How can things go so wrong so quickly? How can a local authority’s services be rated ‘good’ with some outstanding features, but then within the space of three years be considered so ‘inadequate’, that the local authority is named and shamed?
This was seen with Lancashire Council’s children’s services last month following its most recent Ofsted inspection.
There could be a number of reasons behind such a turnaround: perhaps senior managers were distracted; it could be the accumulated effect of year-on-year budget cuts; or low staff morale resulting in high turnover; or it could be because of a large number of vacancies and an over reliance on agency staff. In fact, it’s probably a combination of these factors, but one universal cost-cutting measure is still seen in general as having no detrimental effect, the cull of management posts.
Many local authorities have axed one in five, and in some cases one in four, management posts. Adult social care and children’s services have not been exempt from this cull. This cost-cutting, ‘efficiency’ measure is popular with councillors. Politicians think the public sector is overstaffed with managers compared to the private sector.
Unlike when a children’s centre is closed, home care support is removed from older people, or a voluntary group’s funds are cut, no one is going to start a “save our managers” campaign.
Even social workers are generally not that bothered if a few overpaid managers lose their jobs. And within a short space of time up to 25% of managers go. These are managers from every tier, senior, middle and frontline.
To minimise the number of compulsory redundancies the HR department proposes that all managers in their late 50s and early 60s are encouraged to take early retirement. The state of local authority finance, the uncertain future and the belief that this is a one-off offer unlikely to be repeated results in a big take up. “Great,” says the HR department, “no need for the unpleasantness of compulsory redundancies.”
“Great,” say the council leader and cabinet colleagues, “a popular cut, a more efficient business and the cost of early retirements doesn’t show up on the day-to-day budget.”
The only problem is that the organisation has suddenly and dramatically lost a massive amount of knowledge and experience.
When it comes to child protection, mental health or dementia, or any services for vulnerable adults and children, you want senior managers who know the right questions to ask; middle managers who have the experience and insight to assess which cuts are deliverable and how much work can be given to unqualified staff without unacceptable risks; and you need frontline managers with the time and experience to support and advise social workers dealing with complex cases.
If you make a senior manager responsible for services that they have no professional background in and no experience of, then you make them over reliant on middle managers. If you let your experienced managers go, have fewer managers but give them a broader ranges of responsibility, give internal promotions to those who are ambitious but relatively inexperienced and are being rewarded for being finance driven rather than practice led, is it any surprise that social workers think their managers are increasingly distant and out of touch?
So, when I read the story about Lancashire Council’s children’s services, it led me to wonder whether the council’s previous enthusiasm for cutting management posts was a contributing factor.
Blair McPherson is a former social worker and director of social services. He is now an author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk