News and Comment

From compliance to judgement: trusting more, controlling less

Friday 18 November 2011


Local authorities – like many other public services – often struggle to move beyond the rhetoric when it comes to taking a common sense approach to managing risk. OPM’s recent work with the London Borough of Ealing provides an example of how turning the traditional ‘top down’ view of management upside down can help to identify practical steps to empower frontline staff.

Last week I was working with the Council’s Senior Leaders Forum – their top 80 or so managers – to think about the transition ‘From Compliance to Judgement’, or how a council like Ealing can shake off the sheer weight of bureaucracy and procedure that slows us down. The Munro Report has brought the issue back on the agenda – arguing that we have created compliance cultures that get in the way of good professional practice (Munro focused on children’s services, but the lessons hold across the piece). Ealing had a particularly good story to tell – about their ‘riot recovery’ work.


I read in The Times only this weekend that many small businesses across London are complaining about the red tape that is making a mockery of government promises to ‘repair the damage and get businesses up and running again’. This is emphatically not the case in Ealing, however. Executive Director of Environment Customer Services Keith Townsend and his team decided to cut the red tape – and after a very fast stock-take began to offer help within days. With a minimum of fuss and form-filling, businesses were given cheques to enable them to replace broken windows and get back to serving customers.

So the question we were asking ourselves is this: if we can do this in an emergency, what stops us doing it in everyday situations? Could we trust more, and control less?

In a second case example, we looked at radical approaches to working with families with complex needs, and the approach that Swindon is taking – not making judgements, but supporting each family in meeting their own aspirations for a better life. It requires a multi-professional team to work in flexible and creative ways, making their own judgements about the right intervention to help each family. (I blogged about Swindon’s amazing work a little while ago.)

If we applied this thinking more widely, and allowed professionals on the front line to exercise their own judgement, what would managers have to do to make that safe?

The answers we came up with were all about helping front line staff to understand the context, values, and goals, so that they can make their own trade-offs. The more staff understand about the competing needs of different service users, and the ways their decisions impact on others, the more sophisticated will be their judgements. Munro, in her report on safeguarding children, points to the evidence that staff treat service users they way they are treated. If we really want to empower service users, we have to empower staff. So the final question the senior leaders forum was asked was ‘if managers didn’t manage top down, but only offered the management that staff requested – what do we think staff would ask for?’.

This led to a fascinating discussion about coaching styles and supervision – using the example of junior doctors who watch and learn and practice steadily increasing the autonomy they exercise. We decided senior managers could help by showing the ‘working out’ of the decisions they make – helping staff to balance different interests and understand the nuances of policy.

This is work in progress, and we will be publishing a series of papers about the subject, but anyone interested in following the agenda could do worst than read Donald Schon’s famous 1983 book called The Reflective Practitioner. I’m interested in starting a debate about what the reflective practitioner of 2011 would need to know and do. If anyone’s interested in running a similar masterclass on the topic in their own organisation – do let me know. In the meantime I’d love to hear your own reflections in the comments box below, or by email: