Improving accountability processes

Leadership advice given to the Munro Review (2)

For many people, concerns about accountability begin and end with one aspect of the subject: who will ‘carry the can’, especially when things go wrong? Pinning down accountability to the person accountable is what the public, media and politicians most want to know, and want to see carried through. Lord Laming viewed this issue of accountability as critical to future ongoing effectiveness, so an attempt was made to clarify and simplify the issue. The Munro Review is sympathetic with Lord Laming’s reform on this point, being minded to continue with the principle whereby a local authority’s Director of Children’s Services (DCS) holds the key accountability for child protection services within the local authority. Judging from Haringey DCS Sharon Shoesmith’s dismissal being required by the minister, there appears to be an ultimate de facto accountability of the DCS (or the local authority) to the minister, including for actions and failings that are the responsibility of other multi-agency partners acting with the local authority in the borough; the legal basis for this is unclear and doesn’t seem to fall under the Children Act 2004 or subsequent DfES guidance. Lord Laming’s wish to concentrate professional accountability may possibly have influenced this; so some clarification of the terms of accountability to ministers may be useful.

Pinpointing accountability is just one aspect on which the review needs to take a view. There are others. Whether or not the premise of accountability being concentrated on a single authority is accepted (which is discussed later), there is a need to consider the process by which accountability is managed. This matters more than knowing whose employment may be terminated in the event of failure. In Chapter 14 ‘Leadership and Accountability’ in The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective I identify this set of process issues as:

  • How is the accountability system designed to work?
  • How well does it actually work?
  • Are senior managers held accountable for both delivering today as well as securing tomorrow?
  • Are senior managers held accountable distinctively for their leadership?
  • Is it clear what managers are responsible for?
  • Is it clear who managers have responsibilities to?
  • Is it clear to whom managers account for fulfilling these responsibilities?
  • Are senior managers held accountable singly or jointly with colleagues?
  • Where appropriate, how is collective accountability managed?
  • How well equipped are top executives to provide oversight for the leadership and management of their senior managers [when holding them to account]?

How is the process of accountability managed?

If we define accountability as ‘Responsibility for a set of actions about which the agency or body concerned has to report to a superior body’, then this raises these questions:

  1.  To whom should the official account? What makes those superior bodies competent to conduct that process? What is that process?

Besides the everyday work of child protection, when Haringey’s DCS had, in effect, to account to the Secretary of State following Baby P’s death, the process was clearly unsatisfactory. Even Justice Foskett (who heard Sharon Shoesmith’s appeal against dismissal) was critical. Evidence against other agency partners had been removed from the evidence. The process appeared to some to be politically driven. The clear purpose was to pronounce a judgment. It was not about learning. It was one-sided: there was no discussion (as when people have to account in person in front of a parliamentary select committee). Any accountability process should not simply come down to a judgment; it should help manage the delivery of performance. The Munro review could usefully take a view on the type of process following serious failure and propose improvements. It is part of the overall environment even if not within The Children Act 2004.

On 6 May 2010 I posted an item on entitled ‘Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (4): What might Ed Balls have done differently? This appears as an appendix at the end of this feedback on this evidence.

  1.  How and when should the accountability process be formally triggered by those to whom the official accounts?

Other than for incidents of systemic failure (such as a child death), accountability can be seen as a natural part of any professional management process. Besides the ultimate price being paid and possible government intervention, there is a need to consider accountability for other actions, at other times, on a regular basis, and to others. How well does the DCS’s accountability to the chief executive work? How challenging and demanding is it? How is this process initiated and managed? Is it ‘lost’ within regular reporting?

  1.  Where do responsibilities and accountabilities differ?

Professor John Kay’s model helpfully distinguishes between responsibility for, responsibility to, as well as accountability (Tate, 2009, pp256-257). Besides the review specifying accountability, it might usefully tease out some of the responsibility subtleties. For example, what responsibilities do the police have to the DCS if the DCS carries accountability for both of them before the minister? In the case of failures all parties have a responsibility to each other to learn from the part they played. How is this responsibility best fulfilled? Following Baby P’s death, the Secretary of State ill-advisedly required each agency partner to learn its own lessons (Tate, 2009, p262). This was a missed opportunity for shared learning and improvement.

