Social services question usefulness of shooting for the brightest stars

Can star ratings measure the complexity of
social care or are they focused too narrowly on certain results,
asks Lauren Revans, while overleaf directors give their

The stars might be out, but the sky is far
from clear. Heavy clouds hang over the 10 social services
departments that were awarded zero stars this week in the first
round of the government’s new performance rating system. The system
is designed to show the public how their local authority is

Although the star ratings were
calculated using “the full range of available performance
evidence”, concerns remain that the results have been distorted by
one or two issues rather than representing the whole

people have got to remember is that star ratings are based on a
very small selection of information,” says director of education
and social policy at the Local Government Association John
Ransford. “What they are showing is that a council is good or bad
in a certain area.”

Ransford describes the star
ratings system as “work in progress”, adding that it must improve
over time. A review of the process will begin in June, to which the
LGA and the Association of Directors of Social Services are keen to

are all for a transparent and fair system which people can use to
evaluate. But we have to make sure that the information provided
meets that. All this information has to be treated with caution,”
says Ransford.

adds that the information must be used for improvement, even by
councils with three stars. He sees the removal of six social
services departments from special measures as a reflection of what
can be achieved with a sustained effort by local authorities and
their political leaders, alongside external help.

terms of handling the process with sensitivity, the decision to let
health minister Jacqui Smith make the star ratings announcements
rather than risk health secretary Alan Milburn alienating social
work staff, as he did with his naming and shaming tactics last
October, appears to represent some form of progress on the part of
the Department of Health.

junior vice-president Tony Hunter adds: “We need to move on from
what happened in October on the assumption that lessons have been
learned. It was not helpful. And it is indeed significant that
local authorities named at that point are by no means languishing
in the lower levels of the star system.”

Despite the striking difference
between the zero star list and Milburn’s worst performers, Hunter
still believes there is an over-reliance in the new system on
performance indicators, some of which he believes lack reliability
and all of which he feels are out of date given that they are based
on data for 2000-1.

However, the Social Services
Inspectorate, which will retain responsibility for publishing the
star ratings until it is replaced by the Commission for Social Care
Inspection, has promised local authorities that their ratings will
be reviewed in the autumn to take account of the 2001-2 performance
data and any joint reviews completed between now and

Ross, director of social services in the London Borough of Barking
and Dagenham and chief executive of Barking and Dagenham primary
care trust, believes the present system is simplistic. She would
like to see a much more comprehensive system of information
gathering and accountability that takes account of money spent,
staffing and the perspectives of users and the wider community, as
well as performance. She believes the current system provides no
useful information for the service user, and appears to have been
devised chiefly for political purposes.

ratings are fine for hotels and restaurants, and give useful
information about the service and facilities to expect. Health and
social care are extremely complex concerns.”

shares Ross’s doubts about how useful the information will be for
service users given that more than half of all English local
authorities have a one-star rating. “Fifty-five per cent in one
category does not differentiate between those near the top of that
category and those near the bottom,” Hunter explains. “What we will
need to talk about with the SSI is how far this helps given the
policy objective is to give clear information.”

says the ADSS is keen to introduce at least one extra rating level
to deal with this issue, and says this will be discussed as part of
the forthcoming review. Until then – or until the ratings are
reviewed in the autumn – social services departments must accept
the stars they have been given and move on.

issue for us all is improvement,” Hunter says. “If a local
authority loses morale, it will certainly not be helpful in
achieving the objective that we share with the DoH, which is
performance improvement.”

to see the full list of star ratings.

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