Three years ago, Swindon social services were deemed to be among the worst in the country and managers from Kent were brought in to drive change. Did this work? Simon Creasey reports
In 2003, Swindon Council reached a low point in its history when the Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI) awarded its social services department a zero star rating.
So dire was the situation that a disgruntled employee set up her own website to highlight the council’s shortcomings and proclaim it “a regime that needed to change”. And over the past three years it has.
Swindon’s social services underwent a radical overhaul, which led to it receiving one star from the CSCI last year. Central to this achievement has been the help of managers from three star-rated Kent Council, which brokered a ground-breaking partnership to oversee the makeover.
Graham Pearson, director of adult social care at Swindon, sums up the council’s plight before Kent’s intervention: “Staff shortages were a problem both on the front line and in terms of management capacity and we also had cause for concern about our children’s services. When you’re trying to put yourself into the recovery position capacity is crucial and ours was very low at that point.”
As was morale. This was due to what Pearson describes as “poor working relationships within the council and with our partners”. As part of a recovery programme areas of concern were identified and a new senior management team put in place to deliver improvements.
But in an effort to accelerate the process the council decided to seek outside help. Discussions with government bodies commenced, and in August 2004 it was announced that managers from Kent Council would take over some management functions at the ailing department in a £3.66m three-year deal, £1m of which came from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
A senior manager from Kent was seconded who immediately began establishing a more professional approach to Swindon’s recruitment practices. Support was provided by members of the Inter-Authority Partnership Unit (IAPU), which was set up by Kent to oversee any changes.
Since its intervention Swindon’s social services department has seen significant progress. It is currently in discussions about establishing a partnership with a local primary care trust and it has also launched a trainee social workers scheme with a local university, which will aid its recruitment in future years.
And of course there’s the small matter of the one star rating. According to Alex Cole, head of the IAPU, the achievement shows that the partnership is working. “Swindon received one star after seven years of no stars and that was the glowing endorsement that everyone was looking for. This is an intervention that has worked where hundreds of other expensive interventions have failed.”
The agreement is likely to run until April 2007, though this is dependent on the star ratings announced in December. “The contract is so flexible that if Swindon is able to achieve two stars in December the Kent contract will be phased out but if we don’t then we will go into the third year,” says Pearson, who adds that the objective of the partnership is to achieve two star status.
Pearson has been delighted with the partnership and is keen to work with Kent on the council’s plans to assist other struggling authorities with its best practice rescue package.
Cole says everyone is now waiting on the government to publish what he describes as a “franchise” model that will tell other people how to do this. “This will be published in a couple of months’ time,” says Cole, “and I fully expect other franchises to launch in the latter part of this year or early next year.”
He confirms that Kent has already received several approaches for help, both on a small and a large scale, and says that the council will be happy to provide “service improvement practitioners” to other local authorities.
As for Pearson, his mind is focused on achieving that elusive second star and planning for a time when the council can strike out alone. “The next phase for us is succession planning so that when the partnership with Kent is phased out our own services will continue to improve.”
Commission for Social Care Inspection