  1.  What other accountabilities are there?

Other agencies necessarily have their own child protection accountabilities (to someone or some body not specified) for fulfilling their own responsibilities, even if they are not required to account for the part they played in tragic failures. (‘The DCS will not exercise decision-making powers over partner agencies, which retain autonomy and accountability’ (DfES statutory guidance on the roles and responsibilities of the Director of Children’s Services and Lead Member for Children’s Services, 2005).) What are these other accountabilities, and how well are they conducted?

There are other possibilities such as accountability to one’s profession for adhering to its code of practice. Does a DCS carry this accountability? How would it be practically fulfilled (e.g. being summoned to appear before an institute panel or body of peers)?

Accountability should differentiate between the DCS’s two main areas of responsibility: delivering today (safely etc.) within the current paradigm, and safeguarding tomorrow (by challenging the status quo, changing the paradigm, and making improvements and changes). The first role is principally managerial; the second entails true leadership (Tate, 2009, p42 and 216.) In the light of this, the review should consider how accountability will be handled practically for implementing the review’s recommendations, and who this will apply to. Accountability can be a sharp tool for managing change, for example in overcoming professional and technical silos (Tate, 2009, p262).

In the private sector, in my evidence to the review of the City’s Combined Code for Corporate Governance, I stressed the need to embed a formal process for (i) making clear where responsibility in a company lies for how well the organisation works; that is, advising on the health and wellbeing of the organisation as a system (e.g. how freely people can talk to each other across boundaries and levels), and (ii) how to use a demanding accountability process (officials formally accounting to the executive board) to ensure improvement happens. There is scope for the review taking a view on this system-health responsibility, where it lies, and the related accountability process. Some DCSs consider that they are carrying out this responsibility all the time, but should this be sharpened? Should the DCS (or an alternative official such as HR Director) be held accountable for fulfilling this system-health responsibility through some specified mechanism (e.g. accounting before the executive management team – for system assessment and improvement).

If accountability in the above ways was actively practised in the normal course of events, would cases of serious systemic failure, tragedies and removal from jobs be less frequent?

Should Lord Laming’s principle be revised?

There is convenience – practical, political and public – in being able to manage, name and hold one person accountable, but life isn’t like that. Two parents can be jointly accountable through a legal process if they fail in their responsibility to their children for ensuring that they receive an education. A local authority’s DCS and elected lead member already share accountability. So why do we conclude that a multi-agency team cannot hold joint accountability for some matters that involve them all, conducted via a balanced and shared process in which they report, are grilled, make commitments, and when necessary receive sanctions? Not only might this more accurately and fairly reflect reality, it might break down silos, promote collaboration, and encourage a learning perspective.

The position on accountability (especially in the event of a child’s death) appears unclear ‘… the DCS continues as the key point of professional accountability for child protection services within a local authority …’. Is ‘key’ accountability total and absolute, or relative compared with other agency partners, or who else? (In Shoesmith’s dismissal it certainly appeared to be total.) Does ‘within a local authority’ refer to (i) accounting within the local authority’s own internal governance structure, (ii) accounting for the local authority’s own particular responsibilities for child protection, or (iii) accounting for wider responsibilities within the local authority’s geographic area of responsibility? Or all three?

There is a view held by some DCSs that the present position on apparent accountability ultimately to government on behalf of all the child protection partners is untenable – that it is unfair and impractical. A case could be made for someone in the Department of Education conducting some telephone research among a sample of DCSs and elected lead members on this question, but perhaps more generally too, asking:

  • Precisely, what do you perceive the law to be?
  • How fair do you perceive the law to be?
  • How practical do you perceive the law to be?
  • How do you go about fulfilling this requirement in relation to other multi-agency partners?
  • How do you go about fulfilling this requirement in relation to your elected lead member?
  • How does the elected lead member go about fulfilling this requirement?

What advice would you like to offer the review?