Failure is not an option

On Keith Skirman’s desk is a fuchsia- pink box of tissues. You’d be
forgiven for thinking he may have used them rather a lot during his
first 15 months in what has to be one of the least popular jobs in
local government – that of a social services director in a zero
star-rated department. But judging from the twinkle in his eye and
his chipper demeanour, Skirman has most definitely not been quietly
weeping in his office.

Swindon is well known for being the hometown of Never Mind the
Buzzcocks presenter Mark Lamarr and having eight interlinking
roundabouts. A fact that it wouldn’t want to add to this
illustrious list is that its social services department received
its second zero star rating from the Social Services Inspectorate
in November 2003. To make matters worse, it was the only zero star
department at the time deemed not to be showing any significant
signs of improvement.

But Swindon’s fortunes are about to change – or at least, this is
what Skirman and his colleagues are hoping. Theirs has become the
first local authority in England to form a strategic partnership
with a three-star local authority to improve its social services
department. Under the unique agreement, senior officers from Kent
Council will guide and help their Swindon counterparts over the
next three years. Kent is being paid £3.7m for the pleasure
and the contract is due to go live in the middle of this month.

The concept of bringing in an excellently performing local
authority to act as a buddy for a failing council has received firm
approval from the government. So much so that the Office of the
Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) is providing a whopping £1m of
the initiative’s costs. Swindon is using cash from a rate rebate to
finance the rest.

But why did Swindon’s cabinet agree to spend the money in this way?
Ian Dobie, deputy lead councillor and the council’s lead member for
social services, says he had a fight on his hands convincing the
cabinet to support the plans. “What was in my favour was the ODPM
saying to us that while there were a few green shoots here,
progress was not fast enough.”

The move is just another step towards helping Swindon’s ailing
social services department to recover, according to Skirman. It
started in July 2003 with his – and a new management team’s –

Skirman has already experienced working with a failing social
services department. He joined the London Borough of Hillingdon as
an assistant director in 1999 when its social services department
was on special measures and helped turn it around. So does he see
himself as a problem-solver – is he the “turnaround king”? “I
wouldn’t put myself in that position, no,” he laughs. “There are
other directors who are doing much more challenging things than me
in bigger councils, with bigger problems than here.” He joined
Swindon because he thought he could make a “significant

The top priority for Swindon is to regain control of its financial
position. The social services department overspent at the end of
2003-4 by just under £2m on a net budget of £33m. Its
current spending commitments are pushing the department into an
overspend this year, too. Skirman admits it is a serious problem
for the whole council.

A key element of Swindon’s deal with Kent is to achieve a two-star
rating in three years. Does going for two stars mean that if the
council achieves only one it can still say it has improved? Skirman
says Swindon social services are ambitious, and their motivation is
to “leapfrog” from behind to being ahead of the game. “There are
real dangers in just aspiring to one step up, because if progress
isn’t maintained we may slip back.”

Kent won’t lose out even if Swindon achieves only one star. The
contract contains no penalties, financial or otherwise, because
Skirman is confident Swindon will achieve two stars. However, the
agreement does have financial incentives for both councils if the
contract is finished early.

The contract contains four elements: first, Kent provides interim
management – mainly middle and senior managers – to act alongside
Swindon’s managers. Second, there is identification of Kent systems
and processes that Swindon may wish to adopt. In particular,
Skirman says, they are keen to look at Kent’s human resources
function and how they develop their staff. The third strand of the
contract is the coaching, mentoring and training of Swindon staff.
“We want to embed Kent’s best practice culture in what we do and
how we do it,” he says. The final element is for Kent to provide
strategic analysis and advice to Skirman, Swindon’s chief executive
and elected members, about their performance and the department’s

Constantly hearing that your authority is failing is demotivating
for staff. Jean Pollard, the assistant director for children’s and
families, says: “People do feel the good practice does not get
recognised. There are issues about staff morale, and they are
trying to climb out of a hole.”

Uan Harrison is a support worker in Wick House, a council-run
residential home for older people. When Swindon received its second
zero rating he and his colleagues were disappointed: “Everyone had
put a lot of work in and this didn’t reflect well on us.” But he is
not averse to receiving mentoring from a Kent-based support worker.
“Everybody does their job really well here, but I would be open to
Kent teaching me something,” he says.

So will Skirman’s mentoring sessions with Kent social services
director Peter Gilroy take place on the golf course? No, says
Skirman, he’s not a golfing man. And nor, he stresses, will his
relationship with Gilroy be one of traditional mentoring but more
of a strategic partnership. “It means we will have an open book in
terms of what we do and how we do it with our Kent counterparts,
and we can use their expertise to advise and support us.”

With the money Swindon is spending on its contract with Kent, it
could have afforded to buy in the services of 10 performance action
teams (PATs) – the more traditional route to knocking a poorly
performing authority into shape – and have change left over.
Skirman wasn’t tempted to go down that route again after the
government sent in a PAT between January and October last year. The
difficulty for the PAT, he says, was that the local authority did
not have an effective management team in place to work with them.
“They were maintaining basic services but were not able to devote
to real strategical or practical recovery plans.”

So what is Swindon’s worst-case scenario? Graham Pearson, assistant
director of adult services, says this is for a great deal of time
and energy to be put into working with Kent but for Swindon’s
recovery programme not to accelerate.

Dobie, who spent 33 years in the military, has a different take.
“There is no worst-case scenario because I don’t believe in
failure,” he says. “It is in Kent’s interests to succeed. They will
not tolerate failure either because it won’t look good for

Three years is a long time in local government. Is Skirman already
planning Swindon’s last day with Kent? Is the champagne on ice?
“Yes!” Skirman beams. He isn’t going to let Swindon rest on its
laurels and is keen for the authority to share its experiences with
other failing authorities once its contract ends with Kent.
“Authorities that have pulled themselves out of special measures
have skills and expertise that other local authorities could really
benefit from.”

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