Questions when holding managers to account

 Leadership advice given to the Munro Review (2)


The opening line of the Statutory Guidance says ‘The Every Child Matters Green Paper (2003) launched a programme of systemic change ….’. But that didn’t mean it would take a systems approach: it appeared to mean widespread, uniform and regulated. The Munro Review of Child Protection, on the other hand, is very clear in its adoption of a systems approach. The first report contrasted such an approach with traditional organisational management assumptions founded in the rational-technical manager, reductionist/atomistic analysis, and command-and-control leadership style. In addition to this, a systems perspective recognises that:

  • services to end users are ultimately and inevitably delivered by systems, not by individuals working on their own
  • how well the organisation works as a system accounts for the majority of the overall function’s performance
  • the performance of individual professionals is more a function of the system of which they are a part (everything that surrounds them) than of their personal skill – though the latter is essential, of course. (That ‘system’ includes how the work is designed, who is allowed to take decisions, how information is made available, how freely people can talk to those who they need to, those with whom they interact, etc.)
  • modern complexity science teaches that the traditional management model no longer reflects the reality of how things come about. The metaphor of the organisation as a well-oiled, essentially static and predictable machine, where each cog has its place, has collapsed. Complex adaptive systems are more fluid, unpredictable, evolving and emergent.

To be credible and consistent, the leadership, management style and systems that are used to implement the Munro changes should mirror Munro advice concerning how a child protection service should operate. Thus, the accountability process should be driven by systems principles. We are using that lens here.

Management practices

A simple test is provided by performance management processes. Typically, these pay little heed to systems thinking and are resistant to change. Individuals’ performance appraisal – whatever its merits – barely scratches the surface in terms of the degree of systemic change needed in how organisations operate and improve. Appraisal, as usually conducted, possesses little leverage over organisation variables, particularly in complex, multi-agency partnerships. It badly needs reconfiguring to reflect a systems dimension and organisational learning.

Munro provides a rare opportunity to think afresh about such management and HR practices, especially those that feature in accountability discussions. For example, questions and discussion on establishment, sickness levels, caseloads, etc. are clearly important and necessary but I would argue that they are not sufficient, either from a general systems perspective or in the context of making a deep culture change.

The London Safeguarding Children Board’s report, for example, ‘proposes that Leaders adopt a strategic position in holding safeguarding arrangements [our italics] to account …’; i.e. focusing on the process and its purpose rather than simply the performance of the DCS or individual senior managers. We concur and have followed that strategic approach as set out in the options in the matrix below.

Three timescales

The first Munro report challenges the way organisations currently work. Munro fundamentally changes the game. There are three timescales in the frame when people are held to account for their key responsibilities. The first concerns delivering today’s operation safely. The second concerns implementing transitional changes by deadlines. The third is embedding a continuous improvement culture of organisational learning and adaptation into the indefinite future. Each of these will benefit from its own distinct focus in how DCSs, lead members, chief executives, council leaders, safeguarding children boards, scrutiny committees, etc. see and manage their respective roles in the process. See Table.


Level 1: Immediate/short term:

Meeting today’s requirements needs to continue in the immediate term, under present rules, structure and conditions

Level 2: Transition:

Implementing any Munro transitional arrangements that have fixed switchover dates

Level 3: Future:

Embedding a culture of learning, adaptation, continuous improvement and co-created outcomes using the Munro formula


Discussion areas

We suggest the following may be suitable themes or discussion areas:

Themes Level 1: Today Level 2: Transition Level 3: Future
Performance outcomes against agreed indicators


(e.g. The London

SCB’s model questions mainly fit here.)

Organisation and management data X
Risk management X X X
Multi-agency working ? X
Culture change X X
Leadership and management style X X
Reducing bureaucracy X X


Possible Level 2 questions


Themes Level 2: Transition
Risk management

What risks do you foresee to performance when introducing reforms in the transitional period, and how will you manage these risks?

How will you ensure that the process of managing the responsibilities and accountabilities of individuals, groups, and the wider organisation as a holistic system, at each of the three levels (today, transition, and future) does not put at risk delivering performance at the other levels?

Multi-agency working Specific Munro actions and any associated deadlines fit here.
Culture change
Leadership and management style
Reducing bureaucracy


Possible Level 3 questions


Themes Level 3: Future
Multi-agency working

What are you doing to ensure that each agency partner’s duty of cooperation is being actively practised, managed and improving? (Hear from each of them.)

What do you see as your main responsibilities to other partners?

What are you doing to improve cooperation?

What are the gaps between partners down which collective performance is slipping?

What signs are there of silo behaviour? How will you combat these?

Culture change

Can you please let us hear your plans for how you intend to embed the new culture required?

