“Won’t somebody think of the children?” sums up a large part of the Conservative side of the debate at last night’s council meeting. The reason we should think of them was hidden away in a report, published late, on restructuring for the merger with Richmond. The relevant section, titled Modifications to senior management arrangements gets off to an anodyne start:
As a consequence of recently identified weaknesses in Wandsworth children’s services, the report also proposes some interim modifications to the provisionally agreed senior management arrangements, to take immediate effect in order to provide a heightened level of managerial oversight.
The cost of these changes comes to over £500,000, adding posts so the existing managers can focus on the areas of weakness.
When discussed at a committee meeting this it was revealed the ‘weaknesses’ were identified by an Ofsted inspection of the council’s children looked after functions and the report, not yet published, is likely to criticise the council. What’s more, time after time tonight we were told no-one has actually read the Ofsted report—which is embargoed—but these changes are based on the verbal feedback from the inspectors.
It might well be that spending £500,000 on senior staff is the best way to address the weaknesses. It might actually be that we should spend £1,000,000. Or that we could address them all spending £200,000 elsewhere. But not having seen the report, nor having had details of the report shared, it’s impossible to know.
The Conservative argument was that while it was far too hasty to suggest any criticism of the leadership, it was not too hasty to suggest spending half a million. Indeed, anything else would be talking down the service and making the problems worse rather than fixing them. We should, instead, trust the recommendations of people who haven’t read the report to fix problems we aren’t told about and vote an extra £500,000.
I’ll confess that even though all my logic was telling me I just couldn’t vote to spend £500,000 without knowing why it was hard. Not only is the emotional call to think of the children is hard to resist, but I also have a huge amount of respect for Kathy Tracey, the children’s lead, who is by far the most able member of the council’s Leader’s group. Going beyond that I might criticise the council’s lack of vision, but I can’t deny historically it has a great track record for strong administrative management and competence on the basics.
But this issue seems to me a symptom of the constant restructuring a process that grinds down staff and performance, and now services are suffering as a result.
Once upon a time I think Wandsworth could be trusted to get on and do the right thing, last night I realised that it doesn’t deserve that level of trust any more. There are valid concerns that the council isn’t managing change well; the council and councillors need to understand why.