Latest Public Sector News

28.07.16

Culture change needed to tackle increasing failure risk in public services

Public sector institutions will not recover from being judged to be failing unless they are prepared to accept the problems and introduce culture-wide changes, according to a new study from the Institute for Government (IfG).

The report, ‘Failing Well’, says that failing institutions are often marked by insularity and can only deliver change through adopting “an open, no-blame culture.”

It also warned that “the risk of failure is increasing” as the public sector faces increasingly strained finances combined with an ambitious drive to introduce more autonomous structures, including academisation in education and plans to give greater powers to NHS vanguards and children’s services.

Emma Norris, IfG programme director, said: “Failure is an ever present threat in our public services – and the risks are increasing. Yet there are good and bad ways of responding to failure. Politicians too often use a superficial set of tools – restructuring a service or parcelling out blame. But this won’t solve the problem: leadership, collaboration and transparency will. Those overseeing turnarounds also need to hold their nerve and accept that performance can dip further as recovery begins.”

The report looks at four institutions which have experienced failure. One of them, Eltham Foundation School (now the Harris Academy Greenwich), was put into special measures by Ofsted in 2010.

The report says that staff found this “difficult to accept” because they had lost touch of what educational standards were and did not fully recognise the problems at the school despite the fact that police had been called to deal with pupils.

However, after the Ofsted inspection, the school was more accepting of its problems. For example, exclusion rates went “through the roof” because staff were less likely to tolerate bad behaviour from pupils.

The school adopted a new leadership structure with two new headteachers and a more “outward-looking” attitude and became an academy.

The IfG said that teachers at the school reported that the academy status, beyond the increased funding it brought, was less important than the change in leadership in helping the school recover. It said that this showed that strategies for recovering from failure should not be based only on structural reforms.

Similarly, when the Audit Commission found that governance was failing at Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, central government brought in a team of commissioners with the power to directly intervene in local government.

The IfG said that this was “an extraordinary step”, but it succeeded because the commissioners treated their powers of intervention as a last resort and saw their role as monitoring the council. They also withdrew in July 2014 to allow the council to complete a programme of improvements on its own.

The IfG contrasted this with the more hands-on approach adopted by the commissioners who were introduced in Rotherham, who took over the day-to-day running of the council.

However, the IfG cautioned that in other cases, proof of failure can be discouraging to an organisation. For example, West Sussex children’s services received an ‘inadequate’ rating from Ofsted and the CQC in 2010, which interviewees said had a negative affect because it made it harder to recruit new staff and request the funding needed to improve services.

It said West Sussex was helped by clear assessment of its progress and what needed to be done to improve it. Following a 2011 review, it adopted new assessment processes and strategies for supporting social workers in order to retain numbers.

West Sussex was rated ‘adequate’ in 2013, but ‘requires improvement’ in 2013. The IfG said that this indicates that the process of service improvement is often “messy and fitful” instead of “linear.”

(Image c. AnsonLu)

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