‘Don’t call me Mr Fixer’: an interim manager’s lessons learned turning around failing social services

Mark Gurrey explains how you shift an organisation's culture, why things go wrong and his trailblazing new role in Norfolk

He’s been parachuted into troubled children’s services in Haringey, Doncaster and Birmingham as an interim manager, but Mark Gurrey insists he’s no “Mr Fixer”.

“I’ve always worked as part of a team of people who’ve helped turn things around and I don’t think it’s helpful to anybody to construct a notion of a heroic leader coming over the hills. It’s not how things work,” he says.

‘Troubled services’

Now he’s been drafted into Norfolk council as a special adviser, the first post of its kind, employed jointly by the local authority and the Department for Education to help turn around its inadequate-rated children’s services.

Gurrey might be adamant that he’s no heroic saviour, but the council is sure to hope he’ll inject some of the same energy he brought to Haringey, in the wake of the tragic and media-dogged death of baby Peter Connelly.

‘A fresh approach’

“Sometimes you need a fresh pair of eyes, some fresh energy and impetus, a fresh approach- that is true,” he says.

His career path may have kept him mostly in inadequate services, but Gurrey believes even the most outstanding authority is only a few months from failing if the balance of demand and resources slips.

“Children’s social work is a fragile set of services and they can go wrong very easily,” he says. “People take their eye off the ball, not out of negligence, but because there are other balls to look at.”

So if every authority is just a spike in referrals away from an inadequate rating, what can be done by councils to prevent this from happening?

“I think probably the biggest thing is to start to look at the culture of an organisation. You see some common themes [in failing authorities],” Gurrey explains.

“Struggling authorities often have a culture of ‘don’t turn over that stone, you don’t know what’s underneath it,’ whereas in children’s services you absolutely have to turn over that stone because you don’t know what’s underneath it. You’ve got to be ready to ask difficult questions.”

‘Culture shift’

Another challenge for authorities is collecting the right amount and kind of performance data. This, he says, is not about number crunching but about getting beneath the figures to understand what they mean for the experience of  a child going through the system.

It might be that recording systems are hindering rather than helping. This was one of the issues in Birmingham where Gurrey found a 15 page form, that was keeping social workers staying late on Sunday afternoons to record visits, could instead be stripped back to two pages without losing any substance.

Making these observations and putting the right solutions in place means Gurrey has to work with staff at all levels, on the front line, with managers, directors and lead members to understand the particular challenge facing an authority. In true Munro style, he’s is critical of anything that signifies process over practice, something he extends to Ofsted’s one-word rating regime which he believes cannot capture the complexity of children’s social work.

‘Greater analysis’

“There’s still a lack of analytical work,” Gurrey says. “Ofsted recommendations remain descriptive of the problem. If the problem is high caseloads, the recommendation is, ‘caseloads must come down’. That’s not an action, that’s a statement of good intent and that doesn’t help the authority know what needs to be done to lower caseloads.”

Neither does it interrogate the problems that may have led to high caseloads in the first place, such as poor demand-management, lack of resource or weak decision-making thresholds.

Having come fresh from a stint in Doncaster, and the new trust model where services have been taken out of the control of the council, he has positive things to say about the non-traditional approach to commissioning services.

‘Trust model’

“I’m not a fan of privatisation. I do not want children’s services being given to Serco or G4S. But the kind of model that has been developed in Doncaster and is being developed in Slough is different.

“I think there are absolute benefits for children’s social care being in a service where there is one purpose and it can be constructed to meet that need.”

Both Doncaster and Slough were directed by the government to set up trusts. Except for Achieving for Children in Kingston, no authority has freely opted into a “semi-privatised” model but Gurrey believes it might be only a matter of time before it stops being “associated with authorities who’ve been on the naughty step” and starts looking like a viable option with benefits for even successful services.

“I think it’s a good idea, worthy of exploration, and I can see it working,” Gurrey concludes.

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One Response to ‘Don’t call me Mr Fixer’: an interim manager’s lessons learned turning around failing social services

  1. Andrew Walker February 19, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

    I understand that we have a “Mr Fixer” parachuted into Western Isles Council at the behest of the Care Commission to sort out concerns being expressed locally, arising from the brutal death by murder of 16 year-old Liam Aitchison, in Nov 2011. Liam was a looked after child in care of the local authority for nearly two years. A local body of concerned professionals – journalist, advocacy worker, and retired social worker, who call themselves the “Review Group” – have been unable to elicit reasons from the council as to why this young person was discharged from statutory supervision at a Children’s Hearing, only a few months before his 16th birthday in May 2011, months before his murder.
    It has taken the council and Child Protection C’ttee of the Western Isles Council over three years to complete a Significant Case Review into the death of Liam Aitchison, who was living rough as a Homeless person in Stornoway months before his death. His murdered body was located in a derelict building a few days after his murder, with over 20 stab wounds, and body parts disfigured, teeth kicked out. Two persons have been convicted of his murder, and are serving an 18 year sentence.
    The RG had to go to the Information Commissioner for Scotland to seek access to this SCR. He agreed that the Recommendations should be published, but not the report.
    The RG are in recent contact with Liam’s father and legal guardian, Mr Norman Aitchison, who has been put in contact with the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland. Also, Mr Aitchison is now lodging formal complaints about how his son was “failed” by statutory and voluntary providers of social care services.
    Although living in a remote and isolated location, statutory services should nevertheless meet a certain basic standard. The RG are convinced that this did not happen with regard to Liam Aitchison, and remain intent on ensuring that the truth be told. The RG have stated the need for a full and independent Inquiry.