To the power of four

By Mark Rogers | 12 October 2017
  • Mark Rogers

As part of the second installment of children's services essays collated by iMPOWER, Mark Rogers argues quality services stem from a quartet of officer and political leadership at local and national level, and calls for the sector to commission a long-term partner, or partners, to drive improvement. 

Some things change; some things stay the same. Often, it’s the things that change that attract our attention: new policies, updated inspection frameworks, further reductions in money, etc.

But we should also try hard to stay interested in, and focused on, the things that stay the same – especially the related quests for the most effective leadership and self-assurance of the children’s services system.

With children’s services now firmly caught in the blinding spotlight of budget cuts, it will be more important than ever to ensure that the decisions about how they are delivered and funded in the future are seen as the business of the whole council and the wider partnership ecosystem in which prioritisation and (dis)investment are considered. There has long been a debate about the implications of the ‘single point of accountability’ enshrined in the statutory role description of the director of children’s services. But now we have more than a decade’s worth of experience behind us, it is timely to emphasise the importance of keeping this issue in the forefront of our minds as we deliberate how to crack the code that is continued local government austerity against a backdrop of rising demand and expectations.

My experiences in three different local authorities, including one in statutory intervention, is that at one level the answer is simple. The prioritisation of children’s services within the corporate context of how all the council’s resources are going to be allocated and spent requires both the keen interest of, and a deep commitment from, the leader or mayor and lead member, along with the chief executive and director of children’s services (DCS). This quartet of political and officer leadership provides the basic operating environment in which to maximise the likelihood of improved outcomes for children and young people being at the centre of a local authority’s decision-making.

Let’s be clear, the requirement of a literal single point of accountability has always been a fault line in the 2004 Children Act. The rationale is impeccable – following Lord Laming’s review, the DCS is the go-to person about all things children: to laud or to lambast. But the reality of implementation has unpicked this reasoning. Successful councils have, as a minimum, the aforementioned quartet of leadership foursquare behind the business. They have recognised that one heroic (or otherwise) leader is not what it takes for sustainable success: you have to sign up the most senior and influential politician and officer, too. And the counterfactual exists. Pretty much every report about failure will cite the absence of this hegemony of commitment. Heavens, within months of ‘Every Child Matters’ taking to the road, the Department for Education (DfE), Local Government Association (LGA), the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) were working together on an assurance framework that identified the critical success factors for effective children’s services. Number one was the starting point of the backing of both the leader/mayor and chief executive along, of course, with the other two.

This is not to say that lines of accountability shouldn’t be clear. But the over-simplification is not helpful. The DCS and lead member can, and should, primarily own their respective spaces and be held accountable for them. But only primarily. Chief executives are, inter alia, heads of paid service and are responsible for leading the officer cadre. Leaders/mayors sign off manifestos and local policy and resource decisions. Both should be held accountable for the execution of these duties. Exculpating them from ownership of, and responsibility for, children’s services is to start down the rocky road of making the business of improving outcomes for children and young people someone else’s business when we all know that safeguarding is everyone’s business.

Of course, this alignment of roles is no guarantee of interest and commitment from all four, but it is, at least, symbolic for the council as a whole and the wider partners – let alone communities – that an effort is being made to put welfare and wellbeing at the heart of the council’s thinking and doing. From such a platform, it becomes a little easier to persuade others of the importance of prioritising better outcomes for children and young people because the messages truly come from across the top of the statutory shop.

The other issue here is the one about systems. The policy, resource and leadership dynamics have changed significantly in recent years and there is a degree of consensus (if not yet practice) that change happens when leaders (politicians and officers – and, of course, partners) appreciate the importance of values, purpose and priorities being developed and owned through the seeding of strong relationships that bear fruit in sustainable partnerships. And these things cannot be determined by one voice. Yes, ultimately, they will need to be defined and delivered on, but their conception and iteration are surely a shared mission that, through sophisticated and authentic engagement, brings lasting buy-in. Systems still need to be convened and DCS’s and lead members have a clear role in this, supported by their bosses. But the idea of a single point can be troublesome in a world increasingly bought-in to networks (as opposed to hierarchies) if a single point is perceived to be the preserve of the specialists and ‘their’ business.

Linked to the challenge arising from system leadership is the vexing matter of how best to lead the drive for continuous improvement – something that has no sharper relief than in children’s services that are still (rightly) subject to a national performance benchmarking framework courtesy of Ofsted, which ensures there is a minimum of transparency, public reporting and accountability across England.

Again, for me, there is an essential quartet of involvement and commitment required, but this time starting at the national level. Irrespective of improvement methodology considerations, crucial though they are, I am of the view that the sector cannot just self-regulate. It is absolutely right that the key local government bodies representing the most senior elected and appointed officials should be bound together constructively on this mission – that would bring together the LGA, Solace and ADCS. But this grouping alone doesn’t suffice and it would benefit from jointly commissioning a long-term, non-local government sector, improvement partner. This partner could be a single institution, for example a third sector body with the right track record. Or, preferable in my view, it could be a consortium of partners bringing a blended set of skills, knowledge, understanding and experience to bear on the challenge of creating and sustaining a self-improving system.

Why? Well, self-evidently (despite our best efforts sometimes to convince ourselves to the contrary) we do not have a universally effective early warning and intervention framework and, so, too many councils still get into trouble with little being done to support or challenge them until Ofsted comes a-knocking. At the heart of this problem lies the sector’s inability to be consistently tough on itself. Not always, of course. But there can be a tendency to rely more on support than challenge in part, I believe from direct experience, because we are a local government family that rightly values learning over blame, and wants to think the very best of everyone’s potential and ability. The trouble is, love it or loathe it, Ofsted finds that we are not self-regulating effectively and too often flags up that some council’s self-awareness and/or reliance on peer review is not heading off journeys into ailing or failing territory.

So, let’s start to learn from this. Instead of tinkering with an internal-only system, let’s give some serious thought to how the sector bodies can strengthen their capabilities and commitments by working with a broader spectrum of partners who can help improve the design and deployment of effective improvement methods, and gain a much greater traction on the sector in terms of an equalisation of support and challenge, aided and abetted by a presumption of transparency and openness when it comes to reporting. Undoubtedly this will require a redefining of relationships within the sector (we have to crack the old chestnut of ‘you will participate of your own free will’), but also with DfE and Ofsted, who will need to take a more sanguine and tolerant view of the exposure of frailties in order that improvement can be given a chance to thrive before it is prematurely and damagingly measured, and still found wanting.

This is all basic thinking. But we too often forget the basics because of the slew of other issues that need to be addressed day-in, day-out. Children’s service ratings appear to be coming out of the Wilshaw-induced slough of despair that unnaturally inverted the performance profile of the sector over the previous five years. With encouraging signs that there might just be fewer ‘inadequate’ and ‘requires improvement’ judgements and more ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ councils over the next half decade, local authorities at the local level, and their sector bodies at the national level, need to remain awake and smelling the coffee if the prize of effectiveness in improving the life-chances of children is not to be compromised by weak or unfocused leadership and improvement efforts.

Only when it is the case that there is a universal strength of political and officer leadership will the sector rightly be able to say that it is doing all that it can to mitigate the consequences of late-stage austerity and the pressures of growing need.

Mark Rogers is executive director of Collaborate

iMPOWER's essay collection, Shining a Light Volume 2, can be downloaded here. It follows the success of its first collection of children's services essays

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