Star mapping

Star ratings are here to make it easy for the public to gain
an understanding of the quality of a social services department, but, for many
department heads, they can obscure the truth about services. Lauren Revans

A new map of England was drawn up last month
depicting councils not according to their political persuasion, their budget,
or their number of tiers, but according to the number of stars their social
services departments were awarded in the first round of the new star-rating
performance system.

Exactly four weeks
on, the media circus that surrounded those announcements has passed and social
services directors have begun asking what their stars actually mean to them, their
staff, and services users – and how they can get more next year.

Bigger questions are
being asked about the benefit of league tables for services over which people
have no choice, and the practical use of star-ratings to people who want to
know about the quality of a particular local service.

Owen Davies,
national officer for social services at public sector union Unison, questions
the need to compare performance between departments and produce "crude,
headline-grabbing star-ratings", calling instead for a greater emphasis on
involving service users and the public through mechanisms such as citizens
juries and community panels.

"It’s not like
schools," Davies argues. "People don’t have a choice. If you live in
Bexley, you get services from Bexley. League tables have a different impact
when there’s no choice. If the impact is to focus attention on failures and to
shame staff in those departments, then that’s not going to do anything to help
service users."

Most social services
directors, however, appear to have resigned themselves to the arrival of
easy-to-understand social services league tables.

Association of
Directors of Social Services junior vice-president elect Tony Hunter says:
"There’s an inevitability these days for open and accountable bodies to
have this sort of system. Rather than saying we don’t want such a system, our
task is delivering it in the best way."

Director of
zero-star Haringey social services department Anne Bristow says: "The idea
of having a system that’s easy for the public to understand is good. Clearly
the Performance Assessment Framework and all the government returns we do are
impossible for the public to understand. But there are dangers. In accessible
information, we lose some of the detail."

Having been on
special measures since December 2000, Bristow was expecting to have that
position confirmed with a zero-star rating. However, she feels the underlying
judgements – which cite prospects for the council’s adults’ services as
uncertain and prospects for its children’s services as poor – are "very

She says: "I’m
not sure the evidence entirely backs the judgements on our prospects.
‘Uncertain prospects’ is not a reflection of the work that has been put in. We
think, on the evidence, we ought to get a more positive outcome."

The Local Government
Association is continuing to lobby hard for complete transparency on how the
Social Services Inspectorate make its judgements so it can be certain the
approach is consistent.

Unison also fears
judgements could be subject to "significant interference", with those
following the preferred policy lines of ministers – for example, by
externalising all residential care services – more likely to be judged as
having good prospects than those following local needs. Davies warns: "We
are concerned judgements could be used in a way that is not in the interests of
the service user, and we are concerned about the impact on staff."

East Sussex social
services department was also expecting its zero-star rating following criticism
of its adult services by the joint review team last year. However, director
David Archibald shares Bristow’s feelings that the SSI’s judgements do not
necessarily reflect the evidence.

"We are
basically tackling all the things that are wrong," Archibald argues.
"So their judgement was overly harsh because we are working on getting
these things sorted."

The reasons cited by
different social services departments for their successes and failures are
manifold and complicated. But some themes are recurrent.

Top of the list are
resources, political and managerial leadership, internal infrastructures, and
previous experience in performance management.

The director of the
London Borough of Bexley’s three-star social services department, Nick Johnson,
attributes his department’s success to its history of monitoring and measuring,
and to consistent cross-party support for policies. He says: "We are very
conscientious about measuring performance. The government has brought in this
sort of thinking recently. Where some councils have had difficulties getting up
to speed with it, we have had a head start."

He says a scrutiny
role for members existed at the council long before the cabinet system was
introduced, including all-party forums and member working groups. He had no
reason to fear for his services and policies when Labour won the local election
last month after years of Conservative rule, thanks to a history of strong
political consensus at the council.

"They have been
party to the ideas," he says. "There will be changes in emphasis, but
the direction will still be the same."

Another of the eight
social services departments with three-stars is Leicestershire where emphasis
has also been placed on developing a quality and performance culture over the
last few years.

Director Tony Harrop
says: "We made sure that we knew what was happening in the department,
what we were delivering, and at what standard." He adds: "We have had
clear objectives for years which emphasise community-based services, such as
developing home care and preventive services. That has coincided with the
indicators that the government feels are the good ones."

Political leadership
at Leicestershire has also become stronger in the last couple of years under
joint Conservative/Liberal Democrat control and now straight Conservative
control. Before that, it had been a hung council for 18 years, meaning a
different chairperson for every social services committee meeting.

In Swindon,
meanwhile, it was a lack of political consensus and leadership that contributed
to its social services department’s zero-star status, says housing and social
services director Marie Seaton.

At the local
election in May 2000, Swindon became a hung council with the arrival of 23
newly elected members. This was followed in September 2001 by a period of no
administration when the Conservative councillors moved a motion of no
confidence in the Labour members and called for their resignations. Seaton also
believes social services lost out financially when Swindon became a unitary
authority in 1997.

In the London
Borough of Lambeth, performance management and information-gathering systems
were a problem, when executive director of social services and health
improvement Lisa Christensen arrived in 1999. "I nearly kissed the piece
of paper when I got my first graph," she says.

Celebrating her
department’s one-star and consequential removal from special measures,
Christensen credits the SSI with having helped the department get on top of
collating the information required to understand its activity levels.

"In terms of
provision of information and having to meet targets, that was one of the things
that helped us to turn things round," Christensen says of being on special
measures. "I didn’t find the extra information a burden. It was very
useful to us to have information about how we were performing and to be able to
take decisions on the basis of that information."

Christensen adds:
"My impression is that the infrastructure in local authorities that have
more stars than us is more robust. They have better systems and a longer
history of better management."

At Birmingham’s
social services department, a critical joint review in July 2000 said there had
been 10 years of poor performance. It reported a failure to modernise, no
integrated IT system, no devolved budgets, failing children’s services, and
concerns about the organisational infrastructure, including major issues about
the management of information.

Since then, social
services director Sandra Taylor has introduced devolved budgets and an
integrated IT system, and restructured children’s services. Birmingham, which
has been subject to "enhanced regional monitoring" for the last 18
months, is one of four zero-star departments to be selected for external help from
DoH-funded performance action teams. Taylor says the specification for
Birmingham’s PAT is likely to focus on training front-line staff, on
performance management skills for middle managers, and on "tidying up
areas that the department has difficulty getting on top of".

"This is
tremendous," Taylor says. "If I had the resources, I would have
bought this kind of resource in just as we are. But we are having to manage
very, very pressured budgets, and taking money out for this kind of consultancy
is always considered to be at the expense of front-line services."

While few believe
more money alone can improve performance, most believe it would help, and point
to the higher SSA levels of several of the three-star social services
departments as proof. But whether a new formula and redistributed grant would
have any real impact on star-ratings remains to be seen. Certainly Harrop has
his doubts: "In Leicestershire, we have the lowest SSA per head of the
population in the country. But we still believe we provide good services. It’s
about how you use the money. When you do not have a lot, you use it quite

One thing on which
everyone seems to agree, however, is that star-ratings have already had a big
impact on staff morale, sapping it in some areas, and boosting it in others.
The impact of the star-ratings on recruitment, however, is not so clear.

As interim director
at Bromley’s zero-star social services department Bob Ward explains: "I would
be surprised if my three-star colleagues weren’t using it as a recruitment
tool. But it is entirely possible to recruit good people to us too – people who
want to work in a challenging environment."

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