The Simon Heng Column

The Commission for Social Care Inspection star ratings for social services departments were published this week, with a fanfare at least in The Guardian. After scanning the tables to see how my local authority had performed, and after trying to translate the performance indicators into an English I could understand, I began to wonder why the performance of social services across the country had been assessed like this.

It is absolutely right that government at all levels should be asking the question “How are we doing?”, and as any social scientist will tell you, there are many different ways of asking – and answering – this question. I also understand the two basic requirements: how good (or bad) are the services in each area, and have they improved (or deteriorated) since the last time they were inspected? As an administrative tool for government and local authorities, the performance ratings may be of help.

But the report claims to go further.

In the introduction to the document, part of the rationale behind the report is that: “People have a right to know how well their councils are performing in meeting [their] responsibilities”. How, exactly, are we service users and council tax payers meant to judge our local authority’s performance from a league table, and from using words like “excellent”? Does “excellent” mean “as good as it gets”, or just “better than the others”?

What am I meant to do with the information that my local authority has more, or fewer, stars than its neighbours? If it was my football team, I could feel proud if we stood higher in the league than our rivals. But social services provision isn’t a competition – as far as I know – and even if it was, and my local authority was at the top of the pile, should I feel glad that I’m deemed to be getting a better service than if I lived somewhere else?

Although more details of councils’ performance is available on the CSCI’s website, many of us mere mortals will learn little from this report about services important to us.

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