How do you expect to find out what needs to change?

We would like to hear your ideas at our next meeting.

Leadership and management style

What is the current leadership sub-culture perceived to be? How will you establish people’s perceptions and find out what shift is needed?

At the next meeting we would like to hear more from you on how you would like the leadership sub-culture (‘how leadership works round here’) to change?

In the meantime, what are you doing to loosen up the way the hierarchy works; for example, so that people can speak out safely, have ease of access where they need it, etc?

Where is there scope for pushing decisions further down the organisation into the hands of those who have the ability and necessary information to decide?

What are you doing to expand the leadership capability of the system (as opposed to individuals’ leadership skills and training)?

How do you presently divide your time between managing, leading, and supervising those who lead? How do you propose to improve that balance? (see table below)

Reducing bureaucracy How will you collate examples of bureaucracy as experienced by front-line staff?

Time management

Senior managers’ systematic and conscious allocation of time to their various roles will be crucial.

The impact of time and authority on senior managers’ role (extract from The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective, Triarchy Press, 2009).

Note: The three endeavours above are portrayed as though they are rational choices. In practice there is a fourth layer, the shadow system, which hangs like a cloud over 1, 2 and 3 in this diagram.

Super-leadership (top-right corner of table):

  1. provides a context, reason and challenge
  2. gives permission for the process and events to happen
  3. provides funds, time and other resources
  4. defines a standard of what success or ‘good enough’ looks like
  5. ensures readiness for change: a point of possibility between excessive stability and anarchy. (In complexity theory this point is known as the edge of chaos).
  6. disturbs or shakes up the status quo for relevant aspects of how the organisation works and moves forward, making clear that the status quo is not an option. In parallel it maintains stability of appropriate business interests (e.g. safeguarding customers’ confidence during the change)
  7. loosens the system, to weaken strictly hierarchical management of change
  8. licenses more widely distributed power for managers to engage in system-wide improvement activity
  9. gives managers a collective and cross-departmental identity
  10. makes people’s fate rely on inter-dependence, which leads to cooperation, warmth in relationships, and people taking a fair share of responsibility
  11. sets tight timescales to instil a sense of urgency
  12. makes clear how the relevant people will be held to account, individually and collectively, agrees this system of accountability (asking them, say, ‘is it reasonable for me to ask you to report back to me on this as a team in a week’s time?’), then conducts a process by which directors and senior managers are formally held to account for the required improvements.

Accountability bodies’ powers

Under Munro, individuals and bodies have an opportunity to rethink their powers, behaviour and relationships, except where enshrined in law. The legal duties do not appear to be spelled out in much detail or limited. People who have the important responsibility of holding others to account may consider that their role is simply to be satisfied that everything possible is being done by the key professionals to safeguard children. That is important, of course, but may not to go far enough: Munro provides the opportunity to go further and de facto alter the way powers are exercised. The role of holding others to account may include, for example, requesting, proposing, recommending, directing that certain work be undertaken and reported on in person at the next meeting. If LSCBs lack an overt executive function and cannot do this, then at least the chief executive and leader have this power and should use it proactively. But are they equipped to do that, or do they allow themselves to be led by others (indeed, do they know what questions to ask under the three levels in Table 1)

There are instances nationally where DCSs have been removed from their posts. Is that evidence of a rigorous accountability system working, or is it evidence of its absence? It would be interesting to know and to learn from these instances from speaking to those directly involved. This reminds me of my old company British Airways: a director asked the chief executive for a discussion about his performance. The reply was ‘when you are no longer getting it right, you’ll find out soon enough’. The chief executive did not know how to hold the director to account. He didn’t know what questions to ask. Such a dialogue may be more typical at the top of organisations than we like to believe. It is common for organisations’ performance management systems to be designed for lower and middle management positions, but not senior and top management ones (who are trusted not to need it). We have an opportunity at this time to put more systemic flesh on the questioning process at the highest levels where it is beyond dispute that officials’ hold responsibility for how well the organisation functions as a system.

To answer one of Eileen Munro’s questions, it does seem that there is scope for LSCBs to assume a strengthened leadership role in multi-agency learning about child protection. If so, accountability can be more than a last line of defence against a weakly performing partner/system/team/professional. It can be a sharp proactive tool for bringing about improvement and change.

Complexity and multi-agency working

The various agencies have overlapping responsibilities, including those to each other. Most statutory advice emphasises their individual professional management, individual reporting structures and similarly being held to account. But the LSCB can actively bring them together to be held collectively to account for their shared responsibilities and for improving the way they work together (i.e. their legal duty to cooperate) – Eileen Munro’s ‘horizontal rather than vertical relationships’.

