Sharon Shoesmith and Corporate Accountability

Just as public services come under unprecedented attack, up comes Sharon with her £1 million payoff and her list of self justifications and excuses. The story could have been planted by the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Incredibly, UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said that the Court of Appeal’s ruling ‘give a much-needed boost to social workers up and down the country who protect daily thousands of vulnerable children and adults.’ Liberals flung the usual cliches of lynch-mob justice, demonisation and ‘witch hunts’, as if the dismissal of an executive who presided over horrific failure is exactly like what happened to innocent women in sixteenth-century England.

To me the case sums up the anger that so many people feel towards their local authorities, which wasted the regen cash of the boom years, whose jobs are completely closed off to workers from the communities they are meant to serve, and whose directors, when something irrevocable happens, say that lessons have been learned – and they never are. When people die on trains because Railtrack bosses cannot be bothered ensuring the safety of their passengers, we rightly demand accountability, sackings, jail time, heads on plates to go. When a child is tortured to death on the public sector watch, our wagons circle around managers on ministerial salaries.

My Shiraz colleague Jim Denham has commented on Shoesmith’s apparent insensitivity and lack of self awareness. These are traits acquired from organisational politics. When you spend years in the higher ranks of a powerful entity, discussing nothing but pay scales, funding pots and multi agency action plans, a deadly insularity takes hold. A child died with fifty injuries, okay – but what about me? What about my career, my reputation, my family, my life? Defending his company’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP boss Tony Hayward argued that ‘The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.’ Shoesmith told Radio 4 that ‘a child dying does not equal a department in disarray’.

It worries me that the unions do not recognise that the appeal was not about protecting hard working and hard pressed social workers, it was about protecting the pensions and security of the public sector management class. In his report into the murder of Victoria Climbie, another child tortured to death in the same LAA, Lord Laming refused to blame ‘hapless, if sometimes inexperienced, front-line staff’. Instead, he criticised ‘the managers and senior members of the authorities whose task it was to ensure that services for children, like Victoria, were properly financed, staffed, and able to deliver good quality support to children and families.’

It is significant that while a number of junior staff in Haringey Social Services were suspended and faced disciplinary action after Victoria’s death, some of their most senior officers were being appointed to other, presumably better paid, jobs. This is not an example of managerial accountability that impresses me much.

There is a failure of management culture. Baby P and Climbie will happen again unless the culture improves and it will not improve unless there are serious sanctions for corporate negligence. Likewise, the anti cuts movement will fail if it’s seen to be just a pressure group for lazy, stupid, overpaid, negligent council managers.

Update: This isn’t just about one LA of course. The Salford Star reports on a a series of appalling failures to safeguard children in that area. I know there’s a north/south divide, but it still surprises me that these events haven’t had national press.

Because in local government, nothing is ever anyone’s fault


2 Responses to “Sharon Shoesmith and Corporate Accountability”

  1. paul murdoch Says:

    I don’t think you can blame the public sector per se. The fault is that of an all pervasive management culture…a significant aspect of which is the need to try and justify huge pay differentials between senior and junior employees. One upshot of this is that management now consciously remove themselves from day to day supervision; preferring instead to concentrate on the ‘big picture’ or strategic planning; another one I’ve heard of is ‘trickle down (sic) leadership ethos’…apparently, ‘good’ leaders inspire others to adopt a leadership in their own areas by demonstrating consistent good practice. This is supposed to justify their astronomical wages. It would be harder to do this if their roles simply involved a supervisory / advisory role…which is what is needed…much better to try and claim their vast remuneration is merited by their radical blue-sky thinking…oh…and of course their ‘ outstanding communication and interpersonal skills’

    What all this shit detracts from is that in most cases…the vast majority…good leadership involves a minute attention to detail: thoroughly checking other people are doing their jobs. Instead, managers these days, fully supported by the latest ‘leadership models’ would more likely provide junior staff with a checklist, run a seminar or write a fuckin pamphlet. The days of individual managers looking at what’s going on in ‘real time’, finding a problem and sorting it are long gone. There’s too much responsibility in that kinda carry-on.

    Shoesmith is a fuckin disgrace.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Very good points. This isn’t an argument by the way for privatising this sort of thing, fuck no, but for changing management culture within the public sector and imposing much harsher penalties for failure

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