Why are any old Tom, Dick or Harry allowed to run services for disadvantaged people?


Once, it would have seemed preposterous to appoint a chief inspector of constabulary who had not worked in the police force or a head of Ofsted with no teaching experience. Not now. Across public services, management and media skills together with political connections are treasured above all else for top jobs. Only half the Executive Board that runs the BBC has experience of making programmes.


In the 1970’s the government attempted to ensure that local authority social services were controlled by professionally qualified chief officers and, in a drive to professionalise teaching, three thousand unqualified teachers were summarily dismissed. Since then, respect for professionals has been in steady decline. Today, there are nearly 20,000 unqualified teachers in English state-funded schools. Expertise and professionalism are in retreat.


For fifty years, Family Service Units (FSU) was a reputable charity for children and families. It had an awesome reputation for the skill and tenacity with which it worked with families facing multiple problems, families that other agencies declined to help. It had well trained staff and was widely endorsed by academics. But, in 2006, it went to the wall in government inspired cuts. Then, over £40 million of public money was poured into Kids Company to help the same kind of families.


Kids Company was headed by a woman with a degree in drama who peddled discredited theories about children’s behaviour being biologically determined and related to the size of their brains.  The organisation fell apart in 2015 under the weight of its own stupidity. It flourished so long because, unlike FSU, it had good PR and nurtured connections with the right people, telling them what they wanted to hear.


This was not the first time a government rejected skilled social work in favour of a self-publicist. Emma Harrison, with a degree in engineering, persuaded government ministers that she had the necessary expertise to help young people find jobs. Her company, A4e, received multi-million pound government contracts and she was awarded the government honorary title of “Family Champion”. The bubble imploded in 2012 when she paid herself £8.4 million in dividends on top of a generous pay package and widespread fraud was uncovered; MP’s accused her of “ripping off the State”.


We may sometimes have doubts but, on the whole we do not accept George Bernard Shaw’s assessment that medicine is a conspiracy against the laity. Yet, in our name, governments invite any Tom Dick or Harry with a plausible story to run services for disadvantaged people because they are cheap and promise quick results. Who among us would choose to have a tooth extracted by a plumber on these grounds?


It can be argued that the fundraising scandal that engulfed big national charities two years ago largely arose because few of the charity chief executives involved achieved personal satisfaction by providing professional leadership to a team of fellow experts in caring services. Encouraged by trustees from big business, many charities were led by managers with no training or experience in the service they led. Their skills predominantly lay in high profile activities like public relations and politicking.


We should not be surprised that care staff are being jailed for abusing residents with dementia and learning difficulties. After the revelations about Winterbourne View in 2012 an “expert” committee recommended funding services for people with learning difficulties from fines imposed on misbehaving banks. Human rights were clearly an optional extra to be sustained by erratic supplies of crumbs from the rich man’s table. What next? Heart surgery dependent on tax receipts from gin?  Is there no place for well-funded, high quality and planned social care services?


Governments have been influenced by the civil service tradition of appointing administrative all-rounders to top jobs while knowledgeable professionals play a supporting role. If government wants high quality services it must ensure that suitably trained and experienced staff are appointed at the top. There is no safe short cut.


Posted 1st October 2017