Professor Peter Latchford, CEO of public sector fairness and effectiveness advisors, Black Radley
It was no great shock that the new Government should announce an independent review into child protection and social work services in England. The stamping out of serious neglect is a proper objective for any government, and should be pursued with real energy. But the question is how? – how should that objective be achieved? It is not immediately obvious that a review will help. Data collection, analysis, assessment, recommendations… these are the stuff of reviews. But will all this stuff make even the smallest difference? In a very real sense, we already know what the answer is.
The problem is that analysis alone is not enough. Plans are not enough. Commitment is not enough. Regular outbursts of public outrage and knee-jerk political responses are not enough. And finding someone to blame is not enough. What is needed is a response which will drive progress and make things tangibly better for the future, rather than just making us feel better for the short-term.
We are very good at apportioning blame. Every time a vicious case hits the headlines, the cry goes up, ‘Where did the system go wrong?’ This is followed shortly afterwards by an identification of process, management and individual failings. Often the conclusion of these discussions is a high profile sacking, or series of sackings, to appease those baying for blood, and an issuing of extensive guidelines to keep the replacements firmly on track.
But guess what? The constantly refreshed and increasingly rigorous guidelines and summary sackings just act to make the whole situation worse. Those charged with the protection of children and with other social services should be talented and enthusiastic people, but what intelligent person will be keen to study for a hated profession where professional and human judgement is considered to be of less importance than process compliance? Good people are paid to make good decisions, but under the constant glare of an intense spotlight even very competent and confident people can wither and adopt a stance of risk aversion in the name of survival. Why trust your judgement by leaving a child with their family when your job is safer if you bring the child into the potentially damaging world of state care?
This review habit we have – it is just one response to a problem, and not necessarily the best response. It is a response which deals in objectivity; in data; in words, submissions and generalized evidence. It struggles to deal with the life blood of good and bad decision making, on the ground, with families: charismatic and flawed individuals, intuitions and professional wisdom; fashionable dogma and human insight; office bullies, workload pressures, and systems that do not fit the task. It behaves as its recommended actions were things that exist in isolation of the people who have to enact them and the wider organisational context in which they operate. And, as a result, it too easily results in the accretion of even more bureaucratic weight on the backs of the front line, to the detriment of the families and the children they serve.
The review habit is part of a wider public sector orthodoxy. We live with a system which behaves as if public service challenges were engineering problems where perfection is possible, if only we could develop sufficiently fine controls. This perspective leads to an undermining of front line flexibility, prescriptive work systems, and risk aversion. It presupposes that all future eventualities can be predicted; that, as in the film Minority Report, the business of a social worker is to know that abuse will happen, and to step in before it does. It may even, in the short term, save lives by taking many children from their families, a tiny proportion of whom were real risks. But given free rein, it will result in significant levels of future social dysfunction, as the state is blamed by everybody for everything, and increasing numbers of children grow up outside of families.
We know that centrally defined process controls do not improve public service quality, and that what amount to public floggings undermine effective risk management. On the other hand, we know that properly developed front line workers, who take pride in their profession, and are supported by hands-on managers, get the best results. What we need is the rebirth of judgement: an empowerment of the people on the front line to use their training and experience to make the decisions they feel will improve the situation. We need to ensure that our professionals are well-trained; that their managers support, challenge and inspire them, rather than direct them.
We also know that a system which allows for this level of trust is always vulnerable. It can too easily be brought down by the actions of the inevitable bad penny. We therefore need to introduce a system for taking out the worst 10% every year, rather than trying to micro-manage all of them; that we all of us understand that we need these committed people to hold us together, and should show them our respect and thanks. Footballers who suffer a loss of form are dropped from the first team. Why should incompetent public service workers in life-critical roles be given any more latitude?
The Government has asked the right question: ‘what helps or hinders professionals from making the best judgements and interventions they can to protect a vulnerable child?’ I hope, this time, we have the courage to hear the right answer and to see it through.