The lies organisations tell themselves: the case of Rotherham Council

"Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsk...

“Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky”, Oil on canvas. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every man has some [truths] which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself.
~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Rotherham Borough Council has a problem. The public will know the most obvious problem. They failed to deal effectively with child sexual exploitation. What they will know less well is the culture that allowed these problems to go untreated. Few, if any, outside the council will know the institutional problems that remain. The problems that remain come from its corporate culture. The problem is the lie the organisation tells itself about itself. All organisations have blind spots for their own weaknesses. Good leaders look for these to either fix them or at least keep them from becoming a larger problem. An organisation cannot be perfect in all things, so it tries to get most things right. The most important thing to get right is the culture. Once you have a robust culture, then any weakness can be mitigated. Why? A robust culture is one where you avoid surprises and work through the problems together. Rotherham, though, does not realize that it continues to lie to itself as an organisation.
A culture that refuses to ask questions, is a culture waiting to collapse
As I wrote previously, Rotherham’s historical problems were the result of a toxic culture within the police and the council. Their culture kept them from understanding the size and the scale of the child sexual exploitation scandal. In the council, no one was prepared or able to ask the questions about the problem’s size, scale, and scope. When someone took a focused interest, we see fierce resistance from within the council and within the police. It is against that background that Rotherham Council promised to improve. The council promised to learn from the mistakes. They would avoid the culture that was unwilling and unable to ask the awkward questions and deal with the difficult subjects. The old council had suppressed questions and the new council would encourage professional curiosity. The Jay report showed that officers were discouraged from asking questions and thinking. When people did ask questions, they were either dismissed or suppressed. The questions that would force the organisations to “think” and take responsibility to understand the problem never emerged. Rotherham lacked a curiosity culture. Instead of professional curiosity, senior officers and Members focused on defending the council’s reputation. The senior officers modelled this behaviour and junior officers followed it.
A culture change was promised, but what has been delivered?
We were promised that the culture has changed. The old culture is gone and a new culture exists. This is the lie that Rotherham Council tells itself. In his response to the Jay report, the Chief Executive told the council that
“Professional curiosity is encouraged and this supports staff to raise issues and know they will be taken seriously.”
At the time, I believed that statement. I accepted it at face value. I wrote that it was damning that the Chief Executive had to reassure the public and councillors on this topic. I suggested that a wider curiosity culture needed to be developed. What I did not realize is that the claim was meaningless. The claim is not what it appears to mean. If you believe that Rotherham now encourages officers to ask questions, has a candid culture, and officers actively challenge and question assumptions you would be mistaken.

What evidence was there to back up their claim?
I made an FOIA request for the evidence behind the Chief Executive’s statement. A public statement should have evidence to support it. Otherwise, it is an empty assertion, a wish, and not a concrete reality. What I found was the council could not find a report, evidence, or document that demonstrates professional curiosity is encouraged. I was told that to find this information would exceed the fees limit. Even though the Chief Executive must have had a policy or a procedure in mind when he made the public statement, nothing was to hand. Instead, it would take over 18 hours of officer work to find the information.

Whistleblowing is not a symptom of professional curiosity
What the council was able to give, to demonstrate that professional curiosity is encouraged, was their whistle blower policy , a staff suggestion scheme, and a reporting system. The gap between professional curiosity that would ask questions of the council and challenge assumptions and what the council has described is vast. I would suggest that the exchange indicates the culture has not changed. It is another question whether it is changing, but based on the evidence provided, it does not appear to be changing. What is needed is a candid culture or a curiosity culture where people can raise questions without fear. If the council wants to learn from its past, it needs to create a process where bad news (critical news) can be reported as part of the normal business. If bad news is only seen with a Whistleblowing policy, then there is a problem. Basic questions of poor performance and problems within a service should not require a whistle blower. These should be something the organisation can discuss. A staff suggestion scheme is a small step in the right direction, but it is not a forum to discuss bad or critical news. Moreover, it does not indicate that bad news is welcomed. Where does the council discuss bad news? Rotherham has lied to itself if it believes it encourages professional curiosity with a staff suggestion scheme or a whistle blower policy.

The lies we tell ourselves are the worst
If Rotherham Council continues to lie to itself, how can it claim to have changed? It will change it has changed senior officers, but is it changing gits culture? Until it recognises that it does not yet encourage professional curiosity, how can it say it will deal effectively with the problems that emerge? It is time for Rotherham Council to tell itself the truth. Until it does, it will store up problems for the future.

What are some ways to develop professional curiosity?
If you organisation tends to lie to itself, you can take some steps to avoid these problems.
1. Develop a culture that encourages critical upwards communication. As I mentioned Denis Tourish’s work is good in this area.
2. Develop a candid culture, where people are willing and able to speak up because there are safe places to do this.
3. Encourage staff curiosity by making the full extended management team, not just one service, responsible for the issue. When many people see they have a stake in the issue, they can offer solutions and insights without the bias of those in the service
4. Accept that without bad news there is no chance to improve. If your service or your organisation is always reporting green key performance indicators then it is not challenging itself. The danger is that the service or the organisation is too focused on its reputation and not on the outcomes it is delivering. If it is not challenging itself, it will never deliver the promised results. Instead, it will make excuses.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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