Thursday, 6 May 2010

Baby Peter Connelly’s legacy (4): What might Ed Balls have done differently?

In the final post on this theme, what would I have done if I had been Ed Balls, when presented with Ofsted’s Joint Area Review report? Would I have instructed that Sharon Shoesmith should be dismissed? The answer is No, for the reasons I give below:

I would have been aware that the process by which the report had been produced was partial, and that there would be many views on what it had to say on Haringey and Shoesmith, many reputations at stake and several vested interests, and scope for a variety of conclusions concerning responsibility, blame and action.

Note that Shoesmith and her performance had been defended by some fellow officers. She had also been praised by numerous Haringey head teachers, perhaps not surprisingly given her schools background and not in social services. But since these functions were merged at the behest of government – a decision which is still controversial and required Shoesmith to provide oversight to the assistant director of children’s services (who had the necessary background expertise) – it seems unfair to criticise her on that structural point. Others found that she was autocratic in her leadership style; while not defending that, the same criticism might be levelled against both Ed balls and his boss Gordon Brown.

As Secretary of State, I would feel that it was not for me alone to decide the outcome or to punish, or to imply that my action solved the problem. I would have been aware that leadership is one element in a complex system, to which there are many partners as well as constraining factors, one of which was my own department’s performance and contribution to the national IT system for child care. It is simplistic for leadership to be laid at the door of one official.

Similarly, accountability, cannot be regarded in this unitary way. Shoesmith just might have chosen to accept personal accountability and seek an honourable exit on appropriate terms, rather in the romantic manner of the ship’s master who is expected to go down heroically with his sinking ship even when he could be saved (as have the remaining crew). Her employer might have reached the conclusion that the function head’s career death was inevitable and appropriate. Shoesmith had played with fire. Someone was going to get burned. But it was the system that had failed too.

So, what would I, as secretary of state, have done?

I would recognise that, as a leader, I first needed to make a conscious choice about my role in this affair. I could either determine to be a decision-taker and make a judgement. Or I could choose the role of facilitator, seeking to reconcile opposing camps and viewpoints and prompt a process of reflection and learning.

In choosing the latter role, I would have held Haringey Council to account by setting a deadline and asking them to come up with a plan, to be discussed with me and my department (not left to an inspector), that shows how they have taken the opportunity to learn from the investigations into the case, and what and how learning has been followed up and acted upon, including such matters as how well the organisation works as a system, how the process of leadership takes this systems viewpoint into account, what system weaknesses have been identified and are being worked on, how the much-criticised lack of ‘strategic leadership’ is understood and how it will be addressed, as well as the suitability of named individuals remaining in their employment or not.

It is too easy, too crude, too punishing and too uninformed simply to force the employer to summarily dismiss an official and say to the electorate ‘job done’.

Paradoxically, Balls is now being targeted for dismissal by his own electorate. What would he learn if that happened?