Recent weeks, not entirely prompted by the issues at Kensington & Chelsea RBC, have seen a worrying return of the tendency to blame and the promotion of ‘hard’ intervention as a go-to option to remediate real or perceived council failures.
I fret about this for many reasons, but there are three that I want to set out here.
First, we still seem to find it too easy to step on the conveyor belt that starts with a mistake (it can be a very serious mistake, don’t get me wrong), but then takes us quickly to blame and, before you know it, glides oh-so-easily into the case being made for external supervision and/or remediation by ‘experts’ as the only way to resolve matters.
I have no issue with organisations and individuals being held to account fairly and firmly for the discharge of their responsibilities: it is a fundamental aspect of good governance that we know with whom the buck stops. But it is also central to credible leadership, continuous improvement and healthy governance that learning is the default driver for change.
You only need to look at countless child death enquiries to understand that the blame game and the culture it engenders serve merely to make those we seek to serve less safe, not more. What holds for children’s services also holds for councils as a whole.
Local government, therefore, needs to take great care in the ideas it promotes and the language it uses in case this is (mis)interpreted as a repudiation of the hard-won lessons taught us by such wise and eminent figures as Herbert Laming and Eileen Munro.
Second, I would be less anxious about the advocacy for formal or statutory intervention if deploying this option was conditional on the issues then being addressed using a deep, wide and evidentially-sound body of improvement methodologies. We run the risk of giving the impression that the act of stepping in itself is a remedy to failure.
Of course, we do know there have been terrific people who have made a significant positive difference to the organisations they have been sent in to assist. I will always have love in my heart for Lord Warner, who was appointed as a commissioner to oversee improvements in Birmingham’s children’s services in 2014 following Julian Le Grand’s report.
But there can be a tendency to concentrate on the ‘who’ of intervention without considering adequately the much more significant determinant of success, which is the ‘how’ and whether or not those deputed to act have this understanding and capability. Just because the great and good are assembled and mandated doesn’t mean the theories and practices of change will then be brought to bear in a way that addresses the particular circumstances of the institution’s challenges or empowers the organisation to own and deliver its path to sustainable success.
Too often we are seduced by the appeal of a reset button without sufficiently considering what is needed to ensure the longer-term embedding of understanding and ownership of change. We are too often wedded to a heroic leadership model of improvement – itself discredited in other contexts – without necessarily understanding how those left standing will afterwards become the custodians of the legacy.
Third, when the sector itself appears to be associating with, or worse, be interpreted as complicit in the blame game and the advocacy of an interventionist role for central government, we undermine local government’s case for self-determination. It is surely the mark of a mature and robust ecosystem that it has in place the means of regulating itself. It can do that in many ways, including working with bodies outside local government. But it should never give a message that it is willing to cede its responsibilities to Westminster, however difficult it may be to take on one’s own recalcitrant members.
In a country that is already excessively centralised and getting more so, the last thing we need to do is give signals that we are willing for the national tier of government to weaken the autonomy and independence of the local tier by asking it to sort out our challenges.
Mark Rogers, former chief executive, Birmingham City Council