Watching the inspectors

A survey by the Local Government Association has revealed that
the Social Services Inspectorate is not as unpopular as many would
believe. Patrick McCurry reports.

Say “inspection” to most social services directors and the
likely response, at least in private, is that they could do without
it at the present time.

This is partly because stretched budgets and staffing shortages
in most authorities make it hard to prepare for and support
inspections, and risk taking managers away from day-to-day service

But it is also because of the inevitable anxiety. Few
professionals in any sector relish having their performance judged
by outsiders, and however good staff and managers may think their
services are they can never be sure the inspectors will agree.

Despite these tensions, a report last month from the Local
Government Association entitled An Inspector Calls: A Survey of
Local Authorities
1 suggests that local authority
perceptions of the Social Services Inspectorate (SSI) are often
more positive than for other inspectorates, such as Ofsted and the
Best Value inspection service. The LGA sent questionnaires to chief
executives of all 410 local authorities in England and Wales last
September and 53 per cent of authorities responded.

Head of the LGA’s strategy group Doug Jones, who compiled the
report, says he was surprised by the perception that the SSI was a
catalyst for improvement. This was the view of 83 per cent of
respondents, significantly more than for the Office for Standards
in Education (Ofsted), the Housing Inspectorate and the Best Value

Similarly, the SSI came out on top when people were asked
whether inspections led to improved services for citizens and
users. “Given the groans you usually hear from local officers when
you talk about inspections, the SSI seems to enjoy a more positive
perception than we’d expected,” he says.

SSI inspectors were also generally regarded as fair and, unlike
Ofsted, not suspected of having a political agenda.

The LGA survey didn’t ask for views of joint reviews inspectors,
but Doug Jones believes that the perceptions of local authorities
about the SSI are also likely to apply in large part to joint

Association of Directors of Social Services president Moira Gibb
says the fact that the SSI has been going longer than most other
inspectorates has given it the experience to develop audits that
are of genuine value to social services departments, both
individually and collectively.

Referring to the LGA’s worries about the growing number of
inspectorates and that there is too little co-ordination between
them, Gibb adds: “While there are real concerns about the scale of
the inspection regime I believe directors value the exercise and
would not want to see any diminution of their role.”

But not everything in the garden is rosy. Jones stresses that in
some areas, when one scratches beneath the surface, opinions of the
SSI are less positive. For example, only a third of respondents
said the SSI led to innovation and just under half believed that it
spread best practice. Though the SSI still leads the other
inspectorates in those areas the low numbers giving it good marks
must be an area of concern.

There are also problems for all inspectorates, including the
SSI, on how well qualified inspectors are and how much work is
required by councils to co-operate with inspections. Less than half
the respondents agreed that SSI staff were well qualified in
carrying out their role and three-quarters agreed that SSI
inspections were resource intensive. However, on the whole,
authorities reported a much-improved relationship with the SSI over
the past three years, with 51 per cent saying it has improved and
only 7 per cent that it had become worse.

Averil Nottage, deputy chief inspector at the SSI, says. “I
think we come out relatively well from the survey considering there
will always be a tension between those undergoing scrutiny and
those carrying it out.”

She argues that there is a maturing relationship between the
inspectorate and social services departments: “A lot of local
government is now having to adjust to being inspected but in social
services, where inspection has a longer history, it is now an
accepted part of their role.”

Anthony Douglas, executive director of community services at
Havering Council in east London, agrees: “Inspection processes have
become more evidence-based in recent years, especially as the
auditors themselves are increasingly audited internally on the
objectivity of their findings.

“Most findings are accepted by directors now, although a small
minority are rightly challenged because they understate the quality
of inspected services.”

Interestingly, fewer than half of the authorities agreed that
SSI inspectors were well qualified for the role (although this was
a higher proportion than for the other inspectorates). Nottage says
that this figure should be seen in context. “Many of the rest were
‘don’t knows’ on that question, with only 13 per cent disagreeing
that staff were well qualified.”

But recruiting good quality inspectors does appear to be an
issue. Douglas says: “Most SSI inspectors have backgrounds in the
services they inspect, which is not true of all inspection regimes.
A key weakness is that recruitment of quality staff by the SSI is
no easier than it is in councils.”

Jones believes action is needed to ensure the quality of
inspectors: “Perhaps we need some form of quality assessment or
training standards because there is sometimes a perception that
some inspectors have been out of the sector for a decade or so and
may not fully appreciate how things have changed.”

One area where councils and the LGA have expressed concerns is
in the growing number of inspections of local government. With new
initiatives, such as Best Value, there is a fear of
“over-inspection” and that staff will be so distracted by external
scrutiny that service provision will be affected. Nottage says the
SSI has been integrating Best Value inspection responsibilities
into its existing work but denies that there has been a significant
increase in the overall inspection of social services

“There has been only a marginal increase in inspection of social
services as a result of Best Value,” she says.

Mike Tomlinson, chair of the Inspectorates Forum, a government
body that seeks to monitor the work of the various inspectorates,
says he is aware of the risks of over-inspection.

“Those inspectorates with Best Value responsibility are working
closely together to plan future progress and we try as far as
possible to avoid over-inspecting any particular authority in any
given period.”

But Nottage does acknowledge the demands placed on authorities.
“The amount of staff time an inspection requires has always been an
issue and we’re constantly looking at ways of reducing requests for
information by seeing if we can obtain it from other sources.

“Nevertheless, we do need to collect a range of information in
order to make robust judgments.”

Douglas says that at times auditors do “take over the citadel”
and that the number of inspections does need to be capped, as some
of the same staff supporting the inspection process are also
responsible for other key services. “Too much time taken up with
supporting the inspection process can take away vital support from
the overall management support services,” he says.

In the wake of the report, the LGA is calling for a renewed
clarity about the role of inspection in promoting improvement and
spreading best practice, more focus on building professional
credibility and consistency among inspectorates, and a more
co-ordinated and streamlined inspection regime.

But whatever developments or improvements to the inspection
process are made in the long run, it is clear that rigorous
external scrutiny of social services is here to stay and that
managers and staff had better get used to it.

“The inspectorial regime is getting tougher all the time so we
just have to get on with it and manage the process as best we can,
using positive findings to gain more public support for what we
do,” says Douglas.

1 Local Government Association, An
Inspector Calls: A Survey of Local Authorities on the Impact of
, LGA, 2001. From IDeA Sales, tel 020 7296 6600,
£20, £10 to councils.

Views on the inspectorate

– 49 per cent believed it spread best practice, compared with 45
per cent for the Best Value inspection service and 19 per cent for

– 47 per cent said its staff were well qualified, compared with
28 per cent for Best Value and 45 per cent for Ofsted.

– 83 per cent said it was a catalyst for improvement, compared
with 63 per cent for Best Value and 70 per cent for Ofsted.

– 71 per cent said it led to improved services, compared with 37
per cent for Best Value and 57 per cent for Ofsted.

– 71 per cent said it was user-focused, compared with 56 per
cent for Best Value and 42 per cent for Ofsted.



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