Friday, 20 December 2019

West Sussex – a toxic culture?

It is difficult to imagine an organisation less likely to succeed in delivering good quality children’s services than that recounted in a report on West Sussex County Council. An article summarising the report in Community Care uses the word ‘toxic’ to describe the organisation’s culture.

The report identifies the following problems many of which it says have been modelled from the top of the organisation:
  • a significant bullying problem
  • unacceptable behaviour by senior managers and politicians 
  • a longstanding and casual disrespect for individuals
  • lack of organisational self-awareness 
  • refusal to accept criticism or bad news 
  • reluctance to raise or address problems
  • no room for respectful uncertainty or challenge
  • unnecessary layers of management 
  • confused thinking
  • disagreement not tolerated
If you wanted to create a badly run organisation it is hard to see how you could be more certain of getting one than by doing what is recounted here. It beggars belief how a toxic organisation such as the one described could have been created and sustained in the light of all we know about how to do difficult tasks well. 

After years and years of Ofsted inspections, and a litany of serious case reviews and public enquiries, how on earth can people still be so deeply ignorant of how to motivate and develop staff and managers? It is as if there are still pockets of children’s services in Britain that function like medieval fiefdoms. And despite all the fanfare of inspection and audit and scrutiny, they somehow survive, wrecking the lives of the people they employ and failing to safeguard, protect and meet the needs of the children they are designed to serve. 

It makes me wonder if the whole inspection/audit panoply does any good at all. After more than ten years of Ofsted, surely toxic organisations should be a thing of the past? But inspection has not resulted in improvement across the board and pockets of awfulness seem to persist unrelentingly. We need to think again.

The report concludes:
“What is also clearly evident from almost every discussion, is that there has been little space in the council or the service at any senior level, for respectful uncertainty, discussion, consideration or disagreement. This has been critical in the systemic failure of Children’s Services which are, by their very nature, complex, contested and uncertain. Managers talked about being unable to raise problems and that disagreement was not tolerated.” (p 33)
That of course is what concerns me most. You cannot hope to create safe, high quality services if you do not allow people to raise problems or if you do not tolerate disagreement. It is completely unsafe to try to silence those who want to report problems or issues or to dissent from current orthodoxy. A culture of denial and blame creates dangerous organisations in which leaders do not know where the edges of many perilous cliffs are located. Sooner or later it results in tragedy.