Failing Well

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Failing Well

3

Executive summary

Failure matters because failure happens. The system of organisations that deliver public

services in the UK is complex and it is inevitable that failures will occur. But as recent

high-profile cases have shown, when essential public services fail, citizens can be left

without vital support or care.

Now more than ever, the risk of failure is increasing. Providers remain under pressure to cut

costs and reconfigure the way services are delivered. In addition to squeezed finances, the

way services are being delivered has been changing. Recent years have seen a push towards

more autonomous models of public service provision, with ambitions to expand academisation,

take over underperforming children’s services departments and innovate in NHS ‘vanguard’ sites.

While new models of service delivery present opportunities for improvement, the risk of failure

is heightened during change and transition.

In this context, our research analyses the experiences of four different organisations that endured

serious failures – often over substantial periods of time – but nonetheless managed to successfully

turnaround and return to providing good services for citizens. We interviewed those involved in

turnarounds at Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, Eltham Foundation School (now the

Harris Academy Greenwich), Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and

West Sussex children’s services. Looking across these examples, we found eight things in particular

stood out when thinking about what could be learned from these stories:

1. Peer-to-peer support provides opportunities for earlier intervention – but it needs

a trigger. Across our case studies, we saw that central government tends to intervene in

failing services only when it has evidence that there are very serious problems afoot. Peers –

other schools, hospitals or sector-based organisations – on the other hand, can provide scope

for earlier and more consensual forms of intervention. But while peer support can be very

effective, it is currently usually voluntary, raising questions about whether the most troubled

organisations – which often have only weak connections to other bodies – are likely to seek

support from their peers. Establishing a greater role for peer review as a form of sector-led,

non-statutory intervention may therefore be necessary.

2. Interventions may not need to remain in place until the turnaround is complete. In our

research we encountered two competing descriptions of when an intervention should end.

In some cases, this was once service standards had returned to normal – this is typical in

schools and hospitals. In others, interventions were brought to a close once the organisation

had been deemed capable of returning itself to the required level of performance, even if

standards themselves were not there yet. The first approach may rightly be appealing for

the most serious and sensitive issues (such as where lives are at stake), but there is also a risk

that, in waiting for standards to return to normal, a culture of incapacity or dependency might

arise. Earlier or tapered exit from intervention should be an option in the right circumstances.

3. Insularity is often a characteristic of failing organisations. During our research we

heard that failing organisations are also insular organisations; they have weak networks

and connections to their peers. Their insularity makes it harder to use comparison to judge

when standards have slipped and harder to rectify any slippages by learning from others.

There appeared to be two main ways of overcoming this insularity – first through the firm

designation of failure, usually by a regulator, which shocks the organisation into action.

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