Monday, 1 February 2016

The Lessons of Kids Company

The British Government seems to be very fond of the idea of outsourcing child protection - and other children’s services that are currently provided by local authorities in England - to ‘trusts’ involving charities. The mantra that is often recited is that such bodies will be better innovators and will be more likely to deliver higher quality services than traditional bureaucracies. The sad tale of Kids Company goes a long way to contradicting that roseate vision.

The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has just produced its fourth report of session 2015–16 entitled “The collapse of Kids Company: lessons for charity trustees,professional firms, the Charity Commission, and Whitehall”.

On page 4 of the report it is concluded that government’s reviews and assessments of Kids Company over many years were “disjointed and limited’, often being carried out or commissioned by the charity itself. These were “… read selectively by successive Governments to confirm a pre-existing and positive impression of the charity and justify future funding”. The report also found “a lack of sufficient evidence” of the effectiveness of the charity, “clear signs of financial mismanagement”, which were ignored, and a failure to carry out adequate due diligence.

The truth is that complex services are notoriously difficult to outsource. It’s not just that the contracts need to be of labyrinthine complexity but, perhaps more importantly, monitoring and enforcing compliance is treacherous. If a local authority outsourced most of its key children’s services, it would need a small army of lawyers to draft and interpret the contracts and a small army of inspectors to ensure that the contractor was fulfilling its obligations. That’s lots of resources going into administrative overhead and so taking resources away from front line services.

I don’t find it surprising that the government failed to monitor the Kids Company contract properly. I would not be surprised to learn at some future point that local authorities are not monitoring outsourced services properly. It is in the nature of the beast. It’s very hard to do. In fact it’s a lot harder than doing the job properly yourself in the first place!