The public have left the building

Two local authority (LA) related stories bounced into my twitter feed yesterday morning. The first detailing a judgement in a family court hearing where the judge found an attempt by the LA to trump up a case against a father reprehensible:

To describe the social workers’ written and oral evidence as merely grudging when it comes to the care and security the father has given his children is too generous; Ms Wilkinson was certainly both grudging and defensive when giving oral evidence; their unprofessional attempts at case building are reprehensible. (47-52)

The second was about a social worker in Oldham who was wrongly dismissed after being blamed for the death of a man in his care. Here, the LA investigation was judged to be ‘seriously flawed’, setting out ‘with a mindset predisposed’ to find the social worker guilty. (The LA remain convinced they acted appropriately and with integrity despite this ruling). Shocking stuff. As Rich said ‘I don’t pay money for public bodies to fit up citizens…’

This took me back to the Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) ‘review’ (‘revised version’) and their response to my issues with the content (setting aside, momentarily, the issues around conducting a review secretly and then circulating it to various organisations before lobbing it at us with no warning). There are three overlapping areas I want to touch on here. With the odd swear or few.

‘Us’ and ‘them’
There are clearly marked differences in the framing of OCC staff actions and ours (mine) in both the review and response. It’s not hard to detect a ‘predisposed mindset’ in the way these different ‘parties’ (yes, parties) are discussed and levels of credibility/validity attached to the differing accounts of what actually happened. Any actions involving me are stripped starkly back in contrast to those of OCC staff which are typically dusted with mediating factors.

For example, the review originally reported I cancelled one meeting when I’d asked for it to be rescheduled (I write, waving a copy of the fucking email pointlessly in the direction of OCC towers). The review now states:

The records indicate that this was cancelled by the family but SR has advised that she asked for the meeting to be rescheduled which is not recorded on the file.

When OCC staff and a respite manager were a no show at a later meeting the response is; Records show that an appointment was offered and the care manager was hoping to visit with the respite care manager. There is no record that this took place or was later followed up by either party.

So I’m solely responsible for the non happening of the first meeting and jointly responsible for the second. With ‘hoping’ attributed to the actions of OCC staff. And a dismissal of the email exchange I have confirming the time and place of that second meeting.

This bias is an inevitable outcome of excluding us from the investigation. One sided investigations easily lead to a notoriety (in differing strengths/dilution) developing around the person who is the focus of the investigation.  Fleshed out humans from OCC were able to talk about what happened. Our contribution was reduced to scant mention in ill kept ‘official’ records. Written about us.

A flaky and shifting ‘evidence’ base
The flaky and shifting ‘evidence’ base underpinning both the review and response is striking. Some of the points I raised were accepted (things like removing words like ‘although’, ‘however’ or ‘providing consultation’).

Several points were dismissed. ‘Not within the terms of reference’ or ‘I couldn’t possibly comment’ type responses sprinkled here and there. Other points I made are added in, quoted verbatim and/or sandwiched between ‘pwah, not according to our records…’ type statements.  Making for a bizarrely unprofessional and odd document. [You really can’t conduct a review without involving relevant people, then invite comment after publication/circulation and try to fudge in/ignore the issues they inevitably raise. It doesn’t work].

Funnily enough, these same ‘official’ records can be teased, squeezed and transformed when it comes to interpreting OCC actions. I didn’t meet with a staff member on a particular date but the ‘signing of a support plan with SR’ noted in the records was (and remains) ‘assumed to be a meeting’. The (non) attendance of a staff member at another meeting is recast in the revised document as ‘SR has advised that the care manager did not attend this planning meeting, so it may be the case that there were two meetings that day’.

The no show I referred to earlier is presented as; ‘The reason is not confirmed by the record. SR has advised that she waited at home all day for the visit to take place, but there is no record of the services being informed of that’. [One of the many things I’ve learned over the last two years is that families have to record every happening. This, of course, is a sure fire way of being labelled even more vexatious than many parents of disabled children already are. But making decisions about what levels of crap service to shout about and what to suck up (leaving little space left to do much other than complain) is a shortsighted approach when something catastrophic happens.]

More leaps are made. Unsurprisingly always in OCC’s favour. ‘This was the impression given from the records’, ‘My view from the records and discussion was that x’s actions were satisfactory’. ‘This was my view of the relationship as reflected from the emails and my discussions with staff.’ ‘I am not making any judgment here on how plans were made, but it remains the case that discharge planning was moving forward at this point’. Ah. Yes, of course. If you’re looking through OCC tinted bins with more than a hint of eau de make it up when the evidence don’t quite fit splashed around your chops. LB was in the unit for 107 days and fuck all had actually been done to discharge him. [NB. Distinguishing action (that is stuff that is done) from talk about action is an essential exercise in evaluating provision/service].

