Monday 29 January 2018

Six Blogs and a Damning Report - Why we need a change at Barnet Council

Over the last week I have published a series of blogs about the costs of Barnet's contract with Capita.  I am a regular attendee at the Performance & Contract Management Committee meetings where I have consistently raised concerns about the performance of Capita and the costs we are paying. There is an equally consistent approach by Conservative Councillors who always say everything is fine and dandy, which I find both frustrating and worrying given that there is no rigorous challenge.

On Friday we saw the publication of a damning report by the Children's Commissioner for Barnet which you can read here. The background is as follows:

Barnet’s services for children were inspected by Ofsted in April and May 2017. They were found to be inadequate across all reported categories. The inspection raised serious questions surrounding the quality of practice and leadership, including the Borough’s focus on children, its quality assurance systems and the quality of management oversight. The Barnet Safeguarding Children Board (BSCB) was also found to be inadequate. As a result, an independent Children's Commissioner was appointed by the Secretary of State and is required to report to the Minister of State for Children & Families - so pretty serious stuff.

The report looks into the underlying problems that brought about the failure and what barriers are preventing the service from improving quickly. Problems had been identified in 2016 and experts from Essex County Council brought in to advise Barnet but a year later when OFSTED inspected many of the problems still existed.

Identifying why change hadn't been implemented, even though the problems were known, is a key element of this report. It is pretty damning with some of the key headlines as follows:

  • The lack of ‘turn-around’ leadership experience and expertise presents the clearest barrier to improvement in Barnet. It has led to a lack of clarity, inconsistency and poor engagement in terms of setting expectations around practice standards and protocols across children's social care services.
  • A robust, inclusive Improvement Board was needed, supported by a structure which ensures actions are taken and monitored. The Improvement Board in operation was an internal Board, chaired by the Chief Executive which met too infrequently to impact on practice and received over-optimistic and unspecific reports on progress.
  • Silo working was pervasive throughout the Council. While lack of ‘join up’ is often seen in large organisations, the silos found in Barnet at the corporate level mitigated against the potential of SCB to make a strong contribution to support the improvement for children. Equally, silos across children’s services and partners more generally, including between safeguarding and education services, did not maximise improvement capacity.
  • There are some cultural issues to be addressed at the corporate level which may relate to the legacy of the commissioning/delivery split. Because the focus of SCB had become higher level transformational and strategic change issues, day to day ‘business as usual’ matters began to be seen as less important and were not normally discussed at top level.
  • The Council is a process-heavy organisation with multiple approval requirements for even fairly straightforward matters. This leads to frustrations and delays which mitigate against establishing a nimble and creative improvement culture.
  • While many within the service were acutely aware of the failings described by Ofsted, both before and after the inspection, there was a general lack of in-depth understanding elsewhere. Prior to the inspection, this was exacerbated by over-optimistic reporting of progress, including to the Improvement Board, and by inaccurate information arising from audits and quality assurance processes.
  • While there is a clear understanding about the importance of using performance and management information to drive improvement and monitor impact for children, systems and approaches are poor. This represents a distinct barrier to further improvement and is also a contributory factor as to why the impact of improvement activity since 2016 has not been sufficient.
  • There are significant amounts of data and information about performance within the borough but analysis and use of that data and information are under-developed.
  • Monitoring has tended to focus on quantitative indicators without significant reference to the quality of practice and the impact on children.
  • There is a serious disconnect between senior managers in children's social care and the front line. This is a significant barrier to improvement and also a core reason for the lack of impact of improvement efforts so far.
  • The lack of purposeful and systematic engagement with staff in Barnet leads to a lack of clarity and understanding about what is required of them. Equally, staff do not feel that they have the opportunity to contribute their expertise to developments – they are ‘receivers’ of change rather than agents of change. Many staff report frustration about the lack of follow-up when suggestions or requests are made.
  • It became clear that governance in Barnet has not been sufficiently focused on safeguarding children. Most members did not have a good understanding of safeguarding issues; of safeguarding work in the borough; of the needs of vulnerable children in the borough; and, significantly, of the problems growing in the service and the implications for children of the findings highlighted in the recent Ofsted inspection.
  • Following the serious issues raised in the Essex report in March 2016, bilateral discussions were had between the DCS and individual members. The Leader and Lead member (Chair of CELS) were well briefed by the DCS on concerns raised, and the restructuring took place to give the DCS full responsibility and accountability for the service, as outlined in paragraph 2.6. However, the CELS Committee did not receive any reports relating to concerns highlighted in the Essex work.
  • There are a variety of issues and questions arising from this unsatisfactory history. They include:
  1. whether the remit of the CELS Committee is too broad. There is no doubt that the Committee had full agendas during the period concerned, taking controversial items including on libraries, school funding and school places;
  2. whether the split is appropriate between CELS as a ‘theme’ Committee tasked with looking at strategy, ‘transformation’ and policy but not performance, and PCM as the Committee that looks at performance across the Council. Given that PCM’s prime focus has generally been Barnet’s large outsourced contracts, there is a question over whether that Committee has the capacity or capability to scrutinise and monitor complex children’s services effectively;
  3. why the culture in Barnet leads to over-optimistic and over-reassuring reporting to members. This may be due to factors such as the marginal nature of the borough’s politics; the concern to maintain Barnet’s reputation; custom and practice; and/or a misplaced concern to make serious safeguarding issues public prior to an Ofsted inspection.

The Director for Social Care and Education at Essex County Council, will remain the Chair of the London Borough of Barnet’s Improvement Board, and report progress on a regular basis to the DfE. Barnet cannot be trusted to fulfil this key role.

The last three points are indicative of wider problems at Barnet; is the committee structure appropriate to adequately scrutinise the performance of the Council? The split between the theme committees and the performance committee is an issue I have highlighted repeatedly. It is akin to two people driving a car, one holding the steering wheel and someone else operating the accelerator and brakes. Critically, the issue of over optimistic reporting to save face is something I experience regularly in Barnet. This all has to end if we are not to see similar problems arising in other parts of the council.

We need a change of administration and a complete rethink on the way the council is run.

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