Doncaster MBC chief executive Jo Miller delivered a stirring speech at the Solace summit last week.
Those among her peers who “think their job is about regeneration and growth” and “don’t know about children’s services until there’s a rubbish Ofsted [report]” should not be in the job, she said.
LGC’s salary tracker, which monitors the professional background of incoming chief executives, points to a possible reason for a lack of understanding of the service: relatively few in the top job have experience of children’s social care.
But the answer does not lie in drafting extra children’s services directors into the top job; anything that exacerbated the already acute shortage of DCSs would make a bad situation worse. Instead, chief executives from all professional backgrounds should get to grips with this crucial service.
One self-interested reason for closer involvement in this area comes from Rotherham, and other authorities at the centre of high-profile failures: such problems can cause severe damage to a council’s reputation and to the careers of its most senior staff.
There are plenty in Westminster looking for an excuse to avoid devolution to local government
Another reason is that accountability for child safeguarding is becoming increasingly complex. The decade-old model in which top-tier councils appointed a statutory DCS who was directly accountable for children’s services is increasingly outdated.
This month Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw launched a strongly worded attack on Rotherham, in part for being “unclear” about whether the chief executive himself had taken on the statutory responsibility for children’s services following the departure of children’s services director Joyce Thacker. His assumption seemed to be that, in the circumstances, the council’s most senior officer should have taken this role.
Somerset CC chief Patrick Flaherty left no room for such ambiguity this week after announcing the council’s decision to terminate its contract with interim DCS Peter Lewis. He declared himself accountable until a replacement was found.
The lines of accountability are likely to become yet more blurred. LGC reports this week that a handful of authorities are preparing to hand some statutory children’s services to outside providers, raising questions about who will be held to account if things go wrong. In other areas, the government’s imposition of trusts and commissioners will blur the lines.
It is the chief executive, whose role is fundamentally about partnerships, who will be expected to hold the ring.
There is, of course, another reason for top-level involvement in children’s services. At this month’s Conservative party conference, devolution of greater powers and funding to local government was high on the agenda. Several senior party figures made comments along the lines of (and I am barely paraphrasing here): “Devolution would mean giving more power to councils like Rotherham. Is that really what people want?”
There are plenty in Westminster looking for an excuse to avoid devolution to local government. It is the duty of councils, and chief executives in particular, not to give it to them.