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A genuine partnership approach key to commissioner turnarounds

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 16

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council leader, Cllr Chris Read, and Ian Thomas, the local authority’s strategic director of children’s services, discuss the importance of open and honest relationships to deliver change with government commissioners.

In February last year, the government appointed a team of commissioners to manage Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council after a series of reports highlighted serious failings across the authority. 

Professor Alexis Jay’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) in 2014 found evidence of sexual exploitation of at least 1,400 children in Rotherham, while Louise Casey’s review found the CSE team was poorly directed, suffered from excessive caseloads, and did not share information. She also noted that the council’s culture was unhealthy as “bullying, sexism, suppression and misplaced ‘political correctness’ cemented its failures”. 

Since the commissioners came in, a number of functions, including education and schools, public health, leisure services, and housing, have come back under the council’s control. But children’s services and adult social care have been retained by the commissioners, who could remain at the authority until 2019. 

Joint endeavour 

Speaking to PSE about the progress made at the authority, Cllr Chris Read, who was elected leader of the council in March last year, told us that while the commissioners were sent in to take over executive decision-making and licensing, “it was clear that from the start the move wasn’t about councillors being side-lined”. 

“It was about commissioners coming and helping members to make the right decisions in the right way,” he said. “It was a joint endeavour between us for two reasons. Firstly, the role of elected councillors and their information, background and local knowledge remains valid, regardless of who is formally making the decision. And secondly, at some stage, we would be moving towards a return of powers. It was important that I, and my Cabinet colleagues, were able to take that in our stride.”

Five commissioners – Sir Derek Myers, Stella Manzie, Malcolm Newsam, Mary Ney and Julie Kenny – were initially appointed to head up the council. 

At the time, Manzie took on the role of managing director commissioner, essentially filling the vacant CEO position. However, following the appointment of Sharon Kemp as chief executive, Manzie left the authority in February this year. 

“I think, although I wouldn’t have said it at the start of the intervention, one of the reasons it has worked for Rotherham was because Manzie had that role; not just as a commissioner and decision-maker, but also as the senior manager for the council. She had that direct operational oversight, and was able to link that straight into commissioners,” said Cllr Read. 

He added that the way commissioners initially made decisions, which wasn’t always done in public, did allow them to make changes quickly and have open and honest conversations with members. 

“As we got powers back, we moved much more to Cabinet-style decision-making, so we meet both Cabinet and commissioners on a monthly basis in public, and take decisions together in a way that looks much more like a normal council Cabinet would.” 

Cllr Read added that the Casey report “laid bare” the broken culture at the local authority, which he believes developed a climate of fear where people wouldn’t volunteer information or make suggestions, because they weren’t sure what the consequences would be. 

“Some of the things we’ve done around governance and making decision-making more open, around scrutiny and the process and engagement of members, is much better,” he said. “What I think will take longer is feeding that through the organisation, so that people are more confident in coming forward at a time when austerity puts enormous pressure on people’s workloads as well.” 

The council leader added that if the authority’s budget situation was at a standstill for the next four years, “I’d be absolutely certain about Rotherham’s improvement journey”. 

“With a steady amount of resource, I’m absolutely certain we’d be able to compare to a good council anywhere,” he said. “Doing that, however, while we face a budget pressure of £20m every year makes that whole task much more difficult.” 

Turning round children’s services 

Children’s services initially came under the commissioner remit of the widely-respected Malcolm Newsam back in 2014, just ahead of Oftsed rating the service as ‘inadequate’. But in May this year, he was replaced by Cllr Patricia Bradwell, deputy leader of Lincolnshire County Council who has executive responsibilities for adult care and children’s services at the authority. 

Discussing the work to improve services, Ian Thomas, strategic director of children’s services, said: “We were fortunate to have the benefit of the experience of the commissioners in their fields. What they brought with them was the steering guidance you need if you are going to rebuild a council from scratch. 

