‘Do star ratings help service users?’

Lauren Revans and Sarah Wellard hear the
reactions of social services chiefs.

Zero stars

North East Lincolnshire
Director: Peter Hay

North East Lincolnshire, a new unitary
authority, has been on special measure since 1998. Director of
social services Peter Hay is candid about the failings that led to
monitored status but is disappointed that the progress achieved
over the past three years is not reflected in the department’s star

“It’s pretty clear that monitored authorities
get no stars,” Hay says. “Monitored status and zero stars are the
same thing. We have one service, child protection, that is now
improving, but there’s still some way to go. But zero stars doesn’t
mean that we’re failing looked-after kids and older people.”

Despite the problems, North East Lincolnshire
has plenty of success stories to tell. In the last annual review,
16 areas of activity were identified as “good” or “very good”, and
85 per cent of users rated services as “very good” or

Hay says that the department’s work with
looked after children’s charity Who Cares? Trust on improving the
employability of care leavers is recognised nationally. He adds:
“We’ve no argument that vital services need to meet basic
standards. But we know that our partner agencies have got positive
things to say about us. There’s considerable evidence from
performance indicators and joint reviews about what we’re doing

“I’m concerned that difficulties in one area
create a bad image across the department,” Hay says. “A housebound
older person has no choice but to accept services from me. Do star
ratings actually help that person and do they generate a

As for the reserve powers to intervene in
failing departments, Hay points out that secretaries of state for
education have been much more willing to send in the private sector
– but that the jury is out on whether this makes for long-term

He adds: “There are grades within special
measures. It is entirely right to have intervention at that level,
but it’s got to be about achieving sustainable services.

“There’s evidence from the Audit Commission
that monitored status is effective in producing change. It’s
painful having your shortcomings held up in front of you, but being
on special measures has been constructive for us.”

One star

Director: David Wright

Norfolk’s director of social services, David
Wright, believes his department’s overall rating is pulled down by
relatively poor scores on some of the adult indicators.

Wright explains: “The situation is rapidly
reversing, but, according to the indicators, we’re putting too many
people into residential care and not giving enough support at home.
But that’s based on the assumption that people in residential care
don’t need to be there.”

On the other hand, Wright points out, there is
no problem of delayed discharge from hospital in the county because
of the good supply of residential placements aimed at supporting
people with complex needs. He says the department could work faster
to reduce its investment in residential care and increase resources
for home support but, done too quickly, this might actually harm
service users – even if it would help boost the county’s
performance as measured by star ratings.

Wright argues that it is hard for a large
shire to achieve a three-star rating. “Big complex organisations
are a challenge,” he says. “It’s difficult to get best performance
in all areas.”

There’s also the question of who decides what
constitutes a good service. One of the advantages of the star
ratings over the raw performance indicators for assessing overall
performance is that the findings of inspections and joint reviews
are taken into account, and these include some measure of user
satisfaction. According to Wright, Norfolk comes out well above
average in this area: “We get overwhelming customer satisfaction. I
would say that most people are being served well, but a few people
are not served at all well.”

However, Wright believes there is still a case
for devising a much broader measure of community perceptions about

He argues that it is a mistake to include zero
ratings in the system because it gives the misleading impression
that nothing is working. “Even if you get a zero rating, it doesn’t
necessarily mean that everything is malfunctioning. It gives a very
bad message to service users and to staff. A system of one to four
stars would be better.”

He adds: “Overall I’d say the system has got
good prospects, and they’ll refine it in a couple of years to come
up with something better.”

Two stars

Director: Anne Williams

Anne Williams, Salford’s director of community
and social services, believes the system of star ratings is a step
forward from using performance indicators alone.

She says: “I do believe the public has a right
to know how services are performing. It’s important that the annual
review feeds into the overall measurement. It means we can hear
from users in a different way than performance indicators can.”

However, she has concerns about the impact on
morale and recruitment in departments getting a zero star rating.
“It could lead to low morale and exacerbate difficulties in
recruiting staff,” she warns.

On the other hand, being identified as a
successful department is good for morale, Williams says, based on
her experience of Salford being identified as one of the top 15
performing departments last autumn. “Staff have told me that it
makes them feel really feel proud of who they work for.”

Although she broadly agrees with the
government framework for assessing performance, Williams believes
some of the measures are influenced by factors outside departments’
control. For example, she says the number of people supported in
residential care in Salford is affected by high levels of poverty.
Relatively few older people own their own homes or have access to
capital, so the department has to foot the bill if they go into a
care home.

Welcoming the continuing work between the
Association of Directors of Social Services and the government on
improving measures, Williams argues: “There are a few question
marks about the adult measures. The children’s data are better in
terms of picking up outcomes.”

Finally, Williams rejects any suggestion of a
potential danger of the performance rating system distorting the
priorities of social workers.

“I haven’t seen any evidence of that in my own
department,” she says. “It wouldn’t lead people to try to sustain
placements where children’s needs are not being met. Social workers
are independent enough not to be forced down that route. But it
does focus our minds on getting placements right first time around,
and that’s got to be good for children.”

Three stars

Newcastle upon Tyne
Director: Tom Dervin

Social services director at Newcastle upon
Tyne Tom Dervin believes that his local authority was able to build
on its good joint review and position as one of the top 15 most
improving councils last year by “vigorously pursuing the
performance agenda”.

He believes that the 11 key performance
indicators given more weight in the assessment process are valid
and are “helpful measurements of strategies we are following

“When your targets are very specific, it does
concentrate the mind,” Dervin says. “Some of the indicators we
really believe in. For example, increasing the number of adoptions.
We believe that is an absolutely crucial indicator. And we believe
that elderly people should be in their own homes wherever possible
and we are right at the top of the table for that.”

Dervin says it is also helpful to know which
councils are stronger than his own in certain areas, so he knows
who to turn to in order to find out how to do things differently.
He sees local authorities helping each other as critical to
improving performance across the board.

“I’m completely against penalising local
authorities, but I am in favour of objective assessment,” he says.
“There should not be such a wide range of performance. But you
won’t get convergence by penalising people. We need to use all our
resources to pull services up for everybody.”

In terms of freedoms for top-performing
councils, Dervin would like to see Newcastle upon Tyne’s social
services department given the “foundation status” recently granted
to four hospitals on a pilot basis, under which they are free of
any interference from Whitehall.

Certainly, Dervin believes more funds would
boost performance levels still further. “Demand always exceeds
supply,” he says. “I would prefer to be in a growing business. If I
was a commercial business with performance ratings like this, I
could go to the bank for a loan.”

Dervin describes the star rating performance
process as very challenging and very thorough. “They do come and
look at every aspect of what you are doing,” he says. “I think it
has measured us very fairly.”



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