In the Pursuit of Excellence

All members of the ADCS share at least one thing in common. Unfortunately that one thing is the planning and implementing of service cuts. As a warm up – presumably to create a sense of warning – the media is full of ‘fat cat’ stories about senior staff in local authorities, particularly in children’s services moaning about cuts while filling their bank accounts with undeserved loot.

What are we to make of this? I think the root of it lies in the growth of a deep distrust, over the last fifteen or so years, in successive central governments about the nature of local authority administration. Instead of seeing in the history and operation of local government the spirit of innovation, creativity and a strong determination to deliver good services, the focus is on failure, bureaucracy and ‘one-size-fits-all’ services. If we are to sensibly and safely navigate the next period of budget reductions we must have a new understanding between central and local government. One that recognises that day-in and day-out, up, down and across the country, staff are doing their utmost to improve opportunities for service users and residents; to exact better value for money from shrinking resources; and develop new, innovative partnership models for delivering services. We have seen a growth of local authorities combining their services, entering into new delivery partnerships with the commercial and voluntary sectors, and breaking new ground across health, police, probation, schools and local authority programmes to deliver services and ultimately better outcomes for the residents we serve.

Yes – there are some services in some areas that are not yet good enough and that is unacceptable. It is perhaps in this situation that the sense of distrust is at its deepest. The best, most effective services for children in this country are led and delivered by people who work for, or used to work for, a public agency. The expertise of how to run public services is principally and overwhelmingly in the public authorities.

The local government sector has a proud record of assisting areas facing difficulty but between it and central government we have not done enough to maximise the potential of this. The involvement of serving leaders in inspection – something Ofsted has done exceptionally well in doing in the inspection of schools – needs to be spread to the inspection of children and family services. The engagement of local authority staff directly working to improve family services in other areas sometimes with a partner from the voluntary and/ or commercial sector is ripe for development. Utilising this will combine expertise in service delivery with the craft and ingenuity of managing to find ways to improve even when the resources are being reduced.

Once again, ADCS has been showing the way. In its discussion with DfE and Ofsted – pushing the case for more use to be made of peers across the sectors. With the LGA and SOLACE, ADCS has had a big impact on how inspection of children’s social care has changed. We should reconvene our efforts and approach DfE and DCLG with a proposal to engage more of our concentrated expertise, along with national voluntary and commercial providers, in a concerted push to promote improvement in the decision and delivery of high quality children services in all areas.

Who knows when we may see a headline which extols the exemplary way public agencies are dealing with the inevitable fall out of reduced resources.

As the world that children live in continues to change, we need to make sure that we are ahead of those changes. We know that in the past local authorities have been responsible for devising major change programmes and our tradition of innovating has been crucial in making improvements in the sector.

Often what local government has done, central government has followed, but innovation is going to be a major challenge for us all. We need to make sure that the pursuit of excellence does not become a casualty of austerity.


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