Criticisms of star ratings muted as assessment becomes more refined

When the then health secretary Alan Milburn publicly named and
shamed the 14 “worst” social services departments in England two
years ago there were audible gasps from the assembled directors at
the annual social services conference in Harrogate.

While opposition to league tables and naming and shaming is just
as strong today, opposition to the performance management system
introduced by Milburn to measure social services departments’
performances and prospects is more tempered.

In the week that Milburn’s successor John Reid announced
the latest star ratings, with a record 60 per cent of departments
winning two or three stars, directors accept that their
reservations about performance scrutiny are disappearing.

Star ratings are based on evidence from inspections, joint
reviews, performance indicators, and annual reviews. A set of key
performance indicators is used to check councils are treated in the
same way. This year, this includes indicators covering the
self-audit of child protection services that followed the Victoria
Climbié Inquiry, and progress on implementation of the Race
Relations Amendment Act 2000.

A year ago, director of social services for three-star
Kingston-upon-Thames, Roy Taylor, hit out at the system claiming
its results relied on how efficient an authority was at collecting
data. Performance indicators also penalised smaller authorities
where one slight change could have a huge impact on data, he

Twelve months on, he still has some concerns, especially over
“demotivating” league tables, but his overall views have

“The system today is much more robust than it was two years
ago,” Taylor says. “The different bits of the system are working
together and the different parts of the department are much more
geared up to the individual performance indicators. There are still
some frustrations but I feel we now know what we are talking

Across the capital in Camden, social services director Jane
Held, whose department held on to its two stars this year, heaps
praise on today’s system. She says: “There is now a much more
holistic approach to the performance of the organisation and the
system is working better each year.”

In Blackburn with Darwen, director Stephen Sloss says his social
services department pulled its star-rating up from two to three by
getting to grips with the “nuts and bolts” of the system, including
tidying up procedures and adhering to regulations. “The way in
which we now manage the business in terms of performance management
has become much more developed,” he explains.

Even those social services directors who find their departments
at the bottom of the league table appear to be backing the system,
claiming its benefits outweigh its disadvantages.

Veronica Jackson, executive director for social services and
health at Oldham, one of eight departments to have a zero rating
this year, says external review is valuable because it prevents
complacency. But she, too, is critical of public league tables and
the damage they do to staff morale.

Mary Robinson, interim director of community care with statutory
responsibility for social services at North East Lincolnshire,
whose department moved from zero to one star this year, voices
similar concerns: “The downside after we were given zero stars last
year was that people were very demoralised. That has been a real
problem and we are still battling that.

“It’s important that we should be accountable, but there
are other more supportive ways of operating rather than public

Jackson says she has already taken steps to prevent morale
nose-diving by writing to all her staff as soon as this
year’s results were published, “reassuring them about the
value that we place in the job that they do”.

Although she has confidence in the star ratings system, she
thinks it still discriminates and is keen to see a weighted system
brought in which links ability to deliver services to

Community care minister Stephen Ladyman stated at the launch of
this year’s ratings that former critics of the system should
“accept that they were wrong”.

While few directors would go this far, many are at least
prepared to acknowledge that the system has some merit now that it
has had two years to mature and develop.

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