WHEN THE only response to repeated failure is a call to try harder and do better, you know there's something badly awry with the premise. Einstein was right: insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
In social work, insanity is now squared. After social workers, it's Ofsted's turn to come under fire. If Haringey social work department got a 'good' ranking last year (as it did at the time of Victoria Climbie, incidentally), it must be because people were at fault. Inspectors didn't inspect devious, cheating social workers closely enough, just as social workers were taken in by devious, cheating families.
The only explanation for the contradiction that isn't entertained is the obvious one: the star-ranking system, for social work as for every other public service, is as broken and bankrupt as the ghastly management system it drives.
Comparing this rigid, dehumanised, top-down, IT-driven regime with Soviet central planning is not a cheap gibe. It is a precise parallel. The Soviet Union collapsed not because Russians are malevolent or backward but because it was systemically stupid - unable to learn and improve. This is also the case for almost the entire UK public sector. The only way to improve is to experiment and learn. This, within regulatory boundaries, is how market pluralism works. But our inspect-and-comply regime doesn't allow experimentation. In fact, it is terrified of any deviation from procedure - as its reaction to Baby P and Shannon Matthews testifies.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, most public-sector managers conclude that their job is compliance with the rules. They get on by collecting stars. Ofsted's boss is a former top school head. A few managers suspect that the centre isn't always right, but that's not how you succeed they can't or won't rock the boat. A tiny minority, meanwhile, is concerned and bold enough to go out on a limb to try something different. But such is the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that even when the results are promising - far better than the official targets - they daren't broadcast them for fear of bringing down the inspectors' wrath.
To experiment and learn you have to switch off the official targets and activity measures. But the inspectors' job isn't to reward experiment and learning it is to check the boxes have been ticked.
After a column on adult social care a few weeks ago, some council managers wanted to contact the brave souls I had described as having ignored official procedures and tried more direct ways of responding to need. I couldn't oblige. For the experimenters, reporting success was more than their jobs were worth - and those of their council colleagues, since social care inspection marks affect the ranking of the authority as a whole. Publication of a longer paper detailing these promising experiments is in the balance because chief executives fear the consequences too much to allow the results to be verified and their identities made public. If this isn't Stalinism, what is?
Thanks to the dedicated work of academic researchers at York and Nottingham, we know what's wrong with social work (and many other public services). But, because of the reign of terror, we can't build a head of steam behind what's possibly right . Imprisoned in an iron cage, not just Haringey but the whole social-work system is rendered organisationally stupid - incapable of improvement, but not, alas, of getting worse as organisations are compelled by inspectors to do the wrong things ever righter.
But the stupidity is cancerously self-replicating. Not only is every other public service, trapped in its own cage, similarly blocked from learning it feeds stupidity on to others as massive and cumulating amounts of 'failure demand' (see this column last week).
Imagine a struggling family in Haringey or Dewsbury. The breadwinner loses their job. Because the benefits and tax system take a dysfunctionally long time to react, they have problems with housing arrears and council tax. Financial problems lead to aggro and eventually a 'domestic', to which the police are called. At that point all the children are automatically referred to social care. Confronted with the consequences of a quite different problem - the failure of the benefits system - and a huge workload of similar cases, do social workers fill in dozens of pages of forms for each child, as the system demands, thus ensuring they have no time to deal with worse cases? Or gamble that these children, although vulnerable, are less at peril than others who have been referred through suspicion of real abuse? Mostly - rightly - they gamble but the stage is set for another Baby P, another round of demonisation and a further self-defeating turn of the screw from HM Inspectorate.
The only logical end to this nightmare is that no social worker will work for Haringey and inspectors will outnumber social workers two to one. Is that what ministers want? If not, then what?
the Observer. 14 December 2008