Sharon Shoesmith, Baby P and ‘Joined-Up’ Children’s Services – another perspective

Today [30th Dec 2016] we have just been treated to a long, uncritical, bordering on indulgent interview with Sharon Shoesmith – the former head of Children’s Services in Haringey – on BBC Radio 4 PM programme. She was in charge at the time of the “Baby P” case.

During the interview Shoesmith was treated as if she was a social worker (she wasn’t) and an expert on child abuse (at the time it was far from evident she knew anything about child abuse).

The interview concentrated almost entirely on what had happened to Shoesmith personally and on her reactions. There were no questions about her personal responsibility for the service she led nor any exploration of the context – the merger of education and children’s social services which later proved to be problematic nationally.

Here is what I wrote about this back in Feb 2009. I hope it throws a bit more light than the PM interview did.

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Baby P and ‘Joined-up Government’

The Baby ‘P’ furore continues to rumble on, not least because of the decision of the sacked head of children’s services in Haringey – Sharon Shoesmith – to go to the media to defend her reputation and the on-going investigations.

Listening to Shoesmith’s interview on Woman’s Hour confirmed what something I have suspected about this case – that so-called ‘joined-up government’ probably contributed to the failure to protect Baby P.

During the interview Shoesmith trotted out a series of statistics about child deaths at the hands of family or friends that she had just discovered. The obvious question is why would a head of ‘children’s services’ only just be finding out these things?

The answer is simple – Sharon Shoesmith is a an education manager by trade, not a social worker. She is one of the many education bureaucrats who became heads of children’s services when the later were created – in the name of joined-up government – by the merger of local educational departments and the much smaller children’s social services function.

Years ago I used to regularly drive out if west London past an office-block with big luminous sign saying “Honeywell”, which housed the computer arm of the giant US conglomerate. Then the sign changed to ‘Honeywell-Bull’ as this outfit merged with the larger French computer company, Bull. Within a year or so the sign changed to just “Bull’.

This was living proof of the assertion by strategy guru Henry Mintzberg that there are now such things as mergers, only takeovers. Even where two organisation are essentially doing the same thing, one rapidly becomes the dominant force in the new organisation and eventually the other is subsumed.

What tends to happen when two or more organisations with very different tasks and functions ‘merge’ is that the dominant one sets the agenda, gets most of the top jobs, allocates resources and sets policies which favour its preoccupations – in this case education. The other function, unless huge efforts are made, tend to get neglected.

A good recent example of this was the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the USA. It was pulled into the huge, new, conglomerate Department of Homeland Security (DoH) which was formed in the wake of 9/11 to proivide more ‘joined-up’ protection to the American mainland.

The result was what happened after Hurricane Katrina – FEMA had shifted its priorities to planning for terrorist incidents – of which there have been only 2 major ones – Oklahoma and 9/11 – in recent American history. It was given a new head with absolutely no experience of disaster management and recovery. When Katrina struck FEMA appeared frozen and helpless, completely unable to respond appropriately.

The question should at least be asked after Baby P – was the merger of education and children’s social services – with their very different sizes, cultures, professional standards and knowledge – a mistake? Listening to Sharon Shoesmith it certainly seemed to me that here was someone who might have been a good education manager, and maybe even had some generic management skills, but could by no stretch of the imagination be called an expert on child protection.

That is not her fault, but given the risks associated with child protection should she have been in charge of them? When social services get it wrong children die, when educational management get it wrong the worst that happens is the wrong kid gets excluded from school.

The other issue in the baby P case was the role of the ‘joined-up’ panel, of various groups, which met to consider the case. From the evidence I have seen it appears that the police had very strong reservations about the course of action taken, but they went along with it in order to protect consensus and joined-up working.

We have known for decades – since the Cuban missile crisis at least – that there is always a danger of ‘group-think’ and self-censorship when groups are mandated to work together on a problem. This can lead to disastrous decisions to ignore minority views or for the holders of those views to cave in to the need for consensus. Part of the reason in government for separating powers in some areas is to ensure that such group-think and consensus doesn’t bury legitimate concerns.

I don’t know for certain this is what happened in the Baby P case, but the available evidence tends to suggest that it certainly may have. If the police had been acting as independent agents they might well have taken action, as they clearly wanted to. We’ll never know, but again the question should be asked.

The point here is not that ‘joined-up government’ is a bad thing – but neither is it an unalloyed good thing either. It brings its own pitfalls and dangers. Maybe if policy-makers were a bit less gung-ho about seeing it as a non-problematic policy, and any criticisms being merely reactionary change blockers, we might just get better protection for children?

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