When health minister Jacqui Smith announced earlier this year that
management consultancies were being brought in to “assist” four of
the 10 social services departments that had achieved zero ratings
in the government’s new star rating system, she was at great pains
to insist that this was not privatisation by the back door.
The process would be a partnership, she promised, between the
private performance action teams, the social services department
and the Social Services Inspectorate. And the only reason that
public sector consultants were not involved was that those who had
applied did not have the necessary expertise.
The SSI’s chief inspector, Denise Platt, emphasised, in Community
Care, the co-operative nature of the exercise (“Why stars are
underrated”, 27 June): “The specification for the work of these
teams will be developed jointly by the SSI and the council
concerned. The teams will not take over the management of a
service, but be there to support managers and staff in making
Nevertheless, there must have been a few jitters among social
services managers in Coventry, Walsall, Birmingham and North East
Lincolnshire as, already reeling from the SSI’s damning assessment
of their services, they awaited the arrival of their new private
sector partners. Elsewhere, the six other zero-rated councils will
have been looking on nervously, wondering whether they are next in
According to North East Lincolnshire’s director of learning and
child care, Geoff Hill, early experience suggests there is little
to fear from the performance action teams. Moreover, the SSI has
been true to its word in making the whole process as inclusive as
“Right from the start, when we went down to London to discuss our
zero rating, Denise Platt made it clear to us that this was not
going to be a ‘hit squad’ being brought in to take us over,” he
says. “It would be a team that would work with us and whose
expertise would help us achieve what we all want and that is to
move towards a positive rating.”
In fact, North East Lincolnshire’s inclusion in the process began
with the choice of management consultancy appointed to form its
performance action team.
“Obviously the SSI made the final decision, but we were encouraged
to contribute to setting the criteria,” says Hill. “So it was a
very encouraging start.”
PricewaterhouseCoopers was chosen and given three target areas for
improvement: monitoring implementation of the council’s performance
action plan, developing a children’s strategy and helping managers
to improve the quality of social worker assessments and care
In Walsall, KPMG was instructed to target the introduction of a
performance management approach in social services, help develop
social services commissioning capacity and reduce delays in the
provision of occupational therapy equipment and adaptations.
KPMG also won the bid in Coventry where its team will be aiming to
provide quality assurance to the performance improvement plan,
support timely and consistent assessments of children in need and
child protection services and redesign and develop the looked-after
In Birmingham the contract went to Deloitte and Touche whose brief
is to improve the reviewing system for looked-after children and
children on the child protection register, help reduce the number
of placements outside the city, and review existing action plans
and produce an integrated improvement plan.
Back in North East Lincolnshire, the 11-strong performance action
team has now been in place since the beginning of August. Working
from its own base within the learning and child care directorate,
the team is expected to remain until the end of December. Still in
its early stages, the work so far has been primarily “diagnostic”,
aimed at identifying the key areas for improvement.
“Most of these we are already aware of from the SSI review,” says
Hill, “but it’s good to get an outside perspective on it.”
Having been given a say in the make-up of the action team, Hill has
been able to ensure the expertise it provides is appropriate for
the needs of his department.
“So it’s not just a team of management consultants – there are a
number of people with direct experience of child care services,
which is what we need. We want people to help us improve our
front-line services,” he says.
Certainly this will need to happen if North East Lincolnshire is to
meet the SSI’s target of showing significant improvement by
But Hill is confident that the changes already under way will avoid
the “point at which external assistance becomes external
intervention”. And he believes the performance action team will
offer genuine assistance in meeting this goal.
“It has been a very encouraging and inclusive process that has
increased our capacity for change,” he says.
In Birmingham the reaction also appears to be largely positive.
Adrian Child, head of children’s strategy, claims the team has
brought both added resources and some valuable specialist
“They have certainly added to our capacity,” he says. “So it’s
partly a case of more hands to the pump but they also have a degree
of expertise in certain areas that we might not. For instance,
people with marketing management experience are a little thin on
the ground in social services.”
To make up the performance action team Deloitte and Touche has
installed three main workers who work from the social services
offices. There is also a “pool of expertise” that they can call
The team is guided by a progress steering group that meets every 14
days consisting of Child, a member of the SSI and one of the
Deloitte and Touche staff.
As in North East Lincolnshire, much of the work carried out so far
has involved assessing the processes already in place and
determining what needs to be done.
“For instance, the team looking at assessment of the care
management process has held two or three focus group discussions
and they have been looking at all our paperwork,” says Child.
The advantage of having an outside agency do this is that they can
be “completely objective and dispassionate about it,” he says.
“It’s handy to have an arm’s length view. They can see the wood
from the trees.”
Like Hill, Child is confident of meeting the SSI’s November
deadline, although he is reluctant to give all the credit to the
performance action team.
“The star ratings are based on a review carried out 12 to 18 months
ago and we have been working on a number of areas throughout that
time. So how much of the progress will be due to the performance
action team coming in for the past three months is difficult to
“In some respects it’s a little bit optimistic to expect much of an
improvement between now and November.”
Nevertheless, Child believes that the experience of bringing in
outside help has largely benefited Birmingham’s social services.
“I remain very positive about it,” he says. “Although these are
areas that we would have been working on anyway, it has been useful
to have the extra help and they have provided a focus that perhaps
wasn’t there before.”
The involvement of private multinational companies in the
management of social services departments was always going to be a
But fears of covert privatisation and accusations that the
consultancies are being allowed to plunder local authorities’
precious resources do seem somewhat wide of the mark.
In fact, the agencies’ fees are being paid out of £2m set
aside within the Personal Social Services Performance Fund to help
failing departments and disseminate good practice.
And if the experience of the first authorities to fall foul of the
star ratings scheme is anything to go by, this is one private
sector intervention that is to be welcomed rather than feared.