Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (2): How can a fair system of accountability operate when the organisation comprises a complex system?

This post follows yesterday’s theme. Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, commanded that Ofsted deliver a clear answer on the matter of accountability in its report. That may perhaps have led Ofsted to finger Haringey’s department head Sharon Shoesmith so prominently and publicly, to the exclusion of other players. Appearing to lend weight to this view, Mr Justice Foskett’s High Court decision against Shoesmith could equally reinforce the view that leadership is entirely a function and property of one individual and the position they hold, rather than (or as well as) a function and property of the organisation and how it works interdependently. In large and complex systems, responsibility is diffused throughout the structure. It is held jointly with others and depends on others’ contribution, so accountability might reasonably be deemed to have a plural quality.

Factors beyond any one jobholder’s remit and skills have a bearing on leadership performance. The system shapes leadership as much as leadership shapes the system. A case in point is the government’s requirement that local authorities adopt its much criticised national computer system for managing social workers’ caseload. Another is the child protection partnership that operates with schools, doctors and the police. In the Baby P case, the police incorrectly claimed that mother and child were living alone. The doctor incorrectly said that there were no suspicious injuries. The lawyer incorrectly said that there was insufficient evidence for a Care Order. Shoesmith wasn’t responsible for all of these, so she could hardly be held accountable for their performance failures. But if she can’t, who can? Judge Foskett could see a problem.

In his ruling, Foskett said “… a substantial factor in the Claimant being replaced by the Secretary of State was because, as head of the department that was assessed to be inadequate, she was held “accountable”. To that extent, the normal conceptions of “fairness” to the individual do not really apply. There needs to be a debate, which one case decided on its own facts cannot possibly resolve, about whether individual responsibility in this way for a collective failure is what is to be expected of someone who achieves the position of DCS [director of children’s services] or its equivalent and, of course, whether it justifies summary dismissal. … It is to be noted that the Dismissal Appeal Panel at Haringey gave as one of its reasons for upholding the decision to dismiss the Claimant “that the Director of Children’s Services was personally accountable for any failings identified in the Service” by the Ofsted report. I have not heard full argument about what “accountable” means in the legal context … and the view I express about it is necessarily tentative. However, whilst there can be no doubt that the word is generally understood simply to mean the same as “answerable” (in other words, a person who is “accountable” is the person who must answer questions about why something did or did not happen), it would be a very significant step to say that “accountability” means liability for summary dismissal without compensation. That seems to me, potentially at any rate, to open up some very large employment law issues aside the obvious comment that few people would want to take on the role of DCS in those circumstances.”

The accountability issues raised reach beyond Foskett’s “employment law issues”. They include the need to embrace a systems perspective. There is work still to be done here; this includes challenging the popular notion that is it always individuals who should be held accountable; what about teams and other agency partners? Should such accountability be seen as something that is invoked only after failure? What about a suitable and ongoing accountability process being openly communicated before major change is required (such as improving child protection in a council)? What should that accountability process look like, whether singular or plural? Which party should initiate discussion about it? Who would be capable of conducting it? (For a fuller discussion, see Chapter 14: ‘Leadership and Accountability’ in The Search for Leadership.)