Council leaders have apologised after a review of their ‘inadequate’ children’s services found a toxic institutional culture that disempowered staff and was widely seen as enabling pervasive bullying.
The scathing report on West Sussex by commissioner John Couglan, on behalf of the Department for Education (DfE), will lead to the council losing control of its children’s services.
Hampshire council chief executive Coughlan, appointed by the DfE after West Sussex was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in May, condemned arrangements that had seen the director of children’s services (DCS) role downgraded and needless tiers of management introduced.
His report concluded that conditions for sustained improvement “do not currently exist” and that the government should take immediate steps to remove children’s services from council control and create an independent trust to run them.
Ministers agreed and today issued a statutory direction, which said that West Sussex should work with Coughlan, who has been reappointed as commissioner, “towards the establishment of a company for the delivery of children’s social care services”.
Speaking at a meeting of the county’s full council this morning, Paul Marshall, West Sussex’s leader since October and previously its cabinet member for children and young people, said sorry to families “who have not received the level of service we would have liked them to”.
Marshall said he fully accepted the findings of the report – which he described as “painful” – and acknowledged that the local authority now faced a “mammoth task” to turn itself around.
While Coughlan praised the positive leadership of Marshall and interim DCS John Readman, he found “a striking absence of any direct ownership of the failings in a number of quarters” within the council’s senior leadership or children’s services.
Coughlan’s review, which was carried out with the help of senior figures from Hampshire’s children’s services, was based on data analysis, reports and 150 detailed interviews with politicians, managers at all levels and staff.
Current and former staff interviewed for the review told of a “strong and pervasive sense of management bullying” that was felt to be “implicitly legitimised politically and managerially”.
While Coughlan acknowledged that his report could not verify the accuracy of these accounts and that they may be disputed by some, he found a “consistency of messages which describe longstanding almost casual disrespect for individuals, from the top down, which must say something about how the organisation functions”.
His report found an “alarming” record of churn among senior managers who were described as moving quickly “from heroes to zeros” after very few errors of judgment or personality clashes.
Relations between councillors and officers were described as “dysfunctional” – especially with regards to children’s services, whose problems became viewed as a departmental failure rather than one reflecting wider corporate problems.
Two meetings in late 2018 between elected members and former DCS Annie MacIver, around the need for urgent investment ahead of Ofsted’s impending 2019 visit, were “difficult and hostile” to the extent that McIver walked out of her job after the second one. The incident had been enabled by West Sussex’s “insular approach to cabinet governance”, with an inordinate proportion of meetings by the council’s main decision-making body taking place behind closed doors, the review found.
‘Little space for respectful uncertainty’
Within children’s services, Coughlan and his team found further evidence of “damaging and deep-rooted narratives”.
“Cabinet meetings were described as a ‘ritual flogging’ with reports returned to be re-written dozens of times,” the review said. “What is also remarkable is the way in which this exposure by senior managers has filtered through the organisation so that relatively junior managers are able to describe the ‘blood on the carpet’ and perceived bullying of certain key events.”
It added that that it was clear there was “little space at any senior level, for respectful uncertainty, discussion, consideration or disagreement”. This prevailing attitude was critical to systemic failures within children’s services, which are “by their very nature, complex, contested and uncertain”.
While the review found much less evidence of overt bullying at the children’s services front line, it said that the institutional culture of disempowerment had filtered down to team managers, who no longer felt confident in decision-making.
“This latter point has also been described as a ‘collective guilty conscience’ whereby managers do not feel that they have permission to make decisions or are unwilling to make difficult decisions, instead they try to do the job for practitioners, so everyone is acting down, below their grade,” it said.
Demotion of DCS role
This disempowerment was reflected at senior level. A series of high-level restructures, starting several years earlier, had also led to a “unique” situation in which West Sussex’s DCS role was effectively demoted in authority, contrary to statutory guidance on the role.
This states that the DCS should report directly to the chief executive. However, from 2016, the DCS role was relegated to the third tier of management, reporting to an executive director of people who in turn reported to the chief executive.
“Crucially [this has] meant that the voice of children and the needs of children’s services have not been heard properly or authoritatively at what is undoubtedly the ‘top table’ of the county council for at least three years,” the report said. Prior to the publication of Coughlan’s report, the council decided to convert the DCS role to the authority’s second tier, reporting directly to the chief executive.
‘Limited understanding of good practice’
At an operational level, the investigation found a number of critical failings within children’s services, including:
- Siloed working, with managers acting to protect their individual fiefdoms.
- A culture of talking about “cases not children”, with a lack of professional ownership of services’ impact on people’s lives.
- A “dangerous” service-wide confusion around thresholds.
- A misguided narrative about excessive caseloads and lack of capacity, masking deeper underlying problems around how effectively resources had been deployed.
- An excessive and complicated structure of management, with a lack of clarity around different roles.
- Inconsistency around social work methodology, with some parts of the service applying Signs of Safety while others did not, and confusion among senior managers around how to do so.
- A history of rewriting performance reports to avoid “bad news”, leading to an “exceptionally limited” understanding at all levels of service as to what good practice looks like.
The review noted more positively that interim DCS Readman was respected by politicians and corporate leaders as well as within children’s services.
Almost all of the previous senior managers within the directorate had been replaced, it said, adding that further restructures would be needed in due course to facilitate West Sussex’s improvement journey and transition to a children’s services trust.
Among a series of recommendations, the review said that a children’s services management training programme should be implemented, as well as a “continuous” process via which staff could engage around service and cultural changes.
At this morning’s council meeting, Jacquie Russell, cabinet member for children and young people, confirmed that some of the report’s other recommendations were already underway.
“We are restructuring our corporate parenting panel to foreground the voice of the child and ensure that members understand their responsibilities,” Russell said.