An ex Brent Council worker, forced out of her job and silenced by a compromise agreement, has sent me Eric Pickles’ summary of the Casey LINK report into Rotherham Council. She remarked, ‘familiar, isn’t it?’
Of course not everything applies equally to Brent, and some perhaps not at all, but there are enough similarities to be of concern. Make up your own mind about which apply.
· Poor governance is deeply seated throughout the council· There is a pervading culture of bullying, sexism, suppression and misplaced political correctness which has cemented the council’s failures.· Both members and officers lack the confidence to tackle difficult issues for fear of being seen as racist or upsetting community cohesion· The council is currently incapable of tackling its weaknesses, without a sustained intervention.· The council lacks political leadership.· It is directionless and is not clear what kind of organisation it wants to be, and how it will get there.· It is clear that the political leadership of the council is unable to hold officers to account, and there is an inability of all members to properly represent the interests of local people and businesses.· Some councillors, have not lived up to the high standards expected of those in public life or their positions of responsibility. For example the council goes to lengths to cover up and silence whistle-blowers.· It has created an unhealthy climate where people fear to speak out because they have seen the consequences of doing so.· Management is ineffective.· There is no cohesive senior leadership team and no permanent chief executive.· There is a poorly directed tier of middle managers, some of whom do not demonstrate that they have the skills, drive and ability necessary to turn the organisation around.· There is a history of poor performance and a tolerance of failure in Children’s Services.
· Strategies and action plans sit on the shelf and don’t get translated into change.
The Casey Report finds overall that Rotherham Council failed to Listen, Learn, Challenge and Improve. They found insufficient evidence of clear managerial leadership, not of political leadership to ensure officers were held to account for delivery. Members blamed officers for failure to progress and officers blamed members for lack of leadership.
The Report shows what might have been achieved by an independent report into Brent Council, rather than the internal Pavey report. A request for a review, sent by Nan Tewani to Eric Pickles, has still to receive a response. LINK
Inspectors saw regular reports to the Cabinet and Scrutiny committees, but not the effective challenge we would expect from elected Members. The notion of challenge has been misunderstood and misinterpreted as bullish questioning. Challenge means setting aspirational targets, knowing how far to stretch the organisation, asking searching questions, drilling down into information and data, ensuring targets are kept to and agreed actions implemented. It also means recognising organisational inertia and doing something about it; identifying when people are struggling, finding out why and getting alongside them, overcoming barriers and working out solutions.P65
One illustration of this disconnection between vision, plans and practice is the Council’s equalities plan and single equality scheme. The documents are clear,aspirational and include a summary of good practice. However, we found that this was not rooted in the day-to-day experience of staff. We set these matters out i more detail elsewhere in considering political correctness and race. The point here is that whilst plans and policies look appropriate, or even good, they bear little relationship to what inspectors found at the frontline. (p70)
Inspectors were told that in Children’s Services only “60-80% of staff are having Performance Reviews, with HR spot checking more than anything”. Inspectors did not find this to be at all adequate. We would expect the vast majority of staff, with few exceptions, to be having performance reviews so they know what is expected of them and how their work contributes to the delivery of the Council’s plans. Inspectors concluded that some staff did not understand the Council’s vision; a number were clearly confused about what was expected of them and this hampered their performance in terms of day to-day service delivery (p70)
Note: Pavey found that in two ‘non-management’ workshops, 45% and 30% respectively of Brent staff had not had an appraisal in the last 12 months and more than half had not had sight of their team or service plan.
