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Can outsourcing transform child services?
by Kerry Hallard, CEO, National Outsourcing Association
Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Department for Education is proactively looking to inject competition and contestability into “one of the last areas of local government not subject to market forces.”

The DfE’s consultation to test the market appetite for the outsourcing of child services has naturally generated an emotional response, as the perceived “privatisation of children’s social services” is considered “radically different, crown jewels stuff.” 

Before we go any further, outsourcing and privatisation are different - most of you know that, I’m sure. But a lot of people don’t know the difference and think the DfE is trying to sell off child services, when it is in fact exploring alternative options and looking to improve services because it has serious concerns about how things are being done at the moment. According to the Guardian, “at least 10 struggling council children’s departments could face official intervention.”

Where Ofsted deems a child services department to be failing, the DfE needs to find alternative solutions. As Alan Wood, director of children’s services in Hackney, and DfE advisor, says: “If we carry on doing what we do in the way we do it, we just get the same, only there will be less of it.”

I’m a Mum, and the fact that there are children out there who are vulnerable and in trouble and in desperate need of external support saddens me. Children need help, urgently, and I really believe that well thought-out private sector involvement can improve the quality and amount of help on offer.   

I don’t agree that this move is ‘privatising vulnerable young children’ - this is a move to wrestle control from social services departments that Ofsted reports are failing, and improve services. Whatever your ideology, that’s a good idea, right? Who could argue otherwise?

The DfE thinks so too, and is engaging in informal conversations to find ways to improve things, and wants to create a vibrant market for the private and third sector provision of child care services. This could be the only way the desperately needed transformation is going to happen. According to the Guardian, the DfE is worried that “many of England’s 152 children’s services do not have sufficient in-house expertise or staff capacity to drive through improvement plans.”

But private sector providers have a huge appetite for transformation, and the expertise and capital to make bold process improvements and drive for efficiency. Combine that with the expertise of appropriate third sector organisations and there could be huge positive effects, using technology/ apps to streamline the paperwork side of things, improving the availability of face-to-face time with kids and parents, ensuring the best advice is passed on and nothing is missed, and also building a body of real-time evidence to improve transparency and accountability in the big decisions. 

At the same time, there does need to be pragmatism and flexibility in the delivery of child services; they are complex by nature and contracts must be designed to empower social workers to do the best possible job… there can be no output-based, itemised billing; the contracts must be built to put the children first, not box ticking over practicality, not time-sheets over quality time. If ever a contract was crying out for an outcome-based approach, it’s this. This needs to be gotten right first time. There is no other option. 

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