Whilst the news last week was largely focused on the death of Margaret Thatcher one story on Wednesday really caught my attention. The Children’s services department in Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council was rated inadequate by Ofsted and the Leader of the council was invited onto Five Live to explain why their performance was so poor.
Peter Allen, one of my favourite news broadcasters, was providing a typically challenging interview but as always was giving the Leader a chance to explain himself in his own words. During one of these answers the Leader, Councillor Darren Cooper, said something fascinating. I wish I had written it down but basically he said that he had lost all faith in being able to manage social workers.
He explained how the council has known that there are problems with the children’s social care team and yet has been unable to fix them. After all, they have their own professional responsibilities. The council have, in his opinion, invested substantial money in the service and been consistent about their desire to improve the service and yet not seen improvements on the back of it.
Councillor Cooper also pointed out that the council was investing money in an improvement partner, the consulting firm IMPOWER, but when asked whether he believed that this would fix the problems identified by the Ofsted report he sighed and said that he would believe it when he saw it.
We elect our politicians to manage and govern these public services and the fact that a local politician feels almost helpless due to the ‘professional’ nature of this service is in many ways quite concerning; and yet not unusual.
Now, I know I only heard one side of the story but I was left feeling very sorry for the politicians in this situation (the lead member for children’s services resigned the next day); we expect them to manage these services on our behalf and then expect them to be responsible when things go wrong. But this leaves politicians stuck between a rock and hard place; between the concerns of the voter and the professional judgement of their highly trained and professionally monitored staff; many of which they don't have the expertise, and perhaps derived confidence, to question effectively.
This whole story left me wondering about how widespread this feeling might be. I don't know but as a non-councillor looking at this situation I’m not sure I would know exactly how to tread the fine line and I have worked in local government for years. The other side of this problem is that our professional bodies can, at times, react to any hint that politicians might know best; just think of the number of times a conference of one group or another has decried political interference in their sector.
Taken together I wonder about the impact of this paradox on democratic accountability. Politicians rightly feel reluctant to take the blame for stuff they really can’t control and the officers are not quite fully accountable. Plus, if politicians don’t feel able to hold these professions to account then who can? Or are we left relying on inspection bodies like Ofsted to do it for us?
I don’t believe that the example of Sandwell applies to all councils but there has long been a challenge in providing democratic control over this type of ‘professional’ service. I’m not sure if there is an easy solution to this; indeed, I’m certain that there isn’t. However, training for councillors, more councillors coming from this professional background and a closer working relationship between councillors and professionals are surely part of the solution.
Most of all we need to continually be aware of the potential for disconnect between these highly skilled professional roles and politicians. Because when either one loses confidence in the other or they stop working together that is when trouble starts.