Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The Cybernetics of Relationships

Dear Graziano,

Many thanks for your comment. From a structural point of view it is apparent that in the UK social services are devolved to local authorities and therefore that it is their responsibility to enable conditions for good services. This requires not only that they allocate sufficient resources but also that they develop trustful relationships within the authority. This is necessary to increase the chances of setting in action support networks before incipient problems generate a crisis, like the death of the Baby P (that is, this is a strategy to reduce risk). These relationhsips should be the outcome of on-going (but not too frequent) communications that respect the services’ autonomy as pre-condition to allow their self-organisation and self-regulation. In contrast to this approach the picture that emerged from discussions in the press was that a national regulator, who by definition is far from the local social service units, was attempting to do this monitoring based on reports (i.e. information) and not on communications (i.e. utterance, information and understanding) and that to improve the situation it wanted to visit these units one a year as if these visits were enough to develop trustful relationships (rather than just fear to a distant controller) and reduce future risks.

This example illustrates my point that organisations don't understand the "cybernetics" (communications and control) of the situations they are in.

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.