The One Question Clipboard
How To Intelligently Regulate in the Public Sector
Why do social workers spend their time filling in forms, and ticking boxes? Do you think they would say that this is a good use of their time, if we asked them? Why do we find such hugely complex ICT systems in health, social care and the police?
When studying the work in these areas, the usual answer I am given to this question is that we have the ICT systems to gather the data required to pass inspections, carried out by central government (Welsh Government and Whitehall).
With the best of intentions this data is routinely requested and collected – but does the collection of this information help those on the frontline do their job better? And does it help the citizens of Wales?
Many will argue either way, but the place to start is to ask the purpose of inspection. When I speak to those in inspection roles, they state that the purpose of inspection is to improve services for the citizens of Wales. Inspection was created and is implemented with the best of intentions. Tragically, the thinking behind how this role should be undertaken leads to unintended consequences.
The underlying assumption about the implementation of inspection remains specification. It is necessary to specify how work should be measured, and how work should be undertaken.
Regulatory measures drive behaviour. Regulation has been focussed on measures of activity, not outcome or purpose. Targets for ‘initial’ assessments, ‘core’ assessments and standards for intervals of attendance with children drive conformance with reporting requirements. The consequences are rushed assessments (which meet activity targets) and reports that feed bureaucratic requirements, while the time spent with children diminishes. In such systems the prospect of ‘more work to do’ encourages social workers to hope that visits with children don’t create more case work.
The work of social workers becomes ‘feed the ICT system’; doing the right thing becomes secondary and often hard to do. Social workers do their best in spite of the system.
By specifying how work should be measured and undertaken, the inspection regime moves the locus of control from the people doing the social work, to the people inspecting the social work. Crucially, this also moves the locus of responsibility, damages morale and creates compliance. Compliance prevents improvement.
Central Government has the right to specify what the purpose of a public sector system should be. For example: “Take the right steps so children and families get the help they need to thrive and be safe”, “Help People Pay Their Rent and Council Tax”, “Help People Live Their Own Lives”.
However, by specifying how this purpose should be measured, and how the work should be undertaken they inadvertently create different, de-facto, purposes, for example: “Complete the paperwork on time to meet Performance Indicator’s and avoid risk, whilst still trying to help children and families thrive and be safe”, as described by one Children’s Services team.
So, to avoid this, the role of inspection should be to ask a single question – the one question clipboard: “Show me the measures you use to understand and improve”. This gives the responsibility to those doing the real work to establish how to measure the effectiveness of that work. The inspectorate can then ask to be shown what workers on the ground are doing to understand and improve against those measures. This approach also fits with what we know about motivation theory – people need autonomy (the freedom to direct oneself), mastery (the opportunity to develop deep competency) and purpose (clarity on what good looks like).
This change in approach, will free up enormous creativity across the public sector, identify very quickly the most effective leaders, and ensure those on the frontline are in a position to do What Matters to citizens, rather than worry about What Matters to the Inspector.
On a final note – my eldest daughter will not be involved in a school concert this year. The school have told us that the concert has been cancelled because they have to use the time to prepare for an Estyn Monitoring Visit instead. Is this what we want from our Inspection Regime?
Simon Pickthall worked in the public sector in Wales for many years before joining Vanguard Consulting Wales. He has been fortunate to have worked with many leaders in Wales to help them understand their organizations from a Systems Thinking perspective - and improve them as a consequence. Simon was privileged enough to work on the Munro Review of Child Protection, and is committed to helping the public, private and third sectors deliver social justice. firstname.lastname@example.org
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