Mixed signals

Local authorities have always had an ambivalent relationship
with the inspectors who are supposed to watch over them. Glad to
accept praise when it comes their way, they have often protested
when harsher judgements have been handed down by the Social
Services Inspectorate or the Joint Reviews.

These mixed feelings are clearly visible in a survey from the
Local Government Association, published last week, which shows that
more than half of councils take the view that, though inspections
are vital, they don’t always deliver the necessary

In one sense, this finding looks unrealistic. Inspections are
the linchpin of the government’s punitive policy towards councils
it sees as “failing”. The three social services departments taken
out of special measures this week – Barking and Dagenham, Barnsley,
and Hillingdon – were originally placed under them after poor
inspections and were only redeemed after good ones.

But there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here.
Inspectors identify the weaknesses, define the objectives and
decide when they have been achieved. It is hardly surprising that
the inspectors are integral to the process of diagnosis and
recovery in social services departments, since it was created in
their own image.

What is really worrying about the findings of the LGA survey is
the apparent inability of the inspection bodies in England and
Wales, including the Best Value inspectorate, to meet the broader
needs of social services departments.

Departments need good ideas and help to achieve best practice,
yet only 27 per cent of the survey’s respondents thought that
inspections led to innovation.

Less than half said inspections identified and shared good
practice or that they helped councils to become learning
organisations. Inspections will have to become more responsive to
these needs if departments are to achieve the long-term stability
required to cope with the challenges of the future.

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