“At West Sussex County Council there is a history over recent years of change at senior leadership level which has led to inconsistent leadership and management approaches and communication.”
This is one of the main findings of the peer review recently completed by the Local Government Association (LGA) on behalf of WSCC adults’ services.
As an example, one service partner interviewed by LGA researchers said that over a period of just four and a half years, they had spoken to four different chief executives, three directors of children’s services, five directors of public health and three directors of adults’ services.
In UNISON’s view, it’s hardly surprising staff find it very hard to develop good management relationships, trust and service improvements when the goalposts set by senior managers constantly change. When new managers come into the service, impose their views, change working practice and then walk away without having to deal with the consequences, it’s difficult for our members to follow these inconsistent messages from the top. The council’s recent practice of appointing senior managers on an ‘interim’ basis has exacerbated this trend. The review found that service leadership behaviours do not even reflect the corporate values of the council.
To fill the vacuum and address the lack of consistency, the LGA found many managers had imposed their own styles and values in the areas they were responsible for. This has reinforced the inconsistency of approach across the service.
UNISON believes the ‘top-down’ approach to service management has not been addressed by the review and could in fact reinforce poor practice. It’s fair to say the review did find examples of both excellent and poor practice in many areas. It also found that processes did not make it easy for managers to clearly hear the voice of service users.
Among its key findings, it stated some basics needed to be put in place rapidly. It recommended introducing recording of practice, improvements in data quality, implementation of a performance management and development framework, and a review of policies and procedures but it says little about directly addressing the fundamental issue of service culture and inconsistent management.
We believe with the right leaders, right managers and the right culture, all other issues can be successfully addressed, but if this is not tackled WSCC adults’ services cannot become a high-performing organisation.
UNISON did submit its concerns to the LGA peer review team after discussion with members in the service.
The 100-day plan
The LGA peer review has led to the ‘100-day plan’. It has been implemented at short notice from 2 July via six workstreams: 1. Practice; 2. Safeguarding; 3. Backlog and access; 4. Leadership and culture; 5. Performance and systems; and 6. Longer term and transformational.
Communication of the plan was disjointed in its distribution to staff and lacked detail and the implications of the recommendations. The branch spoke to its members around the county, and responded immediately outlining our members’ concerns to senior managers, such as:
- Risks to ‘business-as-usual’ with managers co-opted to work on the workstreams. This would reduce both staff access to managers and time available for effective team management.
- Will the plan actually address the performance management issues of the Capita contract, especially with access to admin support.
- Does the top-heavy nature of the plan fall into the trap of not meaningfully involving practitioners at lower levels to help inform service improvement?
Though there are a small number of staff reps on the workstreams, UNISON members believe the plan still promotes the view that ‘managers know best’ and will simply cascade findings for staff to implement.
The plan would have been received more positively had it been developed more collaboratively with staff. Members are again concerned about the repeated overuse of consultants.
Some social workers tell us it feels like an ‘unsafe’ place to work and fear performance management systems being introduced to punish staff for what are systemic faults. There is too much current emphasis on the need to close cases and quickly move on to the next without enough regard for social work values.
There is nothing in the plan we have seen yet addressing the fundamental issue of top-level instability and inconsistency: get this right and the values and communications will hugely improve. But which workstream will have the authority to address this?
UNISON has regular meetings with the director for adults’ services and will monitor progress. In July we met with service members around the county and gathered their views on the 100-day plan. These were presented to the director.