Thursday, 4 December 2008

The tortured life of Baby P

Trained observers usually recognise that things go wrong in government and enterprises simply because policy makers and managers don’t understand the ‘cybernetics’ of the situations they confront. In this blog I intend to discuss these situations as they emerge in the public domain. My aim is explaining these situations in simple terms and at the same time making apparent the cybernetic reasoning underpinning their problematic aspects. Often, these are archetypes that recur in multiple settings.
In recent days news headlines in the UK were focused on the death of an 18 months old child in the hands of his mother and two others. The child was in the list of the children ‘at-risk’ of Social Services in the London district of Haringey. In the last six months of his life the child had been seen not less than 60 times by doctors, social workers and others. In spite of that the child had a cruel death. This dreadful event was compounded by the fact that in the same district a similar event took place few years earlier, where a little girl Victoria ClimbiĆ© died in similar circumstances at the hands of a relative. At that time an Inquiry recommended an overhaul of social services in the whole country, which was duly carried out. However, sadly, it was not good enough to avoid a recurrent event. This time new inquiries are in progress, however one of them, by the UK Social Services regulator, has already reported its outcomes; as expected they reported receiving every year ‘performance information’ from all social services in the country but now they realised that that was not good enough, visits to every social service department in the country will now take place once a year to recognise on the ground their problems and performance. This seems fine however the regulators are again off the mark;
1) Social services departments are part of local authorities and not of a national social services body, thus in cybernetic terms we expect that the monitoring of their activities will be done by their respective local authorities and not by a national body. The reason for this is simple, one must assume that corporate managers in local authorities negotiate with social services departments (as with all other service departments) the allocation of resources for their programmes and therefore they should be the ones assessing their capabilities and monitoring their performance. In the end, it should be the responsibility of each local authority that their services’ performance is adequate. Local authorities, where this resources bargaining is weak, are more likely to experience poor performance. Unfortunately the recurrence in one authority of such dreadful events points the finger to that authority. Personally I have not heard or read anyone asking for a revision of Haringey District Council’s processes and organisation structure. In the mean time it was interesting to hear that Haringey Director of Social Services did receive much support from the local community. I don’t have enough information to assess the meaning of this support however it is fair to conclude that Haringey’s Social Services is not universally blamed.
2) At a more general level the fact that a national regulator is monitoring the performance of hundreds of local social services suggests a degree of micromanagement, but more significantly, it suggests a lack of appreciation of what monitoring should be all about. It should not be a means of hierarchical control, but a means of building up trust among people in the local authority as well as coaching and supporting the development of the service and all these outcomes are unlikely to happen with only one annual visit.


Graziano Terenzi said...

Dear Raul,
just let me introduce myself biefly before commenting.

My name is Graziano Terenzi, I have done some research in Neural Networks, Cognitive Science, Cybernetics and Systems Science. I have done some research and published on organizational cybernetics topics in the past, and, of course, I have studied Stafford Beer's works extensively. One firm conviction of mine is that the world could only be affected positively by a "wise" systemic practice, like the one to which you dedicated your life. Now I am CEO of an italian company of the ICT sector which is focused on the development of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality systems.

I don't know exactly what the situation you have been describing in your post looks like in the detail, but it seems that, in this context, a problem exists of recurring children's death at hands of their relatives.

As a first step, I think, it would be useful to distinguish the dynamics of the process under study (i.e. recurrent children death) from the control dynamics society exerts over this process (social service activity). Although interrelated, process dynamics and control dynamics are different things.

Understanding process dynamics would be a first step towards changing the process itself. The second step would be, in my opinion, to assess to which amount the dynamics of this process is "narrow" (i.e. can be solved only by local authorities) or "broad" (i.e. can be solved by intervention of super-local forces). A Viable System Model would probably help here.

However, it would not be surprising to me that episodic situation like this one you described here (which are apparently simple as they look localized) would require quite complex social restructuring in the context where the phenomenon emerged, calling for structural and functional changes in the way the broader community works.

I like very much your stimulating approach.
Best regards
Graziano Terenzi

PS I plan to follow up the discussion going on in this Blog and I added it to my Blogroll in blogspot. However it would be useful if you add a feed to your Blog so that i can receive updates. Thank you

Tony Gill said...

An interesting observation demonstating the power of systems thinking.