A version of this article  appeared in "Community Care" magazine 8-14 April 1999. It is reproduced here with the agreement of the editor.

Pick your target

An aspect of “Best Value” which has not yet had much attention is where to focus initial effort. With the whole service and its infrastructure to choose from how do you make rational choices and convince other people? KEITH FLETCHER considers the question.

Initial “best value” targets need to be limited and carefully chosen. There is typiclly a small development budget and limited staff time so what there is must be carefully focussed. A few social services agencies have established small “best value” teams but that’s as good as it gets. Sometimes the demand for change is taking place against a backdrop of service cuts; not the most attractive political climate in which to be seeking additioal policy development resources.

In addition change is stressful and energy consuming. An atmosphere of growth and development is stimulating, even exciting, up to a point. But too much all at once creates anxiety, defensiveness and a debilitating level of stress. Policy people whose raison d’être is review and development shouldn’t forget that their excitement is not automatically shared by everyone. Service deliverers just want to get on with the job. They have to be convinced that the exercise proposed will not disrupt that.
Particular targets could be demanded by the Government, (and, very soon, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament) local politicians, senior management, pressure groups, staff and clients; in descending order of probability. Each group has its own agenda and motives and they are not necessarily compatible.

The Government’s proposals for modernising social services contain a huge source of tension. On the one hand what is done, and how, will be determined by an ever more prescribed set of national standards. On the other hand a key performance measure will be the extent to which services are shaped in consultation with and by the choices of the service users and the (local) public. Tricky!

If “best value” is to succeed some fancy footwork will be needed to reconcile those tensions. All of us need to keep reminding ourselves and all the protagonists of the need to keep everyone on board. If the targets are prescribed too exclusively by central government (or any other single power group) the projects won’t run.

For example the white paper “Modern Local Government - in touch with people” suggests that that targets for action should be identified on the basis of “worst first”. That begs the question and implies that everything can be placed in a hierarchy of “badness”. “Worst” according to whom? If that is the only criterion, it will present an extraordinarily perverse incentive to the people you need most. “We want you to get right behind this project because you are the worst in the business.” As a hot marketing ploy it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi!

If “best value” is to succeed clients, staff, managers, politicians and public must come to regard “the search for improvement and excellence” as the normal way of working rather than merely a sound bite. They will scarcely be induced to do that if a “best value” initiative implies that the existing service is seen by the powers that be as some sort of disaster.

Keith Fletcher is the author of “Best Value Social Services”. He will be running a series of seminars on best value in May.

Created 12 July 1999