Further evidence of bias (and that the review is really about my actions) can be seen in another meeting example. The original review stated I wasn’t present at a particular meeting with the school/OCC staff. ‘I.wasn’’ I jabbed out on the keyboard that awful Sunday I spent pulling together the issue list. The amended ‘review’ now states; ‘SR was not required to be present on this occasion, the purpose of the meeting was to seek CS’s views and gather information from the school‘. Simply deleting ‘SR did not attend’ would be the obvious thing to do in a balanced, evidence based review. But of course this ain’t a balanced, evidence based review.

Power and destruction
Finally, I raised the point that LB’s death wasn’t tragic. It was preventable. A point that surely tramples over the process nonsense that the review is obsessed with. A young dude died. He died. Aged 18. He shouldn’t have. In circumstances in which state bodies, directly and indirectly responsible for keeping him safe from harm, clearly failed.

Nah. Instead of simply removing mention of ‘tragic’ from this ‘review’ (a fairly insubstantial amendment given that ‘second’ meetings on the same day were being trumped up) the (cruel and completely contradictory) response was  ‘It is not part of my terms of reference to comment on the events surrounding CS’s death’. Four mentions of LB’s ‘tragic’ death remain in the revised ‘review.’

One of the terms of reference of this ‘review’ (lifted from the broader Verita review that it was always was designed to feed into, despite the re-storying of events by OCC lawyers) was to explore ‘the contact between adult social care, CS’s family and school’. Buckets galore needed to catch the dripping irony here. We can only really draw the conclusion that this review was never about reviewing, learning or trying to improve any aspect of OCC provision. Instead, like the family court case and Oldham social worker story, it was an attempt to discredit while trying to preserve the ‘self righteousness’ of the local authority. Because they can. Regardless of the impact their nasty actions have on the people they pretend to serve.

Surely it’s time for a rigorous and critical overhaul of these pernicious practices that suggest the public in ‘public’ sector have long since left the building?



11 thoughts on “The public have left the building

  1. These are powerful accounts of professionals who have lost sight of what matters. This leapt out at me “Ms Miller describes him as lacking acceptance and understanding of the concerns of professionals and said that it meant he was denying the children’s experiences” and brought me back to some meetings I attended where we were only allowed in after the pre-meeting was finished. The one professional who showed empathy to our whole family situation was ostracised. Our experiences didn’t have the sad ending of yours but I am struck by the parallels .

    • Have to say, with comments here, on fb and twitter, together with emails I’ve received, this is a pretty common experience. Not sure when social services became more about warring with families than supporting them. Wonder if that’s a resources driven position or job fatigue. So wrong.

  2. Sara how about this one – Court of Protection judgment 6 Sept 2007 Mr Justice Charles – “in particular Mrs. Buckley is repeating her position, as recorded in para 58 of my judgment, that the ONLY OR ONLY EFFECTIVE ROOT CAUSEOF HER SON’S PROBLEMS IS EPILEPSY. As that paragraph shows,……I DO NOT ACCEPT THAT TO BE CORRECT ON THE EVIDENCE” ……I RECORDED THAT HER SONS PROBLEMS WERE MORE MULTIFACED” Martin has Lennox Gastaut syndrome epilepsy, the most complex of all the epilepsies, and impossible to control. There I am in the Court of Protection, under oath. This judgment is still considered legal today. I don’t know how we fight this.

    • That’s awful, Shirley. Have to say in the LBBill discussions, those with legal knowledge/expertise repeatedly said that judicial review is the answer to all sorts of ‘wrong’ situations like this. Have you thought about this? (Sorry, I have no idea what it involves (what you have to do or the cost and you may have sought legal advice repeatedly over the years).

  3. Brilliantly written. So sad that the folk in ‘public service’ don’t get it and obviously don’t want to get it. Maybe they are all a bit thick, you know. Or maybe they like to keep it the way it is because it’s so much easier for them.

  4. Brilliant analysis, Sara. Reminds me of the points Chris Hatton made in his blog about bureaucracy stacking the odds against the public. Keep up the good fight, they picked on the wrong victims this time for sure

