Sharon Shoesmith is accountable for the cruel and tragic death of Peter Connelly. Government ministers are accountable for serious events that occur in their area of responsibility. But what do we mean by accountability? Does it mean that we expect those in ultimate charge to immediately take poison or be summarily executed when things go wrong, whatever they might or might not have done personally to prevent them? As far as Shoesmith is concerned that is exactly what many, including Ed Balls and Kevin Brennan MP writing on LabourList, appear to think.
The reality of modern public life is that Sharon Shoesmith was bound to be removed from her statutory role of Director of Children’s Services for Haringey once OFSTED’s damning report on her department was received by the Children’s Secretary. But the other reality of modern life that counterbalances this sort of accountability is that such resignations and removals are not life-destroying nor even in most cases career-ending. Politicians frequently return to the Cabinet after sackings, discarded chief executives move on to other companies and failed football managers re-appear at other clubs within weeks or months.
Yet Ed Balls made sure that Sharon Shoesmith’s career and life were devastated by his comments when announcing her dismissal. Kevin Brennan claims that Ball’s actions were on the basis of the OFSTED report, yet this report was specifically confined to generalisations rather than attaching blame to individuals. From the Court of Appeal judgement it appears that Balls made his decision to sack Shoesmith ‘with extreme prejudice’ following oral comments to him by the OFSTED inspectors immediately prior to his announcement. Shoesmith was not present at this meeting to respond to these comments, nor did she have a chance to see the report and to resign if she was minded to do so.
The effect, as the judgement makes clear, was that Sharon Shoesmith never had a chance to account, in the sense of explaining her specific role in events, for the apparent sudden deterioration in children’s services and her sudden loss of competence. (I say ‘sudden’ because the prior evidence supported satisfactory performance by her and her directorate.) Without this sort of accounting, and without this accounting proving damning, treating Sharon Shoesmith as essentially criminally culpable could not be justified.
One thing that should distinguish a left rather than right approach to these sort of issues is resistance to a ‘great man/woman’ theory of management. While a competent and accountable leader adds value to an organisation, there is so much more that will determine whether that organisation is successful or not. These include the resources available, the quality and attitude of its other members and the environment in which it operates. Diane Abbott MP, writing on the Guardian web site on Friday was half right in drawing attention to the high salaries senior public service managers earn. But the lesson is not, as she believes, that this justifies such harsh treatment, but that simply trading impossible levels of responsibility for unreasonable amounts of money is a policy doomed to failure.
It is a feature of right-wing politics to pin responsibility on individuals or small groups rather than attempting to understand the complex interactions between people and their environment that lead to society’s problems. We see this epitomised by the coalition government’s simplistic narrative of Labour blame for the economic situation. This is beginning to look as foolish as it is. It is equally foolish to collude with Ed Balls’ and Haringey Council’s continuing narrative of unique blame resting on the shoulders of one human being.