Managing organisations and bringing about change looks different under a complexity model. The answer to an under-performing system is no longer found in the standard management solution: find a stronger leader, push harder, produce better plans this time, incentivise people to work harder, hit targets, and monitor compliance. Some managers may need help in understanding the need to adapt their change strategies accordingly. Importantly, politicians, Ofsted inspections and LSCBs should not put DCSs under pressure to pursue the traditional change model, falsely reassuring though it may be.

A complexity viewpoint emphasises ‘emergence’ as a necessary, creative, positive and evolving property of the system which occurs in the space between the parts when they come together, but to which no part has the answer on its own. Thus, bringing the parts together in a shared discussion has this fostering quality. It is the opposite of allowing technical expertise to develop into silo behaviour.

Complexity science also stresses the reality of uncertainty, rather than automatically trying to limit it and control it. Uncertainty can have positive aspects. For example, the most important learning may not be planned and signed off on a form that predicts outcomes as a budgetary pre-condition (as is common practice – an example of bureaucracy to be dispensed with).

The Munro Review also considers the ‘requisite variety’ needed in a complex system’s capability. Human needs are infinitely unpredictable and diverse. This necessarily means spreading the power to take decisions to those closest to the need and information. This builds on the delegation from central to local government, to distribute leadership down organisation hierarchies, as far as reasonable and safe, as a way of countering over-standardised responses, by licensing variability, flexibility and professional judgement to act in the best interest of the child.

Social and relational capital

Eileen Munro quotes research by Hutchins 1995 and Woods, Johannsen et al 1994 on individual rationality and decision-making. This brings to mind the alternative view that organisations are really informal coalitions where ‘people get together, make sense of what’s going on and, through this relational process, decide what things mean and how they will act’ (Rodgers, 2010). Rodgers depicts a messy, socially constructed view of organisations.

Children’s and Families’ Report 19 ‘Learning Together to Safeguard Children’, in its Executive Summary, under ‘The basics of the approach’ (p. viii), implies that there are only two ‘agents’: the individual/task and the operating environment. But, as far as an individual is concerned, the system includes a range of others with whom they interact, some of them informally. Such complex relationships are more difficult to manage and improve; we are not sure that the degree of messiness is fully captured in the six patterns on p. ix or The Layers of Influence on p.25.

There is also research that claims to show that people believe that their decisions and actions are the response to thoughts they had. But taking decisions and the associated thought processes happen in different parts of the brain at different speeds. So, the research argues, the reasoning process follows, rather than precedes, the decision to take action, and subsequently but falsely ascribes intention to it. This seems to go beyond Baron 1994 quoted by Munro. Coupled with Rodgers’ work, this may cast doubt on our assumptions about how professionals make judgements and arrive at their decisions and how they are trained.

Reducing bureaucracy

The Munro Review brief includes a specific term of reference to reduce bureaucracy. While certain things can and will no doubt be recommended, much of this thinking will have to be delegated because intimate local knowledge is needed in order to know the myriad examples of needless bureaucracy. Munro can provide a framework to ensure that this local initiative happens.

Bureaucracy is more than form-filling. It includes structures, protocols, procedures, etc. Reducing and improving bureaucracy does not lend itself to traditional hierarchical control. Challenging bureaucracy should follow systems thinking practice; that is, CHECK before PLAN and DO. Check means thoroughly finding out what is being directly experienced at the front line, so that change is pulled by these ‘customers’ and not announced to them. Don’t begin with planning. Test questions include: What is not adding value? What is getting in the way of front-line staff doing their job? What is limiting the time spent with families? What doesn’t have a clear customer that needs this (procedure, protocol, unit, etc.)?

Behind-the-scenes management

Much of the LSCB work of priming, liaison and briefing should happen behind the scenes before and after meetings. This is not in order to make for an easy ride by those required to account for their performance, but in a spirit of collaboration, trust and absence of surprises. The style of meetings should leave no doubt that the interaction is challenging and the board has teeth, but the aim is not to expose weakness and embarrass. The aim is for mutual respect in responsibilities and in the manner of discourse. Politics should not be used for political point-scoring.

Munro offers an opportunity to place the relationship between those holding to account and those being held to account on a new footing. Like a marriage, if it isn’t done swiftly at this point, it will be difficult to move up a gear later. There may need to be some ‘renegotiating’ beforehand. This will be much easier if the Munro reports states that this should be expected.

Those who hold others to account should act in a coordinated way. The chief executive should be informed by LSCBs what action is expected of the DCS between meetings, so that this can be reinforced in the chief executive/DCS relationship.

A board needs to recognise that its own ability to fulfil its responsibility in the overall accountability process is as important as is the performance of those whom it may require to attend and hold to account. It needs a means of considering its own performance and ongoing improvement.