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Blair McPherson: Improvement partnerships can hinder too

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I was once interviewed as a prospective director of social services for a local authority in special measures, following a damning inspection report.

I wasn’t put off by the fact that the authority was underperforming. Indeed, I saw it as a chance to make my mark, having been on a senior management team tasked with getting another authority out of special measures. Although it had taken longer than any of us forecast, I was confident the lessons learnt would equip me for the new task.

I had read a summary of the inspection report before applying. Most issues raised were ones I had come across. I was convinced I could lead the senior management team to create an action plan addressing the issues, and with the support of cabinet carry it out within two years – three at most.

The interview was over two days. Day one included informal chats with partner agencies; the health directorate (the relevant trust being amid a financial crisis); the voluntary sector, which was concerned grants were being replaced by contracts, taking away some groups’ funding; and care groups concerned about a review of day care and cross about unreliable, indifferent home care agencies.

There was also a chance to meet some of the directorates’ senior staff, a brief one-to-one with the chief executive, and – most revealing – an informal chat with the interim director.

Day two was the formal presentation and panel interview with the members. But I didn’t attend. At the end of day one, I withdrew my application.

As I explained to the management consultant that night in a long phone call, I was not put off by the financial state of the local NHS trust, the shifting relationship with the voluntary sector or the challenge of a meaningful engagement with cares and service users. I was reassured by the conversations I had with senior staff, and felt the chief executive was someone I could work with.

But that the interim director had dropped a bombshell.

We were discussing how the inspection was carried out, some weakness in the directorates’ preparation and how staff, partner agencies and members had reacted to the findings of the report. Not surprisingly there were some feelings that the report was unduly harsh, that not enough account had been taken of local circumstances and that disproportionate weight had been placed on the views of people with an axe to grind.

Even so, staff and members acknowledged that improvement was necessary in several areas and were up for the challenge.

The shock came when discussing the recommendations. The report had described the prospects for improvement as ‘poor’, strongly recommending that the authority formally partner with a neighbouring authority, which would provide advice and management support for the action plan to turn things round.

This arrangement was extensively enough that senior managers at the high-performing neighbouring authority would ‘sit’ alongside the new director and their management team. They would also be some formal secondments to key posts.

The director was to have regular one-to-ones with the experienced director of the neighbouring authority. The agreement would last for three years, or till the authority came out of special measures.

Alarm bells rang. Was I going to be in charge of my own directorate, or find myself answerable to another director backed by inspectors who held our future in their hands? And this whilst being accountable to my cabinet member and chief executive who held the purse strings?

As a new director I could see the value in a mentor – but of my choosing. The secondments sounded helpful, but being able to appoint staff to key post is one of the main ways a senior manager can change the culture.

I didn’t fancy having staff foisted on me. And what about the risk of my senior management team feeling undermined by this hand-holding arrangement. Would partner agencies be confused about who they were negotiating with?

If the organisation was turned around inside the next couple of years would this be attributed to the expertise and guidance of the neighbouring authority? And if it failed, would this be down to me? And why the hell had no one mentioned this before?

This returned to me recently while reading about a local authority that received a very positive inspection report six years after going into special measures and entering an improvement partnership agreement with a high performing neighbour.

Tucked away in the article was a comment about the number of directors who had come – and gone.

Blair McPherson, former director, Lancashire CC

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