Monday, 28th May 2018

A Little Humility is required.

Surrey Children’s Services- a long history of failure.

When the Ofsted Inspection of Surrey’s Children’s Services report was published this month, the outcome can have surprised few. Inspectors had been visiting regularly since the last Ofsted failure in 2014, and a whole series of letters and notices was drawing attention to a service which was consistent in only one thing, letting children down.

While the council had made major structural changes to its leadership in the last six months, the changes were insufficient to make a difference to the quality and thoroughness of social work practise.

Such an outcome is the result of a culture of denial after the last inspection, a sense that the report was unfair or that Surrey was being picked on, and also the result of the scale of the changes required.

Some of the observations were of commonplace problems missed- “Social workers and managers don’t always notice that families have the same problems over and over again, so they keep doing things to try and help which haven’t worked before.” (Page 10).

A shocking fact emerged which members were certainly not aware of, namely that almost half of Surrey’s looked after children are placed with foster carers outside Surrey. This means that social workers must travel as far as Manchester and Scotland to visit young people, wasting time and resources and leaving the young people far from their relatives or friends.

Perhaps the most devastating criticism is this: “There are widespread and serious failures in the assessment, planning and management of risk, particularly escalating risk, in the provision of help and protection for children in Surrey. Consequently, there is significant drift and delay for children at every stage of their journey, particularly for children who are exposed to chronic neglect and domestic abuse.”

The report exposes the failures of leaders and managers to examine the thresholds for action for children at risk and refers several times to the need for managers to scrutinise. It also points to the failure properly to engage health and schools as partners “to form teams around children and families when difficulties emerge.” (Page 8).

I could go on, but the themes are consistent and the picture one of dysfunctional leadership and management; there does not emerge from the report the sense that the staff at the front line are lazy or inadequate, it points instead to the inconsistent supervision and leadership those front-line staff receive.

So how can all this be?

Is Surrey too big?

In some ways that could be seen as part of the issue, but other large counties such as Essex and Hampshire do not have these problems. Surrey services are managed in quadrants, which makes sense, and those quadrants should enable a close focus on performance in the localities and enable senior leaders to have a detailed overview of that performance. The report indicates that is not the case.

Is Surrey too arrogant?

That might describe a culture at some levels in the organisation but can only really apply to the most senior ones, a culture of arrogance and entitlement which comes from the top, the political leadership always safe from the electorate, despite the potholes and the other constant criticisms. Of the eighty one county councillors, sixty one are of the same political colour and that has been the way of things this century. As the newly elected leader of the Lib Dem group I have a group of ten and we are like little Davids with our slingshots trying to hit the target with the passion of rhetoric and political conviction. So, at the top at least, the sense of invulnerability is one which colours actions and disables the need for radical upheaval.

But I am not convinced that is the main issue. New leaders can be brought in (they have) and new programmes of reform set in train, (they have), but there needs to be a passionate sense of belonging to a successful team, and shared sense of value and values, a pride in the work. Over recent years Surrey’s staff at middle grade have had their professionalism devalued and their standards betrayed. No highways engineer can now take any sense of pride in the work done, or smile at their grandchildren and say, “Look at what I have achieved.” No officer supporting children with special needs can be proud of the way the service works, of the delays they need to build in to the system to save money or the challenges they know families must face.

At every level in the vast organisation staff have to manage inadequacy and make excuses for poor performance because they do not have the resources they believe they need to deliver something they can be proud of.

The roots of this go back to the failure of the leadership at County to start to take the looming financial crisis seriously, involve staff in the decisions about how best to use increasingly scarce resources, and to help them own the processes they must manage. The emails from staff to parents I see are offering apologies for inadequate service and excuses as to why that is, not solutions. I cannot see how staff can feel satisfied with what they do though they tackle their work with courage and dedication. If courage and dedication are not rewarded with professional satisfaction, then the sorts of issues Ofsted found are likely to become endemic and difficult to remedy.

Readers with experience of organisational improvement techniques will by now have realised that the processes required now are more challenging to implement than they would have been after the 2014 inspection. An expert has been appointed to lead that, Dave Hill, a national children’s commissioner, and someone with an international profile in turning round children’s services, and with the new Chief Executive (both from Essex) there will be a focus on rapid improvement we have to have confidence in. But this all takes place in the context of £250m cuts over 3 years and a morale sapping set of “reorganisations” (which means applying for your own job and all that sort of thing) and the concomitant impact on morale.

It is hard to come late to the game, as they have, and the responsibility of the political leadership is to be impatient for change, empower it, and take no thought for itself. Its reputation is badly damaged by the failure to take arms against this sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.

When councillors are next up for election in three years’ time, the County should look very different. If it does not, the current leadership will have to take the responsibility it has failed to take so far.

In my new role as Group Leader I must quickly be effective at holding the administration to account for the pace of change. I can appeal, embarrass and goad. I can shame and hopefully even inspire. What I cannot be is patient.

The Hiatus of Local Elections

After the hiatus of the local elections Tandridge District Council has an enlarged opposition of two main groups, one of which is nine independents affiliated to a residents’ group. I wish them well, though it seems their main concern to prevent the development of a so-called garden village in the south of the District may be confounded by the policies of the government in using the Planning Inspectorate to do its dirty work for it.

Again, with my group the same size, the focus on how to be an effective opposition is relentless.

I have always tried to lead a responsible opposition, based on principles. Essentially the question is: “What would I do differently?” I have never opposed for its own sake, and I have never lied. Politicians have a poor reputation, not just in our country, but far and wide. In the end, we cannot expect to claw our reputation back through populism, as that is usually based on falsehoods and hatred. We can claim back our reputation by being clear what we are for, not what we are against. And in the end, since I call myself an elected public servant, a little humility is required.