“No authority that finds themselves in this position can do it without investment. The commissioners were very good about working with the members on being clear that children’s services had been underinvested in, which contributed to the problems that Rotherham has had.” 

Thomas, who was previously deputy CEO and strategic director of children’s services with Derbyshire County Council, joined Rotherham shortly after the Jay report. 

“We looked at the structure, looked at the Ofsted criticisms and used it as a baseline,” he said. “I also started on an inspection plan to investigate what Ofsted had found and quickly appraised the structure and realised we had a lack of leadership capacity; capacity to manage frontline workers; and the configuration of children’s services needed serious work as it didn’t respond to children’s needs as they made their way through their journey. We also had fragmented partnerships.” 

“We also had to tackle CSE quickly, as the CSE team was a broken unit. We rearranged it with the police, and put protocols in place and memorandums of understanding to govern how we work together. In any area, if you have single agency investigations into CSE it is dangerous practice. If you have police, social work, health and voluntary sector colleagues working together you have a much better chance of preventing CSE through raising awareness and disrupting perpetrator behaviour.” 

He added that he is still working with members, local stakeholders and commissioners to get a critical understanding of children’s services pressures, and how Rotherham might manage those over the next five years. 

The local authority has been investing more in children’s services, which has enabled more frontline social workers to be recruited, and it even received a one-off £5m grant from the government to be used over the next two years. 

“One of the upsides of the intervention was that we were able to negotiate the £5m grant from the government, which we are spending this year and next on children’s services,” said Cllr Read. “But there is essentially a £24m funding gap. It is welcome money, but can only go so far.” 

In September, commissioner Bradwell approved the closure of two of Rotherham council’s residential homes – Silverwood in Sunnyside and Cherry Tree House in Kimberworth.  The closures are expected to save £1.2m per year, but it means four of the council’s five residential homes have been closed in the last 12 months. It was noted that more than 60 of Rotherham’s 453 looked-after children are in residential homes and the local authority hopes to reduce this figure by recruiting more foster carers. 

“The children’s homes weren’t good enough,” said Cllr Read. “Ultimately, we reached a situation where senior management were saying to us as members that they weren’t happy to place children in those homes, and they would be seeking alternative accommodation for them. 

“From there on, it was a relatively easy decision for us to close the homes. It does mean that the money we were previously spending on those homes is being redirected into increasing foster care placements.” 

Thomas added that too many children in Rotherham are placed in residential care, so there needs to be a shift in practice. “We have 14% of our children placed in residential care, and we want to halve that,” he said. “We have foster carers and we use independent foster care agencies like many authorities do, but our share of the foster care market is much lower than other places. 

“Only 56% of our foster care community is council-provided foster care, our plan and strategy is to increase the number of council-provided foster carers. We’d prefer it to be more like a 75-25 split. You need a mixed economy of provision to deal with different situations, but our bit is to recruit more foster carers.” 

Thomas added that against metrics – such as social care workloads, the percentage of referrals dealt with in 24 hours, and the cases that go to child protection conference within 15 working days –  Rotherham’s services are now comparable to good authorities. 

“Our challenge going forward is about the quality of the work, the quality of the interventions and the unrelenting focus on outcomes and recording what we do, and dong it well,” he said. “I can sit here today and say we haven’t got widespread systemic failures as Oftsed found in 2014.” 

The key to change 

Although there is still work to be done at Rotherham, Cllr Read believes the key to delivering change has been a “genuine partnership” with commissioners. 

“If you are fighting or trying to hide something or not sharing an agenda, it will become much more difficult to make it work,” he said. “I do think there is something about commissioners having enough hands-on management time.” 

Asked whether he thinks the commissioners will be in place until 2019,  he said: “They have a mandate while 2019, and they will stay as long as they feel it necessary to do so. We are already seeing big changes from when they were here a lot of the week, physically spending a lot of time on site, to now spending less time here. 

“I suspect they will relax the role, but will need to be there to provide reassurance to the government as long as the government

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