Max Caller’s best value inspection report into Liverpool City Council was a grim read and its revelations shocking. It won’t have been an easy report to write with limited terms of reference in the context of ongoing criminal investigations which must not be put in jeopardy
As a daughter of Liverpool with friends and family still in the city, some with connections to the council, I know of the hurt and anger of those learning of the discoveries. Rebuilding trust is a hard and long job. I also know it can be done and that there are many hard-working council staff, members and supporters who will commit themselves to this.
The report and appointment of commissioners as proposed can be a great chance for my wonderful home city and for the council. It could be one of the best things that’s ever happened to Liverpool if that chance is properly taken.
Properly seizing that chance means committing to deep and meaningful change, a new culture of transparency and open government and a relentless focus on standards. The Caller report need not define Liverpool as a place or as a council for all time. Whether that happens depends upon those in positions of prominence and their response.
When organisations go horribly wrong, it might present to the world as the actions of a ‘few bad apples’ or a ‘tiny minority’ or in a particularly catastrophic event or series of events. These, however, are presenting symptoms, not underlying causes. Organisations that are going wrong to devastating effect might still be doing brilliant things in some areas.
I can cite Hackney, Doncaster, Northamptonshire, Tower Hamlets, Rotherham and Liverpool. Different presenting symptoms, different times, but all at their heart organisations that were failing over a prolonged period, where normal standards were not the norm, where accountability and governance were fatally flawed, where truth could not speak to power and power did not listen to truth.
In my experience, organisations that fail are ones where the dial moves back over time. The standard you are prepared to walk by becomes the standard you are prepared to accept. That sets a new, lower standard against which further transgressions can be made, so setting a lower standard once more. And so it goes on.
What should be blindingly obvious as not OK becomes accepted when it is too hard, inconvenient or unsafe to challenge.
Too often those in leadership positions choose to take the easier path when confronted with issues, resulting in problems being ducked, allowed to fester or swept under the carpet.
As Max Caller famously said in his best value report into Northamptonshire CC: ‘There is no substitute for local government doing boring really well’.
Hats off to Northamptonshire CC which came to an end last week with the successful creation of two financially stable unitary authorities after commissioner intervention, the appointment of Theresa Grant as chief executive with root and branch reform, learning what good looked like, and doing boring really well.
When I was appointed chief executive at Doncaster, working with commissioners after a similarly shocking best value inspection report, the one thing I underestimated was the extent of deep trauma in an organisation that hadn’t functioned properly for a decade.
Like Liverpool, in among Doncaster’s well-publicised, catastrophic failures, some impressive things had been achieved. Like Liverpool, a few brave people stood up but for the most part staff had learned that the best way to stay safe was to keep your head down and get on with your own work, ignoring the things that aren’t right around you.
It was this that took most of my energy in those early times – convincing people that change would happen, and recognising that governance, accountability and basic standards of information and decision-making were systemically poor and would change.
It would have been too easy to put the problems at the door of a minority of poorly behaving people or a particular service area. We needed whole-council change and recognised the hard yards that everyone would have to travel to take that unique opportunity of intervention to help us be the best version of ourselves, improving outcomes for our people and place.
I am extremely proud of the work everyone did in Doncaster and in other places to turn around failing systems. I was delighted to see that a decade on, when intervention and commissioners were referred to for Liverpool, Doncaster was not remembered for its dysfunction, so my apologies for referring to it now.
I do so to prove what I know to be true – that intervention can be the best thing that happens and can serve only to define the past not the future – if, and only if, the presenting failure is recognised as symptomatic of an underlying cause, apologies are made, root and branch reform is commenced and followed vigorously and boring is done very, very well.
Good luck Liverpool, with the right approach, you can do this.
Jo Miller is a past president of Solace and is chief executive of Hutt City Council, New Zealand