Scrutiny in Brent has been an issue since the incoming Labour administration reduced it to one Committee in May 2014. It was also an issue in Rotherham:
However, it is not clear how effective it has been in holding Cabinet Members and senior officers to account for their individual performance and decision-making Inspectors could not find much evidence of how scrutiny had changed practice or policy making. P75Where Councillors have scrutinised other agencies, eg aspects of health, they have been more effective and robust. However, not enough Members really know how to get underneath information presented by officers, and the organisation has not properly resourced and facilitated effective scrutiny. It was generally acknowledged that the scrutiny team was small and disconnected from the Senior Leadership Team. P77Inspectors concluded that overview and scrutiny had been deliberately weakened and under-valued. The structures and processes look superficially adequate, but the culture has been one where challenge and scrutiny were not welcome. P76
There are also findings that relate to the budget process and planning cuts:
However, Inspectors found that the overall approach to finance planning was not based on a clear and political strategic vision. The Improvement Board recognises this and is working to develop one. In the absence of this vision, the budget process has been led by finance. All departments were asked to find a quota of savings, with some protection for frontline services. This approach has delivered the bottom line, but with serious consequences. For example, some services no longer have the capacity to function effectively. We were particularly concerned about the level of funding for central regulatory functions and those which will drive transformation, like legal services, organisational development, strategy, and resources to ensure community cohesion. P83
It is in the area of Human Resources that comparing Rotherham with Brent becomes most telling:
Generally, inspectors found the Council too willing to take the path of least resistance rather than ensuring it did the right thing for individuals or the organisation as a whole. We have concluded that whilst the Council has followed its own procedures, these have not always ensured that it has taken, and continues to take, appropriate action against staff potentially guilty of gross misconduct. P130
Settlements can leave issues unresolved in the case of grievances. For example, one staff member was offered severance when she complained of being bullied. There were counter claims against her by others saying she was a bully. Because the case was not properly investigated, it is unclear whether the matter was resolved by the complainant’s departure. Where severance is used instead of disciplinary action procedures being followed through, it sends the wrong message to the workforce and managers. It may not be an appropriate use of public funds, particularly where dismissal could have occurred if due process had been followed. This was acknowledged by the Council. P132
The above point is particularly interesting in the light of the Rosemarie Clarke Employment Tribunal case and the different treatment of a white member of the Corporate Management Team which led to the finding of racial discrimination as well as victimisation and constructive dismissal.
Grievance cases were too frequently dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence. In two cases where this had occurred, Inspectors considered there was clearly some evidence of poor conduct by managers. In another case, Inspectors noted that the disciplinary process appeared to have been concluded without seeking evidence from all third party witnesses.At times, little effort appeared to have been put into seriously exploring issues raised through grievances. For example, a complaint about potential institutionalised racism was apparently dismissed without investigation on the basis that it was ‘unsuitable for a grievance process’. We make no comment on the merit of this particular case, except that it should have been properly looked into. P133
Whistle-blowing and the treatment of whistle-blowers was an issue in Rotherham as it is in Brent:
Inspectors have concluded that RMBC goes to some lengths to cover up information, and silence whistle-blowers. It has created an unhealthy climate where people fear to speak out because they have seen the consequences of doing so for others.“I’m just worried about reprisals of a personal nature.” (A councillor)
“We’ve all been made aware of the (whistle blowing) procedure,but no-one dares ever use it, because if they did, eventually it would come back to bite them in the backside and they would be bullied out of the organisation”. (A whistle-blower P134)
Staff in RMBC have spoken to Inspectors of being afraid to speak out, told to keepquiet, instructed to cover up, and of a culture where “if you want to keep your job,you keep your head down and your mouth shut.”
A significant number of people we interviewed were clearly afraid of what might happen to them if they spoke out.
It is clear from the report that correct paper policies and procedures are not enough. It is what happens day to day, and people's experience of management's handling of the big issues of respectful treatment and equality which is important and that is what has concerned Brent Council staff.Inspectors considered detailed evidence in three specific cases where people who blew the whistle felt they were marginalised, bullied, harassed and victimised as a result.In two cases, whistle-blowers claimed they were deliberately restructured out, onefrom the Council and the other from a provider working closely with the Councilunder a contract. In a third case, following a similar pattern of marginalisation theperson left. Inspectors recognise that sometimes whistle-blowers may have other agendas and those who approach inspections can be aggrieved for all sorts of reasons. We have borne this in mind when reviewing the cases presented to us and have nevertheless formed a view that in these specific cases there was sufficient truth in the matters raised to be a cause of public concern.
One person at least will be able to see if this report resonates with Brent. Lorraine Langham, late of Ofsted and Tower Hamlets, and recently appointed Chief Operating Officer for Brent, was one of the inspection team for the Casey Report.