I am very pleased to see that Professor Ray Jones is publishing a book on the outsourcing of children’s services. He is, of course, a well-known critic of the increasing involvement of private companies in the delivery of children’s social care.
According to an article in Community Care, Jones argument in his new book is that accountability is being lost in the burgeoning number of moves to an “alternative delivery model” in such places as Richmond-and-Kingston, Doncaster, Slough, Sandwell and Worcestershire. According to Jones, Directors of Children’s Services, in areas where outsourcing occurs, will be increasingly faced with the loss of “information and intelligence” about what is happening in those services.
He is absolutely right. And fortuitously the launch of his book coincides with news of a major public sector outsourcing fiasco in which the British Army outsourced its recruitment to a large private sector company with extremely disappointing results. The Guardian says that government officials did not understand how complex the project was before signing the deal.
If recruiting soldiers is a very complicated business, how much more complex is protecting children from abuse and neglect? And how much more complicated will the outsourcing contracts have to be in order to ensure that the outsourcers deliver what is promised? If the Army can get outsourcing a relatively straightforward service so badly wrong, how much more likely is it that local authorities will get the outsourcing of a very complex professional service (like child protection) wrong? I suggest it is very likely.
Interestingly the business literature on outsourcing does not provide much support for the kind of outsourcing deals which the government is trying to foist on children’s services in England. In a seminal work on offshoring and outsourcing, Oshri, Kotlarsky, and Willcocks* argue that activities which constitute the basis or core of an organisation’s operation (which they call ‘order winners’) should alwaysbe kept in house. On the other hand ‘necessary evils’ such as administration, payroll or facilities management are usually good candidates for outsourcing.
The government, in contrast, propounds policies for child protection outsourcing which involve core activities being transferred lock, stock and barrel to outsourcers. And the government provides no account of why outsourcers would be any better at delivering these core activities than local authorities. The reality is that local authorities are being pressurised into adopting strategies for which there is no evidence and no clear business rationale. That does not seem sensible to me.
If the government were proposing outsourcing only back-office services, I would have some sympathy. As it is I have to agree with Ray Jones – we should be “scared” about what is happening. Even if ministers do not listen to social work academics like Jones, or to business academics or other experts, one would hope that they would at least be chastened by what is happening to government outsourcing deals in defence and other spheres and heed the warnings. But I don't expect they will.
*Ilan Oshri, Julia Kotlarsky, Professor Leslie P. Willcocks The Handbook of Global Outsourcing and Offshoring Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=hYQzxD9MSR0C&dq=order+winners,+necessary+evils&source=gbs_navlinks_s