Unfair and inaccurate

They didn’t exactly light up the sky in a glittering array, but
social services departments did, on balance, put on a better
performance in this month’s round of star ratings than they did in
the first round last May. A dozen departments gained stars, whereas
only half as many lost them. It would be easy to welcome these
developments as a sign of the growing quality of social services
and of the Department of Health’s confidence in them. But it is not
that simple because, no matter how pleased the two and three-star
departments may be with their results, the system as a whole is
manifestly unfair.

For one thing it is a muddle and fails to match like with like.
There are discrepancies in data collection between councils which
may cause one department to be marked down relative to another for
reasons that have nothing to do with the underlying performance of
services. In one case important data were overlooked because the
director happened to be on holiday; in another vital information
was missed because the Social Services Inspectorate claimed not to
have received it. Minor shortcomings in information management are
an arbitrary basis on which to penalise departments in a
star-ratings system that is intended as a public guide to the state
of services.

Second, so much store is placed by the 11 key performance
indicators that a distorted picture is given of services overall.
For example, Somerset lost one of its two stars despite rising from
16th to seventh place in the league of performance indicators taken
together. The fault lay not with some deep-seated operational or
managerial failing in the department, but with a simple error by
one inspector who omitted to carry out his quota of unannounced
inspections of children’s homes.

Unfortunately for him and his department, it was a key indicator
and the penalty was correspondingly harsh. Yet this is much more an
indictment of the star-ratings system, which apparently gives so
much weight to a single mistake, than it is of the inspector or his

It is quite disingenuous of the SSI to say that the star ratings
are an opportunity to send positive messages about the good work
social services are doing. The fact is that the star ratings are a
crude measure which betrays the government’s obsession with
creating an elite in every sphere, whether it be health, education
or social services. If you’re part of the in-crowd it can be very
rewarding; for everyone else it can be a thoroughly demoralising,
demotivating experience.

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