportedly by 18% according to a report prepared for Louisana’s Governor.

The results is a looming under-funding crisis for the department, with a staff turnover rate of nearly 25% and, according to another report, front-line workers finding themselves pressurised into completing tasks in unrealistically short periods, with consequent implications for the quality and safety of service that children and young people receive.

There are three different approaches to public spending. The first is to ‘spend, spend, spend’; to let rip and fund the system generously (some may say too generously). The second is to ‘cut, cut, cut’ and precipitate a funding crisis. The third, which is my preference is the ‘Lean, Lean, Lean’ approach to public spending. Activities that add value (to the benefit of the service user or the public good) should be funded without stinting, but unnecessary spending (on overhead, waste, the costs of poor quality etc.) should be rigorously reduced at every opportunity.

Perhaps in both Louisiana and Great Britain people in children’s services will eventually realise that Lean is the way forward.  

Saturday, 13 February 2016

At Long Last

I was very happy to read on the BBC’s website this morning about the NSPCC’s child abuse whistle-blowing helpline.

The helpline, operated by the NSPCC and funded by the Home Office, will take confidential calls or emails from members of staff from any agency who have concerns about how their organisations are dealing with cases of child abuse and neglect and who feel afraid or unable to raise these concerns with their employers.

At long last: that’s what I say. This is a big step forward, a means of capturing vital information about shortfalls in services and circumstances in which things have gone wrong; and a way of taking these concerns forward for the benefit of children.

Of course a lot will depend on the detail of how the scheme will operate – not least how the confidentiality of informants will be protected – but this scheme really does have great promise. It may not be a critical incident or near miss reporting scheme (which I have been advocating since 1990) but it is a big step in the right direction.

One small concern or question: I wonder why the Department for Education (which is the government department with responsibility for local authority children’s services) is not mentioned as being involved in the scheme? And the Department of Health should also give its endorsement to the scheme, to make it clear that it should be used by healthcare professionals and practitioners.

And one ‘small’ suggestion: the NSPCC must find a way of publishing (perhaps annually), in a suitably anonymised format, an aggregate summary of reports to the helpline so that the general lessons can be learned.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Comparative Costs?

Last week Children’s Minister Edward Timpson was reported in Community Care as telling MPs that there is no “correlation between spend and quality” in children’s social care. According to the minister, some of the councils where the government has been forced to intervene are ‘high spending’.
Such a finding must be enormously comforting to a government hell bent on cutting every cost in sight! But I wonder on what data the minister is basing his claims. Working out comparative costs between different local authorities is not easy, because, as management accountants* tell us, it is very difficult to derive accurate costing information where a large part of an organisation’s costs are represented by overhead and where more than one type of product or service is produced.

So far as I know, the Government doesn’t publish any comparative cost information about local authority children’s services. That makes it very hard for us ordinary citizens to assess the minister’s claims. To put our minds at rest perhaps the DfE would like to publish this information, if it has it, and explain how it is calculated, so that we all have a clearer idea about exactly what Mr. Timpson is saying.

* See for example Kaplan, R.S. and Cooper, R., “Make Cost Right: Make the Right Decisions”, Harvard Business Review, September–October 1988

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Self-fulfilling prophesies?

Eleanor Schooling, Ofsted’s Director of Social Care, has been explaining why the controversial single inspection framework of local authorities children’s services in England is running behind schedule.

I can’t say that hearing that these inspections are taking longer than expected upsets me very much. As far as I am concerned the whole programme could be indefinitely delayed with no ill effects. But I was interested to read in Children and Young People Now Eleanor Schooling’s remarks on why she thinks such a large proportion of local authorities have received low judgements from her inspectors – about 75% of councils inspected so far are rated either "inadequate" or "requires improvement".

She is reported as saying that Ofsted has prioritised areas where “there was the most anxiety”, resulting in a skewed picture. I had to read that a couple of times to let in sink in. How does anybody know prior to an inspection taking place what the inspection will show? And what powers of second sight do Ofsted inspectors have to be able to pre-judge their own results? And what is the point of carrying out an expensive inspection if there is another quicker way of making the judgement?

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Lessons of Kids Company

The British Government seems to be very fond of the idea of outsourcing child protection - and other children’s services that are currently provided by local authorities in England - to ‘trusts’ involving charities. The mantra that is often recited is that such bodies will be better innovators and will be more likely to deliver higher quality services than traditional bureaucracies. The sad tale of Kids Company goes a long way to contradicting that roseate vision.

The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has just produced its fourth report of session 2015–16 entitled “The collapse of Kids Company: lessons for charity trustees,professional firms, the Charity Commission, and Whitehall”.

On page 4 of the report it is concluded that government’s reviews and assessments of Kids Company over many years were “disjointed and limited’, often being carried out or commissioned by the charity itself. These were “… read selectively by successive Governments to confirm a pre-existing and positive impression of the charity and justify future funding”. The report also found “a lack of sufficient evidence” of the effectiveness of the charity, “clear signs of financial mismanagement”, which were ignored, and a failure to carry out adequate due diligence.

The truth is that complex services are notoriously difficult to outsource. It’s not just that the contracts need to be of labyrinthine complexity but, perhaps more importantly, monitoring and enforcing compliance is treacherous. If a local authority outsourced most of its key children’s services, it would need a small army of lawyers to draft and interpret the contracts and a small army of inspectors to ensure that the contractor was fulfilling its obligations. That’s lots of resources going into administrative overhead and so taking resources away from front line services.

I don’t find it surprising that the government failed to monitor the Kids Company contract properly. I would not be surprised to learn at some future point that local authorities are not monitoring outsourced services properly. It is in the nature of the beast. It’s very hard to do. In fact it’s a lot harder than doing the job properly yourself in the first place!