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Inside Out: 'small stuff' can be a big signal

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Behaviour indicates values and values shape a culture

I once visited a duty social work team over Christmas. A manager had a model of the dinosaur from Toy Story on his desk. He had taken it from toys donated for disadvantaged children. He was proud of it and not ashamed of depriving a child of a present at Christmas.

I was shocked. It was behaviour that clashed fundamentally with my values and beliefs. It was a window into the heart of the team displaying the rotten culture that led to a very poor performance on child protection.

It taught me early on in my career that “fluffy” concepts such as values and culture are fundamentally important to what we do. If a council is like an iceberg, culture is the three-fifths invisible below the waterline. Focus on changing the bit you can see above the water, and you will not improve.

Why did it take the Francis report for the NHS to realise this fundamental point? A complex question, but the recent survey by LGC’s sister title Health Service Journal shows that at least acute trusts have cottoned on to the fact that staff care is inextricably linked to the quality of patient care.

Local government has been blessed with this knowledge for decades. For example, we know it is important to deal with job losses in a fair and compassionate way. This is not just for those who sadly leave, but also because the way it’s done affects the performance of the survivors.

Recruiting the right staff is also important. I’ve always recruited on the basis of how well a person can do a job, fit in with the team, and, most importantly, the candidate’s values and beliefs. The latter takes good judgment. It is where I have made my biggest mistakes.

We all go through very professional recruitment processes, demonstrating fair and open methods – aiming to be kind to candidates and at getting the best person for the job. My mistakes have occurred when the best candidate has emerged, matching the job description and person specification. I have then had a gut feeling that the candidate was not right for the job, yet appointed. Every case proved to be a poor appointment. I am sure this is down to a mismatch of values.

Act on your emotional response to situations. Straight after Christmas we disbanded the duty social work team.

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The one thing he won’t comment on is his identity…

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