Friday, 30 October 2015

The Kids Company affair – implications for the outsourcing debate

The National Audit Office Report into the demise of the charity Kids Company makes for sombre reading.

The report paints the picture of an organisation that was good at persuading people (especially ministers) to fund it, but which lacked leadership, focus and control when it came to actually providing services. 

I have to say that it has made me reflect, because my first reaction to the charity's closure was to suspect that it had become too outspoken, not too disorganised.

But now it is clear what has happened, and why, it is also clear that the moral of this unhappy saga for the future of child protection services is not being trumpeted loudly enough. Let me explain why.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the former chief executive of Kids Company, is reported to have been an advocate of outsourcing child protection work from local authorities to the voluntary sector. Ministers, of course, are at this very moment working on such plans, albeit involving some private sector involvement as well. The charity's demise is clear evidence just how dangerous such a strategy is.

The biggest obstacle to getting third party providers to deliver complex services to children and families, to meet complex needs, is that complex services are notoriously difficult to specify; and contracts to supply them are notoriously difficult to monitor and enforce. Add to this potent mix the fact that child protection services are safety critical and the potential for serious, and possibly tragic, service failures has to be recognised as being very high indeed. In short, in the wake of the Kids Company collapse, ministers need to recognise the real dangers to services, and to service users, of an arms-length outsourcing approach.

Armed with the lessons of recent history, and informed by this National Audit Office Report, ministers would indeed be reckless to proceed with further outsourcing of children’s services without a great deal of further thought and reflection. From the standpoint of their political careers, and the best interests of children and young people, they would do best to quietly drop the whole outsourcing strategy and to concentrate on less risky and better-evidenced approaches to improvement.

And the Prime Minister himself, who was a fan of Kids Company, would do well to reflect on the errors of judgement implicit in continuing to fund the charity when there appeared to be ample evidence that something was amiss.  In particular he needs to recognise the implications for the whole outsourcing debate.