Simplistic system is no indicator

My 82-year-old mother has a robust interest in current affairs. Her
reaction to the star ratings awarded to social services departments
was dismissive. She said it was the same type of system used to
encourage primary school children to do well in class. To her this
was another example of how the needs of vulnerable people are
trivialised and demeaned.

The introduction of the comprehensive performance assessment has
developed this system further, and now all local authorities are
being assessed overall as “excellent”, “good”, “fair”, “weak” or

Local authorities should be made accountable for the quality of
their services and public expenditure, but it strikes me as
dangerous in the extreme to deliver these kinds of pronouncements.
It is likely that there was some connection with the decision to
abandon the Joint Review programme at the end of this year and the
death of Victoria Climbi’ in February 2000. After all, in November
1999 the Joint Review stated that the London Borough of Haringey’s
child care practice “appears safe, the systems appear sound”. The
Victoria Climbi’ Inquiry did not criticise the Joint Review, but
found that senior managers in Haringey had highlighted the positive
aspects of the review rather than weaknesses in services.

If one of the social services departments awarded three stars
experiences a high-profile tragedy there will be questions asked
about the reliability of a system that has declared services
overall as excellent. Social work is about dealing with people who
can be unpredictable, duplicitous and frightening. Whatever the
reasons are for the dysfunctional behaviour social workers are
required to engage with difficult people and somehow ensure they
become safe. Sometimes things go wrong. It is possible to speculate
that Haringey’s good Joint Review ultimately did not serve local
people well.

An SSI inspector once told me most social services departments do
something really well, none do everything well. So why have this
type of system, that is both competitive and simplistic? Would it
not be better for local authorities to learn and share good
practice from each other in a collaborative way?

Any performance management system for social services has to
consider local factors, such as social deprivation, demography and
resources, if it is to make useful comparisons between local

Gill Constable is a scrutiny and review officer at West
Sussex Council.

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