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Cultural theory: responses to Baby P

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On my way to watch West Brom drop two more home points, I read more chapters from Christopher Hood’s 1997 book ‘The Art of the State’. This offers a cultural theory of public management. In one of his early chapters, Hood illustrates cultural theory’s four paradigms of social relations through reference to public management disasters. This got me thinking about the different interpretations of the Baby P tragedy.

The most predictable response is the hierarchical: this was a failure of supervision and regulation. This tends always to be the view of central government and national media to problems occurring in local government. Within days we saw the hierarchical remedy with Ed Balls’ announcement of annual OFSTED spot checks of social service departments; this despite the failure of the Inspectorate to spot Haringey’s problems a few months before Baby P’s death. Indeed it could be argued that if Haringey had spent less energy trying to convince OFSTED and more on genuinely performing well, they might have seen the problems earlier. From a hierarchical perspective the failure of past supervision is usually more, not less, future supervision.

The egalitarian response is to see Baby P as the outcome of a deeper seated problem of values. From this perspective it is the failure to give social work – and engagement with troubled families in general - the status and support it needs that leads to the service vulnerabilities exposed in this case. A classic exposition of the egalitarian case was offered the other day on Radio Five when a defender of the social work profession pointed out that it was stuck between the Scylla and Charybdis (OK, I’ve added the classical reference) of being too interventionist and thus accused of taking children away from their families needlessly or too trusting and risking more Baby Ps. Of course, the stakes are very high in social work but when you think about it anyone in any job could say they were walking a similar tightrope (between boring truth and untrue sensation if you are a journalist, or between unimaginative complacency and excessive risk taking if you’re a Chief Executive).

The fatalistic response may be the most coherent, even if it is also the least inspiring. There are lots of poor children with screwed up parents. We don’t choose as a society to spend our tax pounds on paying social workers high wages. Local government middle management is hardly a magnet for the brightest and best. So, cases like Baby P are simply inevitable. Any action we take to try to stop future tragedies is likely to cause as many new problems as it solves.

Interestingly, the one perspective I haven’t heard is the individualistic. This tends to be the least well articulated paradigm in public service bureaucracies and, given that individualism tends towards a robust view of risk, it is even less likely to be found in an area like social work. The kind of questions an individualist observer of the Baby P case might ask are ‘what positive incentives are there for professionals who are worried about a child to demand these get addressed?’ or ‘how could we make it easier for mothers who can’t cope to call for help without being dragged into a net of state supervision?’ or even ‘given the pretty basic motivations of the kinds of people who tolerate child abuse, what kind of reward would encourage them to shop each other?’.

The response to Baby P is likely to be largely hierarchical. This will be accompanied by an egalitarian critique and a widespread public attitude of fatalism. Individualism is the least likely voice to be heard even though it is arguably the most obviously missing dimension to the existing system.

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