Examination of Witness (Question Numbers
20 JANUARY 2010
Q20 Mr Stuart: Has it improved
since that report?
Dame Denise Platt: It is too soon
to say. The Audit Commission has produced a lot of materials to
help people with that improvement. It is behind the comments that
I made at the beginning. I think that some of the best councils
that the Audit Commission looked at were those that had devised
their own solutions, integrating services that made sense for
them on the ground and using resources in different ways because
they understood their communities and knew what was intended for
them. It is a whole locus of the place-shaping responsibility.
Councils have to be able to answer the question, "What is
it like to grow up as a child here? As a child, can I get the
schooling, the career, the education and the family life that
I need?" Councils have to be able to answer that question
in partnership. They answer it by devising services that respond.
As I said in the beginning, structures can get in the way, but
of themselves, structures don't deliverit is what people
to do and how people relate to local communities that deliver,
not all those other bits. Now you can tell why I am retired.
Chairman: That was useful for us, Denise.
Q21 Ms Buck: This leads back into
that very interesting example that you gave about inspections.
You talked about the council of the year, where the service was
not living up to what was coming out of the performance indicators.
Could you give us an indication about the extent to which those
discrepancies occur where, on paper, the authority is performing
well but the Commission finds that in practice the quality of
service is not that good? Can you also say why those discrepancies
occur? Is it because the indicators are not what they should be?
Is it because the self-assessment is reporting back, in some way,
almost fraudulently? What causes that variance?
Dame Denise Platt: We had a word
outside about jargon. It can be very easy for people to mystify
professional tasks in a whole range of jargon, or just say, "It
is too difficult, you don't understand; these are professional
issues and we will deal with them." I think in the early
days we had to uncover a lot of that. Thinking way back to the
Quality Protects initiative from Frank Dobson, one of the most
useful things I think we did in that initiative was to devise
a list of questions that councillors should ask and expect answers
to. Some of the tools that the Audit Commission and that we produced
were really addressed for councillors. Just giving councillors
that are ultimately responsible for these services the competence
to ask difficult questions and to interrogate information that
they are given would provide something similar. A lot of information
is generated by councils. A lot of analytic time is spent by councils
just amalgamating it, rather than adding value to it. There are
sections in most councils that can look at that data and say,
"Well, what is this telling us?" So councils are awash
with information and data that can be harnessed and used in ways
that can actually help councillors understand much more, and actually
help frontline practitioners and managers to understand what is
going on in their service more. When we first introduced performance
assessment, it was extremely difficult to get councils to know
how many children they were dealing with, because the information
that was generated was in different places and not collated in
the right way. That is not found these days, but the Audit Commission
is still finding, and published a recent report about data quality,
that many councils still do not know how many people they employ.
Yet the data is there. It is not harnessed in a way that people
can use intelligently to understand the services that they have.
Some of that discrepancy is the role of scrutiny in local councils
getting underneath some of those issues and accountability and
adding value to the information that you have to interrogate it
and understand it.
Q22 Ms Buck: That is very valuable.
I am not sure it quite answers the question as to why an inspection
could uncover, to take your example, a really significant variance
in quality between a self-assessment and an independent look at
the service. I am sure that it is absolutely true that there is
a lack of data that is not being harnessed.
Dame Denise Platt: It is the value
of people externally coming in and having a look and saying, "This
is not acceptable." Sometimes people accept the most unacceptable.
I have been in teams where a high level of unallocated cases was
the norm. You took referrals out of the unallocated cases basket,
you looked at them and you decided they might remain unallocated.
I am not talking about current circumstances, because I think
departments usually have a plan to deal with those sorts of things
now, but cultures of organisations can get very embedded. Poor
practices can become normal practices. I am amazed by how quickly
bad habits can get circulated and good habits take such time,
effort and energy. It is always more difficult to give up smoking
than it ever was to take it up. So, getting out of those bad habits
and away from bad practice that is accepted as the way things
are, takes somebody from outside coming in and saying, "No,
it's not acceptable". These children can't wait. A year is
a long time in the life of a child.
Q23 Ms Buck: I read into what
you are saying, possibly wrongly, that the quite dramatic example
that you brought to us this morning is more likely to be the norm
than the exception.
Dame Denise Platt: No. We went
through a stage in which we were finding those sorts of things.
