How can we learn the lessons of Rotherham?

18 Sep 14

The shocking events in Rotherham bring to the fore some very serious issues for local authority and other public sector leaders. Getting the right answers demands that the right questions are asked.

The terrible events in Rotherham have shaken us all. How can agencies charged with protecting the community, acting in the public interest and supporting those at risk or victims of crime so disgracefully fail so many young women and children to such a shameful degree? These services are the subject of scrutiny, external inspection, professional regulation, media challenge, political priority and much recommended process. And yet, the state has failed in a large busy town of over 250,000 people over a prolonged period.

Given the history of child protection scandals, anyone who claims that they alone can say what is needed is probably wrong. And the issues highlighted from this latest case will not be confined to Rotherham.

Louise Casey is experienced, diligent and passionate about protecting society and in my opinion is a first class choice to review Rotherham. I am sure she will produce an insightful report about what went wrong and what should happen next. But I hope everyone up and down the country pauses long before a report is published and asks in an open ended way ‘what about us?’ And I hope that everyone asks this question of themselves – whether council, police, health, regulator or commentator – and not just of others.

Amid the many discussions that must take place in the months and years ahead, I would like to offer two thoughts.

First, public bodies have much transparency and performance information and are led by boards comprised of people acting in the public interest and experts in the management of their fields. But do we always discuss the right things? Are ‘meetings’, usually the very cornerstone of our governance systems, as searching, dynamic, useful, productive and valued as the public deserves? Well, no, not always. Board meetings can sometimes be a triumph of process over outcome with volumes of late, tabled and poorly crafted papers that test physical endurance rather than quizzical minds.

With everything else that needs doing, I would encourage boards to look at the mechanics of the meetings culture in which we all spend so much time, and aspire to make them not just better, but great. What are the questions we should ask? What are the behaviours we expect? In a world of high-quality information tools, are we modern and productive? I am not just suggesting an away day to discuss aims and working style, essential though this is, but that the way the board works at the heart of the organisation must itself be the subject of innovation, energy and visible focus.

Secondly, bodies need to feel under pressure to deliver better outcomes or they can go stale; but if the pressure is not internally welcomed and valued it can mean that sustained improvement is given up over time to routine process and passive avoidance. Responsibility to be one’s own most constructive critic, whatever the context, fundamentally rests with the board, but in reality is often affected by the style and attitude of external scrutiny. Unless they are resilient, organisations can easily become more defensive when the subject of perceived external criticism. Are our national and local institutions mature enough to understand that building successful, self-aware organisations with complementary skills and accountabilities is a shared endeavour that needs boards’ leadership?  Well, no, not always. Public debate can at times reduce to an adversarial contest where people and bodies are one-dimensionally good or bad, right or wrong.

When I was at the Home Office I recall an occasion when I was under a clear steer to not divulge, at a forthcoming select committee, information on certain matters that would be embarrassing, and against government policy at that stage. My job was made easy because I was asked 64 highly detailed and fairly adversarial questions that each missed the point they were trying to obtain. Actually, one simple question ‘tell us what in your judgement is wrong’ would have sufficed for a fuller account. And this is my point, that at their best, good boards rise above the gaming or politics of inter-institutional challenge to act in the public interest. They constantly listen to the frontline and challenge self-imposed or externally derived orthodoxy and culture. People should not shoot the messenger but rather ask for the message.

In believing in the need for better-run boards and a healthier culture that means everyone is encouraged to raise concerns, it does not mean we avoid challenge, but rather accept and welcome it. I think Rotherham agencies, the council and the police, acted defensively in the light of Professor Jay's report on sexual exploitation. We should remember that the council, through its chief executive, commissioned the report, but to then suggest that no further investigations or disciplinary action may be needed re-created the defensiveness that holding an inquiry was intended to overcome. Organisations need to move forward and stop morale collapsing when they have failed; but they must manage uncomfortable messages without drawing an arbitrary line that the public, and in this case victims, find unacceptable.

I am proud and supportive of local government, but councils can at times lack the political and management leadership they need. The sector should not be shy in saying this. And government should also reconsider some of its decisions, such as the decision to abandon information sharing without appropriate safeguards.

It is right that Shaun Wright has resigned but the questions for policing do not stop there. Again, constabularies should raise the bar themselves and acknowledge that culture change is needed. I would urge Ofsted too to challenge itself and ask whether its closeness to government means it undervalues the corporate role of councils to lead children’s services.

Figures show that councils have increased spending in children’s services, despite of government cuts. They deserve credit for this redirection of resources whilst their council tax is effectively capped, in the public interest. But it’s not a blank cheque and firefighting with additional funding can sometimes mask underlying weaknesses. The finance profession must play its part in exercising judgement and ensure that books are balanced in a sustained way and work with resources/corporate services colleagues to coordinate new tools and approaches to making change. Finance can appear too technocratic on the accounts when our job is organisational transformation.

There are no easy answers, but encouraging the right questions in an open, ongoing and appropriately challenging way is the best place to start. In the coming months CIPFA will be asking leading professionals to advise on the best questions and tools needed to support change and effective board governance.

Please contact me direct on rob.whiteman@cipfa.org with your thoughts if you are interested in helping.

  • Rob Whiteman
    Rob Whiteman

    Chief executive of CIPFA since 2013, after leading the UK Border Agency and the Improvement & Development Agency. Previously, he was CEO at Barking and Dagenham council.

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