  5. Pingback: The public have left the building | rosemarytrustam

  6. It is a very worrying trend that authorities it seems will do anything to be right but also have assumed their right to be judge and jury in the first place. This is about people’s rights and freedoms but as we also know it impacts on people’s health and even life. We have yet another father judged when he clearly from other evidence is doing a sterling job. Mark Neary would be able to echo this experience. Then we have some goggledygook and meaningless jargon to justify a flawed recommendation and what seems to be dangerous incompetence. When this is a decision that will take someone away from their family it deserves the highest scrutiny and we should expect the highest level of competence driven by facts and evidence not conjecture. And I was left speechless by the placement with an adoptive family taken to the brink when W has a family that was coping with her siblings who also had a contribution to make. (Is this the result of the Government’s target-drive instructions to get children adopted within a certain timescale!??) I’m sure many of us would have felt openly hostile, not just not cooperating with “officers” of the LA if we were treated as if an incompetent and damaged father. When will LAs and standards of professional practice which appear to fall far too short be held accountable?
    I don’t know the social worker in the Oldham case but it makes one wonder if this is an illustration of what happens to social workers who stand up for doing the right thing in fact. From my experience of some practitioners, you get punished in the end if you question or challenge senior management in Authorities – was this the result of Senior managers seizing an excuse to get rid of a good professional who stood for best practice and people’s rights I wonder? I’m not saying it’s not a hard call to get it right, as many of the challenges to our freedoms are a balancing act BUT it is worrying that statutory authorities do not hold themselves to high standards and support their professionals to be the best. And now we’re seeing a swathe of desperate savings by the most hard-hit LAs with voluntary redundancies – too often of their most highly experienced staff for whom the current redundancy payments are good…… maybe we’ll see even more before George Osbourne has put the cap on payments. What will the result be of losing many of their most highly skilled and experienced staff? Will we see even more inept judgements on people’s freedoms in a climate that pushes people into taking no chances however well-judged, given people get punished when risk taking goes wrong? It does feel as if we are entering a time when LAs will turn their backs if they can so they can’t be accused of interfering or when they will tie people’s freedoms up in order to avoid the chance of any honest mistakes. As is said the ‘public’ service seems long gone and seems to be replaced by attempts to keep citizens away – seen only as costs on the public purse….. unless ofcourse they are MPs who deserve a rise and who unlike housing benefits recipients can have uncapped housing benefits from our public purse – and I don’t suppose their bedrooms are counted?

  7. We are now living in an ‘us’ and ‘them’ country.
    All state activity is unaccountable, and protected, and is to make maximum profit for the ‘us’.
    All agencies work as a cabal.

    The modus is to decide what the outcome wanted is, and then fit the ‘evidence’ ie lies and spin, to achieve it.

    All is allowed, to achieve that outcome, and the truth is irrelevant.
    No one dare break ranks, and all is process.

    The systems are so convoluted, bureaucratised, ossified, and deliberately made unaccountable, nothing can fight for any objectivity or truth
    No light is allowed to shine through.

    The design is deliberate, and has been at least 20 years in the making.

  8. Saraa judicial review ha ha not a bloody chance. Mr Justice Charles’s judgments have rendered me powerless – the only right I have won is to publish these judgments. In 2007 he put a penal notice on me that I was not to influence Martin. During the time in Court judicial reviews abounded from the other parties – one was from the Official Solicitor (Martin’s litigation friend) to order Ridgway to have Martin sectioned under the MHA, which Ridgway fought, the other was by Surrey LA to order Bucks PCT to pay continuing healthcare costs (this has still not been solved 8 years later.) I am competent to try judicial review as a litigant in person or I can ask a solicitor to represent Martin, in which case Mr Justice Charles will state that Martin has to be represented by the Official Solicitor catch 22. Legally judicial review is so complicated that it never leads to a satisfactory outcome. And from the moment one steps into the Court of Protection as a parent one is found guilty simply by the fact of being that parent (Camilla Cavendish The Times ages ago)

  9. I think its worth sharing this.

    One of the consequences of repeated cuts to LA budgets is that you see behaviour that is more obsessed with finance than fulfilling statutory duties. Certainly that is being seen in Birmingham where there are stories that service users are being told that they are being reassessed to “cut their budgets”. Knowing senior management as I do, if they heard that being said they would blow a gasket. Unfortunately, like Chinese whispers, the messages that get passed down get distorted and behaviour responds to that.

    In particular I’m thinking of one piece of exceptionally bizarre behaviour that I’ve been shown.

    The case involves an adult service user whose primary carer is her mother. The service user had her package cut through reassessment. This occurred without involving the mother. The mother (the primary carer after all) asked who represented her daughter’s interests in the process. Answer: we can’t reveal that because of ‘data protection’. Gobsmacking…

    A friend of the mother tried to intervene and was sent into a discussion about data protection rather than discussing the actual issue of care packages and statutory duties. He showed this to me and my advice was simple – stop playing their stupid games. So its now yet another legal action against BCC.

    The problem of complex organisations is that even with good management or well-intentioned management, let alone average management etc, they often have less influence than anyone would care to admit. This does seem to affect notions of competence which is I suspect one of the key drivers of defensiveness.

    Perhaps one of the major issues we need to address is that we create structures that heighten and amplify some aspects of human behaviour at the expense of other human qualities.

    One of Ronald Reagan’s most successful lines was: “[t]he nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

    Okay, Ronnie was representing a particular philosophy but if you transpose the words ‘social services’ onto ‘the government’, many would find that terrifying. There are good people doing good work but my instinct is that they are mitigating dysfunctional systems. How you reimagine this is a large task that would challenge self-perpetuating behaviours of those that accept the current systems and structures. And that itself is very human behaviour.

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