A word of warning for councillors everywhere

From the Ofsted report into Haringey and Baby P’s death:

The reliance on national and local performance indicators is too great and does not enable understanding of the quality and effectiveness of service provision on the ground.

A warning about what can go wrong which applies to many areas of councillors’ work, and not just the tragic circumstances of Baby P’s death.

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11 Comments

  • Well this was inevitable really, a result of the deeply fallacious “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” philosophy. Over the years I have got myself in deep doodoo over attempts in management to raise the profile of qualitative (“soft”) issues. Perhaps we will now revert to a more sensible commonsense style of management across the board in public services.

  • David Evans 3rd Dec '08 - 5:15pm

    Tim,

    I hope you are right, but bearing in mind past experience, I think the siren voices of manageriometrics will espouse ever more time being wasted on measurement. Now don’t get me wrong, as an accountant and a mathematician, I know how important good measures are, but let’s be honest, there are many more bad, meaningless statistics out there than there are good, useful ones.

    It’s the old saying “Statistics in the hands of a manager are like a lamppost to a drunk–they’re purely used for support not illumination.”

    David

  • Ian Stewart 3rd Dec '08 - 5:17pm

    …….but Tim 13 you know that this authoritarian government doesn’t have the understanding, and all that will happen is that the regulators will be given a wider remit, together with a new name and a smaller budget.

    Although,the removal of “testing” for 13 year olds might be a tipping-point, a new way. From education, I suggest, we want understanding and ability to apply that understanding, but get a series of “tests”.

  • I have always asked for user views on services. Especially around child protection. One of my biggest concerns that I have voiced and blogged about is the target as to how many children you are allowed on the ‘at risk’ register and in care! What a stupid thing to have to achieve a target for!

  • David Morton 4th Dec '08 - 11:13am

    In my last three months as a Councillor I sat on a Childrens Services Scrutiny Board. My first set of papers was over 350 pages long and may as well have been written in elvish. I’ve done serious Police Authority statistics training, read New Testament Greek to relax and am amongst the socially crippled group that finds a Local Authority report and a bottle of Rioja a good night in.

    For the first time in my Local Authority career I just had to stand up and say the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.

    because we were trying to know everything that was going on no one new what was on earth was going on. In the middle of the committee meeting officers chucked in the hand grenade about a failing NEET contract which it turned out had been obliquely referred to in two sentences on page 200 and something.

    There is a whole milaise here. Local Authorities aren’t God, they can’t control every aspect of family life. They should focus on the most vulnerable children, doing it superbly, measure in simple concete ways and sack Civil servants that don’t deliver.

    At the minute everyone know that they’ll be held accountable for nothing and the first thing elected members will know about a cock up is when the press office rings even though superfically they have had hundreds of pages of reports on the subject.

    Nothing will change unless you take an axe to the inspection regime, make civil servants accountable and restore councillors role in local accountability.

    In other words a minor revolution. I won’t hold my breath.

  • one of my local councils got three stars despite having to sack contractors for not doing their job.
    Just goes to show, if you tick the right boxes then you can get away with anything as far as service delivery.

  • David, I completely agree. We have situations where officers try to bury bad news in a paper, or even try to include in the budget some spurious “saving” which may on the face of it be acceptable, but when it’s put into practice is simply impossible. In my local authority, we had the situation where officers raised in a report the possibility of charging for a valued service which is currently free – there is no way this would have been approved by us in the administration. Cue scaremongering headlines in the local press and “appauled” Opposition councillors – all because the officer included something which, had he spoken to any administration councillor, could easily have been left out.

    At least the first you get to know of a cock-up is when the press office calls – we usually don’t find out until the papers call!

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Dec '08 - 12:46pm

    Yup, Children’s Services are not easy to understand, which is why when this thing blew up, one of the first questions that came to my mind was how far the elected councillors could be held to have a share of the blame, and that includes the opposition. I’d take this line rather than immediately screaming for the blood of Cllr Meehan and Cllr Santry.

    The next question was how far the governance system allows things like this to be effectively scrutinised. Does the O&S system help or hinder (I believe the latter), does the way LB Haringey run it (scrutiny management done by tame majority party councillors) make things worse?

    But don’t let the officers off the hook. It’s their job to present the material to you, as lay members who aren’t specialists in the area, in language you can understand. They should leave you with a feel for the service and the difficulties they face with it. If they blind you with jargon, and assume a supercilious attitude that if you don’t understand it you’re not up to it, they are not doing their job properly. It’s likely to be lack of competence, but it can be a deliberate tactic to hide things. Don’t let them get away with it – if it looks like Elvish, tell them, and tell them to go away and write it in English, and when they’ve done that, come back and present it again. You’re their boss – you can do that.

    And if you’re an opposition councillor, and the majority party councillors are colluding with the officers in using Elvish, well ask even harder and more forcefully. You’re still one of their bosses however much the majority group don’t want them or you to think that way.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Dec '08 - 1:30pm

    My last message was a bit harsh, however.

    For opposition councillors, making friends with the officers is essential. If you can play it so you’re their friend up against the majority group who order them around and don’t understand them, you’ll get a lot of useful information out of them.

    Most people who are doing a good job love to explain their job to others, so it really shouldn’t be difficult to get officers to tell you what their job involves and the sort of decisions that have to be made. But still, don’t be afraid to ask forcefully if you don’t understand something. That’s what you’re there for, that’s your job.

    If they don’t want to explain it to you, it may well mean they aren’t doing a good job. OK, so what you do then is contact the next tier of management down. You’re entitled to make an appointment and speak to them. Make it clear the conversation is off the record, but not secret, the meeting is in their diary you’re not going behind someone’s back, just doing your scrutiny job finding out how it all works. If they’re fearful of this, it suggests something really is wrong with the organisation.

  • Hywel Morgan 4th Dec '08 - 5:11pm

    East Lancashire Hospitals Trust are rated as excellent for quality of services and good for use of resources.

    Last month Blackburn A&E had to shut as it could cope with demand with patients transfered up to 28 miles away. Trust directors say it is “practically impossible” for them to meet targets for A&E treatment.

  • Hywel Morgan 4th Dec '08 - 5:13pm

    That’s “COULDN’T cope with demand”

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