Productivity has been a dirty word in the public sector for years, but the politician handed the task of transforming Birmingham’s failing children’s social services department tells Public Affairs Correspondent Paul Dale that hard work is the only answer.
Officials running Birmingham children’s social services will be expected to work harder and pursue a “culture of quality”, the city councillor drafted in to help transform the much-criticised department has promised.
Len Clark said the organisation would have to be remodelled to put excellence at the heart of everything it did.
In his first interview since being appointed executive member for children’s social care, Coun Clark (Con Quinton) said he wanted to see “greater productivity” from highly-paid senior officers some of whom at the moment had a “relaxed attitude” to their working life.
Relishing his reputation as a straight talker, Coun Clark admitted the changes he is intent on delivering would make him unpopular.
He said: “Productivity is a word you don’t hear very often in social services. That’s the top of the agenda. People who are so well paid have to deliver out turns.
“The council doesn’t kill kids and there will always be tragic death. We won’t stop children dying but we can make sure we are working effectively and efficiently.”
Children’s social care in Birmingham continues to work under a government improvement order after Ofsted found services for youngsters at risk of abuse to be inadequate.
At least 16 children in the city have died through abuse and neglect since April 2005, although the true figure may be higher. Most were known to social services, including seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq who was starved to death by her mother and stepfather at home in Handsworth
A new senior management team under the leadership of Children’s Services Director Colin Tucker has been appointed to run social care since Khyra’s death. But Coun Clark has made it clear in recent months that the new set-up must deliver promised improvements.
He branded Birmingham social workers “the sickest young people in the world” after staff absenteeism levels soared to almost 20 days a year.
In October 2009 he published a scrutiny report which concluded children’s social services in Birmingham were beset by “systemic failure”.
The investigation exposed poor practice by social workers, incompetent management and called for a fresh approach by politicians.
Coun Clark hit out at “long-term malpractice that contributed to a significant malfunctioning” within the service.
More than half of case files on 1,200 children at risk contained “unacceptably poor practice”, social workers regularly failed to attend case reviews and had limited contact with the children they were supposed to be looking after, and there was no long-term strategy setting out a vision for children’s homes, Coun Clark’s inquiry found.
A 50-point recovery plan drawn up by the council as recently as 2007 was criticised for containing unrealistic timetables, a lack of priorities and paid no attention to the council’s capacity to change.
Coun Clark is promising “major changes” in his new role and will be concentrating on delivering sustainable improvement.
He says his job is to ensure that the latest social services improvement plan is actually delivered, as opposed to previous attempts to transform the department which he said invariably got off to a good start but ran out of steam after a few months.
He will view repairing the department’s “patchy” performance as a priority.
He said: “We should not condemn the whole service. There are parts performing perfectly well and some parts are excellent.
“But there is a variety in performance that is not acceptable. If one team in one area can do it then why can’t others do as well?”
In his first week in charge, he ordered a full financial and human resources probe demanding the latest data on management lines of responsibility, resource allocations and staff sickness levels.
And he made it clear that his reputation as a political bruiser is well founded.
Coun Clark said: “I don’t think there is any point in having politicians supposedly running departments who aren’t willing to take tough decisions. If these decisions have to be taken they will be taken as quickly as possible after appropriate consultation with interested parties.”
He believes the shortcomings of social workers – recent serious case reviews into child deaths have identified a lack of appropriate action by frontline staff – are largely the fault of “middle management complacency”.
He went on: “Productivity is a word, regrettably, that you don’t hear much in the public sector, but with the constraints on spending that we are now facing we have to re-model the service. We have to make sure we are freeing up social workers to do social work.
“Everyone, from the top down to the bottom, is going to have to make sure they do a little bit more to support social workers. That is the answer to our problems.
“I am going to work with determination to make sure that the quality of children’s services in Birmingham is at a level appropriate to ensure families and kids are protected properly.”