A clash of cultures?

The Best Value service review regime is now approaching its
third year. It has become one of the key tools used by social
services departments to improve their services. At the same time
many departments have aspired to become learning organisations,
partly in response to the fast-changing external environment in
which they now operate, and fuelled by the modernisation agenda of
the government.

Organisational learning is a way that an organisation can respond
positively to changes in its environment. For social services
departments, some of the most important sources of change are the
expectations of the public and service users, the impact of the
government’s modernisation agenda as seen in new legislation and
guidance, and the imperative for more inter-agency working.

The Modernising Government white paper in 1999 stated that “the
best public bodies have shown an ability to innovate and improve”
and that traditional approaches in the public sector will no longer
suffice. A social services department that fails to adapt or
improve will not survive in the long run.

But if Best Value reviews and learning organisation theory are both
drivers of change within social services departments, what is the
relationship between the two? We interviewed a representative
sample of senior managers in child and adult care in a county
council social services department in order to explore this

A learning organisation has the following characteristics:

  • It is able to adapt to the externalenvironment.
  • It learns from experience.
  • It can use that learning to achieve better results.
  • It aims for the increasing satisfaction of stakeholders.

These accord closely to what the then Department for Education
and Employment in 1999 described as being at the heart of the Best
Value performance management framework, namely “evaluation,
learning and continuous improvement”. If the central importance
given to the views and experience of service users and carers in
Modernising Government and subsequent Best Value guidance is added
to this description it is clear that the relationship between Best
Value and learning organisation theory is, potentially, a close

But there are tensions in this relationship. Best Value is a
centrally directed government audit tool. The national performance
assessment framework can be viewed by social services staff as a
device for ensuring accountability to central government, and not
necessarily related to local community accountability. National
performance indicators may prevent Best Value reviews from
exploring radically different ways of organising services.
Organisational learning, on the other hand, may involve considering
radical alternatives.

A second area of tension is that social services staff work within
a complex structure of legislation, guidance, policy and procedure.
It is difficult to conceive of front-line staff having the autonomy
to innovate and take risks to meet service users’ needs in the way
that is conceived of in learning organisation literature.
Responding to abuse of vulnerable adults, for example, requires
adherence to organisational rules and procedures – adherence which
may not be required by, say, a group of factory floor staff charged
with re-designing a production process.

A tension clearly demonstrated in our research is that the sheer
size, complexity and degree of specialisation of social services
departments militates against widespread dissemination of
information. This in itself may inhibit organisational learning,
which tends to take place at the local unit or team level.

In contrast, Best Value reviews are encouraged to adopt an approach
that cuts across services. The academics who evaluated seven of the
council’s Best Value reviews spoke positively about the impact of
such reviews, concluding that participants were able to go to the
review meetings with “much less baggage, far fewer constraints on
the issues to be covered and assumptions about areas that were

Middle and senior managers in the department did consider there to
be a relationship between Best Value review and the aspiration of
social services to be a learning organisation. The characteristics
that they thought were important in determining a learning
organisation were:

  • Its openness to change which is driven by changes in the social
    services environment and needs of the community.
  • How it responds to mistakes and the approach it takes to risk
  • How well communication systems are established to and from

But project managers did report problems with using Best Value
service review as a means of advancing the learning organisation.
They found it was difficult to transmit the messages of the Best
Value review process to the wider social services department. This
is a critical problem as learning organisation theory suggests that
the generation of information, by and for front-line staff, is a
first step in the movement towards the learning organisation.
Managers suggested these as possible solutions:

  • Further development of the monthly departmental
  • Establishment of Best Value review workshops.
  • Improvements to the consistency of summary information given to
  • Developing the use of staff focus groups to explore particular
  • Creating more face-to-face contact with senior management to
    improve upward channels of communication.

A related problem is the isolation some teams inevitably
experience as a result of the specialisation of functions. It is
common for one team or unit not to benefit from the knowledge of
others, even where there are clear links to be made, the so-called
“silo” effect. In these circumstances teams may not be in a
position to fully understand their own information because of the
lack of context of the broader picture. Encouraging greater
internal mobility, using job swaps and job rotation, was suggested
as a way of countering this silo effect. Paradoxically, managers
are simultaneously reporting a problem of information overload. An
effective information strategy thus becomes essential.

On the other hand, the very fact that they are made up of teams and
service units can be an advantage: a central characteristic of the
learning organisation is the importance given to team learning.
This is seen as something distinct from individual learning or
training, and it is not viewed as sufficient for staff to receive
disseminated information or individualised training. There needs to
be the opportunity to discuss and explore important information in
team settings that will allow assumptions to be challenged.

Organisational culture is an important influence on whether such
system learning is encouraged. The following factors would appear
to be important for social services departments:

  • The level of resistance to change that is perceived to exist
    across organisations.
  • How social services departments are regarded externally.
  • How organisations are perceived internally to respond to
    success or failure.
  • The way that senior managers create positive and negative role
    models for aspects of organisational learning.

Ultimately, while Best Value review and the aspiring learning
organisation may be compatible, developing a greater fit between
the two remains a goal to be striven for.

Jon Pidgeon is service standards and business
development manager, Nottinghamshire social services


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