Wednesday, 11 February 2015

On Both Sides Now

Sue McGuire takes a look at ‘the grass on the other side’

The other side of the fence is a place where you can learn a lot… even if you were the sort of person who didn’t know there even was a fence - or who thought they’d been pretty good at looking over it but who often found on the actual other side of it that it’s not just ‘there,’ it’s a lot bigger and denser than you thought it was!

I know this for a fact in my own case – as after about eighteen months of retirement from 23 years in Health and Social Care services I’ve been involved in supporting relations through three continuing health care assessments, none of which looked or felt anything like I thought they were supposed to look or feel when I worked; and believe me, I should have known what they were like.

What I am saying is that I thought I knew it all… but there is always more to learn, as there always is when you think you know it all. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt and believe that most local authorities, CCGs or Health Trusts aren’t deliberately trying to hide much. But I do think they are awful at making information as accessible as it really should be to the public. Try entering any local authority website and just finding out who the main people responsible for Safeguarding are, for instance - and you are likely to find yourself having to wend your way through several pages to get to a place where you can download some minutes of a committee or an annual report to find some actual names.

For contact details it’s even harder; the Wooden Spoon award has to go to Birmingham City Council, which you might almost believe had made a deliberate decision not to reveal any management names below the Chief Executive – unless it’s the courageous people responsible for the library service. Grr Come on people; if you want to be paid to be responsible for something as important as Safeguarding, put your name on it! Gold award would go to Coventry who bravely publishes an easily accessible and fabulous list of all its senior managers with their job titles and salaries, which makes it a snap to spot immediately who has safeguarding in their title.

When I was a busy middle manager, I remember the air turning blue when a Freedom of Information (FOI) request came through and had to be added to my seeming never ending list of ‘Things to Do’. To be fair, many such requests did not feel like they were citizens trying to find out what they needed to know to negotiate a tricky system; many were from businesses really wanting to know what systems and products we used and thus who they should rugby-tackle to try to get a foothold for their own brands (or they were from researchers for MPs or political parties wanting to ask awkward questions to score points).

The thing is, now I have found a use for ‘Freedom of Information’ information and bless their cotton socks, our fellow citizens who have been beavering away at getting information suddenly seem very useful. Specifically, I have been trying to gather a list of safeguarding lead names for the West Midlands but the varying quality of local authority, heath trust and CCG websites means that while some have excellent information almost immediately discoverable by very simple searches, others are like searching for the proverbial needle in the vast haystack. Luckily, great website called 'Whatdotheyknow' as come in very handy for my purposes; if I want to know it, you can bet someone else wanted to know it before me. WhatDoTheyKnow is run and maintained by UK Citizens Online Democracy, a group that wants to help enable people to frame their FOI requests in a brief note and then they send the request to the relevant public authorities.

And it’s a job it is doing very well, let me tell you; plus, any response received is automatically published on the website for all to find and read. So I recommend you have a go yourself - go onto the Whatdotheyknow website and type in a search for Safeguarding. You will immediately see how many requests begin with a desire to know who the responsible person for Safeguarding is. The website makes the requests and the answers as accessible as they really ought to be.

A lack of consistency between councils in respect of naming senior managers is not really excusable and likely to be just another thing that feeds anxiety and distrust. This I can see, now I am on ‘the other side of the fence;’ maybe if it was all easily accessible some busy middle manager might not have one more thing to add to their list…?

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