7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 31

Local Government

Planners plan

Jef Smith

Each year for a period around the end of December and another about the end of March, directors of social services, or more often their research assistants, or more often still the research assistants' junior clerks, spend their evenings being cross at their spouses because they have spent their days "doing the Ministry returns." The hated job of completing statistics for submission to the DHSS is widely acknowledged to be to a considerable extent a formality, not because there is anything pointless about collecting data on social services operations but because so many of the facts demanded are fit for nothing but listing into tables and filing away. The statisticians at the Department are well aware of the limitations of the exercise which they inherited in last year's reorganisation and energetic steps are being taken to devise new schedules which Will both supply the Secretary of State with meaningful information about local activities and prompt local authorities to watch their own functions and performance with a more intelligently critical eye.

But just as the partnership between local and central government might have entered a new phase in relation to statistics on past activities, the DHSS is making fresh demands for detailed information on the much more speculative area of •future Plans. Sir Keith announced some months ago that local social services departments would be called upon to prepare ten year Plans and although the circular giving details of requirements took a little longer to emerge than the minister's enthusiasm originally indicated, it has now arrived and Is being urgently studied by the one hundred and thirty local councils which operate the personal social services. A detailed questionnaire requests full information, under 165 heads, of plans for each of the next five years and a further projection a decade ahead; returns to the ministry are required by the end of February.

The timing of the venture is about as bad as it could be. It is not perhaps a very good excuse for local authorities to argue that the recent reorganisation has given them insufficient time to settle down before embarking on such a major process, but it would surely have been sensible to allow rather more than a few months for the complex job of working out priorities for such a long period. Ten years in the social services is a very long time indeed and few councils yet have plans in any detail for more than three years and these only for buildings. In addition authorities outside London face the disruption of local government reform in 1974. Most county boroughs will disappear, many counties will amalgamate with neighbouring cities, and almost all authorities will either lose or gain population, some in bizarrely complicated patterns. At a time when every effort will be needed to ensure a smooth handover it is not easy to see how energy can be spared for an exercise that will seem absurdly theoretical.

A further complication arises from the proposed reform of the health service which is additionally inhibiting joint planning between obviously overlapping services. After 1974 in most parts of the country, area health authorities will be coterminous with local government units and the scene will be well set for full collaboration. On this front London is rather worse off than other regions as the boundaries of the health units have not yet been determined, and they will when established cover two or three boroughs in most cases. In the gap between now and April 1974 there is pretty little that can be done by way of co-ordinated planning.

The planning exercise as set out in the circular makes no attempt at a systematic evaluation of the needs that social services are supposed to be meeting. Measuring social need, or indeed defining it, is of course a difficult business, but such a process is surely a logical start to any more systematic attempt to plan development. Instead the circular takes its starting point from an arbitrarily proposed 10 per cent growth rate in social service expenditure — even this assumes stability in the national economic growth rate, surely a rather speculative prospect — and asks for estimates as to how this cake will be shared between the varying demands for larger slices. The guidelines for the scale of increase suggested for each service area are therefore expressed, throughout the ministry's instructions, in terms of resources allocated rather than in effects achieved. Since the results of the operation of most social services can only ultimately be seen in changes brought about in clients, the problem of measuring effectiveness is very great indeed, but this is no excuse for hoping to quantify increases in output merely by measuring the growth in costs. The Department has been so reckless in its attitude to basic data on the current situation that it has lighted from a statistical point of view on almost the worst possible time to call for plans. Government statisticians are clearly furious that local authorities are being forced to make returns for which population figures are critical on evidence that is between five and ten years out of date. The last complete census of which details are fully available was in 1961, and even the population estimates made after the 1966 10 per cent sample count have been shown from the preliminary returns from last year's fuller exercise to be dangerously inaccurate.

Why then has Sir Keith Joseph led us into so time-consuming a job? After all, despite the agreeable surprise he has caused on the left through so manifest a display of compassion for the clients of the social services, he is still a good and traditional Tory on economic affairs. He must recognise that any planning by central government runs the risk of seeming autocratic and of being in reality actively interventionist. On all other fronts he has pursued a policy of down-grading the inspectoral functions of his civil servants and of insisting, on orthodox post-Maud Conservative Party lines, that local authorities must be strengthened rather than weakened in relation to Whitehall. The firmly outlined guidance of the circular and the implied threat to any council that cannot satisfactorily justify its deviation from them comes oddly from such a source.

There is only one explanation to this riddle, and it lies in the structure of the DHSS itself. Ten is more than a nice round number; it is about the span of years it takes to build and commission a large hospital. For health planning therefore ten years represents a minimum for forward thinking. Now that responsibility for the personal social services is in the same department, it follows that the conscientious minister wishing to balance demands for resources with any degree of fairness must be presented with comparable estimates from all claimants. Sir Keith, deeply fascinated as is well known with the potential of caring for many of society's casualties within community services, has personally insisted on being supplied with data that will give local authority provision a claim that can stand comparison with that of the ever-pressing medical lobby. The social services departments in short are the victims of a piece of Whitehall shuffling.

All this is very sad. Social planning is important, and it is important that when the effort has to be put into such an ambitious exercise, it should be on a firm basis that recognises rather than glosses over the limitations and dangers of the process. This is a time of radical change in social work techniques and of profound uncertainty about what aspects of the social services can meaningfully be measured in anything like scientific costeffectiveness terms. If ever there was needed a period for reflection and research rather than the hurried throwing together of doubtful figures, and if ever there was a time for retaining flexibility in the face of rapid change rather than making wild and tying predictions, it is now. The cause of genuine social planning could be set back for . . . I was about to say, as long as a decade!