The thing about children's services is that they are really quite
volatile. When key significant leadership changes or significant
people leave, good departments can turn over very quickly. What
a child values is consistency of contact, and if there is a lot
of churn and turnover in the services, you are operating at high
risk and situations can get out of control.
Ms Buck: And reorganisation can be a
part of that as well.
Dame Denise Platt: Reorganisation
can be a part of it.
Q24 Ms Buck: This is probably
not a very fair question, but has the whole children's trust model
been worth it, in terms of the added value it brings compared
to the level of churn that comes with that scale of reorganisation?
Dame Denise Platt: It is important
to remember where the idea of children's trusts came from. It
came from within the Department of Health, when care trusts were
being set up in adult services. Some councils wanted to experiment
with different organisational arrangements, particularly perhaps
in areas where there were children with disabilities and where
a structural arrangement that brought health services in much
more closely would be very advantageous. I always find it interestingsad,
reallyto see how those initiatives, when they come up the
system and go out again, are so rigidly ossified that the creativity
that created them in the first place is squeezed out. I am not
for laissez-faire, but I do think that sometimes Whitehall has
an innate ability to take a good idea and institutionalise it,
and then suddenly that idea becomes dysfunctional. I was part
of Whitehall and so probably part of that process at some stage
in my career. Sitting outside it, I can see it only too well.
Chairman: Confession time.
Dame Denise Platt: I have never
been in the business of saying that it's all them. I think if
I would want to leave you with one message about the Commission
for Social Care Inspection, it would be that we saw ourselves
as part of social care, even though we had a very specific role.
We would encourage high-performing practitioners to come and work
for us because they could find out about how different councils
behaved, how to interrogate performance and how to understand
some of these issues. We hoped they would then go back out and
take senior position again. If you are an inspectorate that sees
itself as an expert in regulation, that may help the regulators
but may not entirely help the service.
Q25 Chairman: Just a couple of
questions before we reluctantly let you go, Dame Denise. You have
been a chief inspector, so what do you think is the right relationship
between a department and a chief inspector?
Dame Denise Platt: This is a critical
friend relationship; a critical professional friend relationshipyou
are not friendly-friendly, chummy-chummy. It is giving a view
of performance in a way that the person on the receiving end can
understand what you are saying, understand the importance of it,
and understand the importance from the child's and the family's
perspective. You say: "If you do not get your act together,
they are the ones who are going to suffer; your reputation may
take a knock but what happens to children and families is absolutely
paramount. My business as a regulator is to help you to understand
where you need to improve, and we will keep the pressure on you
while you do that. We will congratulate you when you do good things
and even the poorest departments have some staff doing very good
things. But actually we will pull no punches. We don't want to
see you driven into the ground. We don't want to see you drummed
out. We want to see the best possible service for the children
and families living in your community. It is an agenda which we
share. You fall short. They don't experience what they should,
what their rights are in terms of the services you want to provide
and we are here to tell it straight and keep the pressure on until
you get there".
Q26 Chairman: How often did the
Secretary of State tell you to go in and look at a local authority
because it caused her or him great concern?
Dame Denise Platt: It was more
often the other way round. It was more often me saying, "Secretary
of State there is a council here you really need to spend your
time thinking about and I'm going to see them and I'll recommend
to you what intervention powers you may or may not need. If I
think that they're going to get there in the end, then we'll keep
the pressure on. If I think you need to use your powers of direction
then we will use them." We did use the powers of direction
for the first time and on a couple of occasions. But most often
councils don't want to wallow in the mire. They don't want their
children's services to be awful.
Q27 Chairman: But if you look
at the popular press, we seem to have an increasing number of
ghastly events. Is that because the press are playing it up or
are there just more of them? Are there more horrific things going
on in children's services and inadequate children's services to
respond and prevent those ghastly things from happening?
Dame Denise Platt: There are more
children who are protected than not. It is always important to
hang on to the fact that many children in very difficult circumstances
are supported in the way that they and their families find helpful
and they get through those circumstances and families can cope.
It comes back to what I said about the service being able to provide
straightforward solutions when there are straightforward problems.
The complex families that provide the biggest challenges to social
care services have, I suspect, probably always been around and
quite often doing the things that they are doing. But services
know about them more than they ever did in the past and what is
expected of services is quite rightly more in terms of the situations
that they encounter.
Q28 Chairman: We have valued your
evidence a great deal. Can I ask you a great favour. Will you
remain in contact with us and help to make this an excellent report?
Dame Denise Platt: Of course.
In any way that you wish.