The words “frank”, “open” and “challenging” come up regularly when talking to adult social services directors and council members with lead political responsibility for that area about their relationship. It is an important partnership – fail to get the balance right and the whole organisation can be destabilised, ultimately affecting services.
The creation of adult social services departments two years ago has proved a steep learning curve for every local authority, particularly when establishing the right roles for members and officers. The Department of Health stresses the importance of effective political leadership, lines of accountability and scrutiny. “We believe that a strategic overview of adult social care policy is needed by a person who is in a position to influence a range of other departments of local government,” as one spokesperson put it. “However, it is the department’s view that there should be local discretion over the precise scope of the remit of this member.”
Discretion in reality seems to mean that authorities are left to get on with it. Indeed, one concern raised by Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser for children, adults and health services at the Improvement and Development Agency (Idea), is that with increasing discretion to decide funding priorities, the lead member has to be able to argue much more effectively for the priority of their area.
Another concern, he says, is the complexity of being a lead member and the fact that the people who fill that post can come and go quite rapidly. To help with the complexity at least, Idea launched a consultation at the national children and adult services conference this week with the aim of producing a web-based resource on the top 20 things that lead members should know.
Cozens says: “We aim to establish a benchmark of what we believe is good practice, which we will develop with councillors. We hope this will help the relationship between the director and lead member and improve lead members’ effectiveness in the council cabinet.”
Lead members are probably crying out for help as current DH guidance for them is somewhat skimpy. But can central diktats be relevant to locally defined roles anyway?
In at the deep end
Ivan White started as Southampton Council’s cabinet member for adult health and care in May this year. As someone just introduced to the role, was he given any helpful pointers? “No, I suppose it was just my background,” he says. “At the moment the local authority is setting up a mentor for me to build on my post as a cabinet member, but prior to that there was nothing apart from my experience in the business and commercial world.”
White has had to bond with his director, John Beer, in a very short time. “There is a good relationship developing,” he says. “He helps me to be challenging. He sees me as having the political will to do things and that’s important from his point of view.”
Beer, who is also the honorary secretary for the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, has plenty of experience in giving support to the lead member. “You start off by being aware that they’ve got another life beyond just the things that you deal with day-to-day,” he says. “The other thing is building the confidence that you’re a safe pair of hands. You encourage them to answer the questions that come to them. Your job is not to expose them.”
Southampton is unusual in that Beer answers to two lead members, one for community safety and one for adult services. A whistlestop tour around the country reveals that these sorts of governance arrangements very much depend on the character of the population the authority serves. Hampshire, like many authorities, has recently had to deal with a large overspend on its adult social services budget. Director Rea Mattocks, who moved to the county from a London borough, argues that the county’s unity helped turn this around.
“It’s a very settled community with enormous social cohesion and social capital,” she says. “The members come from this community and care about it. I’ve seen other authorities where they see it as a stepping stone to becoming an MP.”
Mattocks applauds the fact that members are “highly visible” to the people of Hampshire and that they keep social services on the agenda. A recent Ipsos Mori poll revealed that 31% in the county were concerned about services for older people, a higher than average figure. “This is unusual. For me it’s a sign of how mature an organisation is when they care about their vulnerable people,” says Mattocks.
Ken Thornber leads Hampshire Council and takes more than a keen interest in adult social services by working directly with Mattocks and the executive member for adult social care Felicity Hindson. “We’re a big county and relationships with directors have always been good, and support of politicians has always been there through thick and thin,” he says. “I can’t see that the government could prescribe a relationship in anything other than a systemic and structural way.”
Thornber says he finds Mattocks thought-provoking and the debates between the two “lively”. “That’s as it should be,” he adds. “It’s not a question of confrontation, but of hard choices that resulted in hard debate. Adversity has made us a tighter unit. We’re proud that we’ve clawed back a £20m overspend while in the midst of that reconfiguring services that have seen a move from residential care to extra care.”
The political consensus found in Hampshire was lacking in Stoke-on-Trent, which has six separate political groups. Tired of poor results and endless criticism, the unheard of happened when the opposing Labour and Conservative groups formed a cabinet together. Councillor Roger Ibbs was given responsibility for adult and older people services as he was seen to have the necessary leadership qualities. “Given the authority to make those changes I don’t mind taking the flak, if I believe as I do that the direction we’re going in is shown to be the right one,” he says.
The relationship between Ibbs and director Terry Hawkins (left, pictured left) has proved to be the key in turning around the organisation’s performance. They meet daily, whereas many other director/member duos who meet a few times a week. The first step they took was to agree on a course of action, backed by the cabinet, and to set out a timetable.
“It’s pointless for me as a politician trying to drive something if you’ve got a senior officer who doesn’t agree with the pace,” says Ibbs. “In fact I thought I was fast, but we’ve got a director that actually wanted to be ahead of me. The most important thing I can give Terry is the political support, but also to deal with the press. I’m experienced at fielding the difficult questions, and that isn’t an officer’s role.”
Hawkins agrees: “The pace of change in those few months that Roger took over the portfolio role has been immense. When I first arrived in Stoke there was a lot of indecision. Members felt disempowered, and officers were seen to be making the wrong decisions. Social services were considered to be failing. It also meant poor PR and local media management, where almost daily you’d read something negative about services, which is tremendously demoralising.”
By meeting with staff and service users to hear their concerns, what they jokingly call the “Terry and Roger Roadshow”, as well as developing a host of new services, things quickly improved and the local press is now far kinder to the department.
“We’re shortly to become a national exemplar of provision of extra care housing,” Hawkins enthuses. “We’re also establishing centres of excellence – ‘hotel style’ day facilities and residential facilities – which are already capturing the imagination of regional and national colleagues. This is an immense achievement, given where we were 12 months ago.”
Whatever the type of local authority, rural or urban, politically diverse or unified, it is clear running a successful department takes close collaboration between officers and politicians. “I’ve been in politics for 30 years and I haven’t enjoyed those past 30 half as much as I’ve enjoyed the last three or four months,” says Ibbs.
“We talk openly, frankly, not only to one another but to staff. I can only see it getting better.”
➔ To comment on Idea’s revised draft version on what lead members should know, send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the 18 October issue under the headline “Up close and personal”