Roots of quality

We live in a world where everybody expects a service to deliver on
its promises and in the words of the Ronseal advert “do what it
says on the tin”. The performance assessment framework (PAF) has
provided the means to judge social services and to set targets for
improvements. But PAF is still relatively new to social services
departments so it is hardly surprising there have been teething

The Audit Commission uses the phrase “the golden thread” to
describe the flow of understanding in public sector organisations
if planned improvements are to become a living reality. I have
heard this renamed the “golden threat”. One social worker friend
tells me that when her director spies a dodgy indicator he tells
the assistant director to “get that PI up!” The assistant director
tells the principal officer “get that PI up” and so on. The social
workers at the end of the golden threat wonders how they can do
this all on their own.

This approach to performance improvement is based on the premise
that all processes and procedures are in place to improve things if
only staff would get on with it. But performance management
disciplines are still new to social services so staff are not
always in tune with them. IT systems are completely unforgiving if
not used properly, staff may not have been fully trained about what
PIs mean, how they link with other priorities, how performance is
recorded and what their part in that is. Besides, front-line staff
have more pressing priorities, don’t they?

The result of this has often been that performance against some PIs
is only saved from disaster by panic activity at the last minute.
And the “performance culture” that senior managers want to develop
is sometimes experienced at the front line as more top-down
pressure, and derided as unpredictable bureaucratic folly unrelated
to practice.

In Lancashire we have struggled with this as much as other local
authorities and have recently established a set of six performance
principles and a way of incorporating performance management down
the line as part of the planning cycle.

First of all it is axiomatic that the organisational arrangements
we make to collect information about performance should not affect
service users. There is an expectation that in children and
families work initial assessments should be done in seven days,
which many feel is too tight. In some local authorities, in order
to meet this deadline, managers have cut corners, delayed taking
referrals or pretended the work has finished when it hasn’t.

Treating the people we are serving as pawns of the PI is appalling
and pointless. Nothing changes in this attempt to appease the PIand
nothing is done to challenge an unacceptable deadline. The Audit
Commission refers to this concentration on a single PI to the
exclusion of good practice and decent outcomes as “gaming” and that
is exactly what it is, playing with people’s lives.

Second, front-line staff must be able to see the relationship
between measured performance, good practice and good outcomes for
service users. Senior managers must make sure that all staff can
reconcile these three.

Data collected for case recording must be used for performance
measurement. There should be no double entry of data to different
systems. Front-line staff have responsibility for the quality of
data used for performance management and must understand their

Plans for improvement must be understood up and down the line. PIs
and targets must be acted upon at team level, which means that
business plans must operate at team level. Information must be made
available to teams to ensure they can manage their local
performance responsibilities.

In any organisation people respond when they are given a say in
what they do and responsibility for outcomes. So we are working on
the idea of the tree of knowledge. The roots of expectation from
the public, members and the government combine in the trunk of
organisational priorities that in turn split into branches of
detailed action plans, which include individual PIs, and the twigs
and leaves of the day-to-day action of each member of staff. The
key is that staff only have to know their own twig and leaf – not
the whole trunk.

We are in the process of breaking down all the PIs into groups
relevant to each type of team or unit. This means that each team in
future will have six or eight prime PIs to look after. That team
will be directly responsible for performance against that selection
of prime PIs. Each team manager is to be briefed on what is
expected of them and information will be made available about
progress against the PI on a team basis quarterly. In team planning
each of the prime PIs must be considered for improvement. This way
the management of performance will be in the team’s hands and there
can be no surprises from above half way through the year.

Some teams will have a considerable number of prime PIs and some
teams none, so we have decided to identify measures of success
across the board – outcome measures for all teams. We are asking
all teams what activity they believe they should be measured
against so that local PIs can be devised.

The parameters being used are the Social Services Inspectorate
standards, corporate objectives and the social services
department’s priorities, the team’s own view of what is good
practice and their view of what good outcomes are for service
users. This cannot be properly done without the involvement of
service users to act as the roots that nourish the twigs in a truly
bottom-up process.

This might sound bizarre (who wants more PIs?), but this exercise
will put the national PIs into a broader context for staff and help
them incorporate national expectations into their view of what is
truly important. Teams with no national PIs have already come
forward with ideas for how their success can be measured. But
another early result has been telling. Some teams have had
difficulty identifying feasible outcome measures and have been
forced to accept that the national PIs have some merit.

This approach is designed to involve front-line staff, but will it
work? A planning cycle and performance management process that
incorporates front-line concerns as well as government expectations
must have a better chance than something that feels imposed from
the top. After all, performance management and targets are only
organisational processes that are trying to make things better for
vulnerable people – a purpose at the very heart of the social care

Current criticism of the PAF is about the unintended consequences
of its implementation, its association with new working practices
and incomplete understanding of the process. I have yet to hear a
cogent case made against the notion of recording progress against a
clear measure of success and trying to improve on it. Telling staff
why the organisation is doing something, inviting them to take part
and resourcing them to do it can only be a winner. 

David Burnham is head of information services at
Lancashire social services; tel 01772 534408; or e-mail

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