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In an ideal world everything is a priority. But this is not an ideal world and social services managers and politic...
In an ideal world everything is a priority. But this is not an ideal world and social services managers and politicians have to make tough choices.

Prioritising between competing and often equally valid pressures and

co-ordinating complex sets of inter-related activities have become essential skills in the managerial arts.

The community services management team at Havering LBC recently completed an exercise on outstanding work. We identified seven major action plans still to be done and over 10 separate service developments. The list made sober reading.

Despite a reasonable set of project plans, our fate and that of other social service managers is reminiscent of Sisyphus's, who was forever condemned to pushing a large stone to the top of a hill, only for it to roll straight back down. When we reviewed our progress to date we had actually implemented the majority of the action plans - it just did not feel like it.

At Havering, we gave the highest priority to children's social services and invested considerable resources in the service to fund structural overspends and increase management capacity. That investment paid off within 12 months.

But some of the targets were out of reach. Targets - as they teach you in management training - should be realistic and deliverable. But many targets, especially those set by government, are not.

Delayed transfers of care is a case in point. A formulaic reduction is required by the Social Services Inspectorate, irrespective of local circumstances or the number of people admitted to acute hospitals. This is the highest profile government target but there are innumerable others, all of which are given equal priority by civil servants.

The government line is 'prioritise our priorities equally'. This leaves little capacity for the priorities of councillors or for sensible workload planning. Of course the government is perfectly justified to set targets, but a balance between central and local is healthier.

Setting priorities and being clear about what will be done is important. They are best summarised in an annual social services report. This is a separate document from the raft of multi-agency plans and strategies and needs to be done in consultation with councillors, partner agencies, staff and the local SSI business inspector.

It is invariably better to do a few things really well rather than a lot of things poorly. Prioritising needs to be taken into account in the inspection of services, such as the imminent comprehensive performance assessments.

Too often, inspectors highlight what is not being done. A more positive approach would be to check whether the priorities are realistic and deliverable.

Anthony Douglas

Executive director of community services,

Havering LBC

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