Friday, March 13, 2009

Lessons From The Graveside

Overlooking the real lessons
We've already blogged the appalling case of Baby P and Haringey Social Services (see here here and here). But in the wake of yesterday's report from Lord Laming, it's worth just making sure we all understand the key lessons:
  • Top-down Whitehall direction via targeting has been a fiasco - Haringey social workers prioritised box-ticking and target fulfilment above exercising their own professional/commonsense judgement on the ground

  • The official inspection regime has been a fiasco - both Ofsted and the Audit Commission issued glowing box-ticking reports on Haringey, even as Baby P was facing death

  • Interagency coordination has been a fiasco - in the end no identifiable person was responsible for saving Baby P

  • Yet another public sector computer system has been a fiasco - Haringey social workers were apparently spending 60-70% of their time inputting reports into their system - no commercial organisation would accept that

It's no wonder nobody wants to work in child protection, especially in difficult areas like Haringey. Individual social workers have little practical authority, yet they can expect to be demonised by the commissars and the national press if anything goes wrong.

Unfortunately, although Laming has identified the problems, he did that once already. And he failed to solve the problem. Yet his solution this time is more of the same - more targets, more rigorously enforced.

Worse, you get the feeling even he doesn't believe it will work. He says:

"It cannot be beyond our wit to put in place ways of identifying early those children at risk of deliberate harm, and to put in place the means of securing their safety and proper development.”

It cannot be beyond our wit - that was almost certainly what Stalin screamed when his centrally directed collective farms failed to deliver the wheat his plan called for.

Surely we've all learned enough by now to understand that workers who are treated as small cogs in a giant state machine are never going to make effective judgements. Their priority is always going to be fulfilling the central plan, rather than dealing with real issues on the ground.

Commissar Balls' remedy is to shoot failing managers and institute yet more training courses. He apparently wants all senior social workers to have Masters degrees. Once again, he entirely misses the fundamental point.

If we expect social workers to take responsibility for safeguarding threatened children, we have to trust them with the authority to take effective action. We cannot bind them into a 500 point checklist laid down by Whitehall, and then expect them to act decisively and quickly as a particular situation demands.
This is yet another area crying out for a more local approach. Instead of laying down yet more requirements from the centre, we should devolve the power back down to individual local authorities, closer to the real world cases.
Yes, individual authorities will also make mistakes. But whatever we do, we are never going to eliminate child killing in the family. Sadly, no country has ever managed that.

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