‘Outsourcing statutory social work risks quality, accountability and value for money’

The prospect of private companies running child protection will fill social workers with fear, writes Unison's Helga Pile

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Photo: OJO Images/Rex Features

Last year the government legislated to allow all local authorities to outsource social work functions for looked-after children. This was done, despite an independent evaluation of five pilots, which could find no concrete evidence of better outcomes caused by outsourcing of the work.

Any positive effects were largely attributed to the removal of responsibility for child protection work, smaller caseloads and user-friendly offices that additional financial support from central government made possible. In only one of the original five pilots does a contract with an external provider for social work services continue.

On the back of this change, the government is now pressing ahead with a drive to fragment and privatise the whole spectrum of statutory social work. This appears to be driven by an ideology that the private sector knows best – even when it comes to sensitive and critical functions like child protection.

The policy may be dressed up in the clothes of unleashing innovation, but the reality is a one-way street. Once statutory social work is put out to tender, it will be subject to all the uncertainties and risks of competitive tendering.

And there will be huge questions about quality, accountability and value for money as the ‘market’ develops. The prospect of companies like Serco running child protection is one that will fill social workers with fear for the children and families they work with.

There is already a mixed economy in wider children’s social care provision. Allowing the contracting out of all social work functions including statutory interventions opens up the possibility of major conflicts of interest where providers and their subsidiaries could become responsible for assessing, care planning, selection of placements and provision of those placements.

UNISON fully supports the idea that social workers should be freed up from bureaucracy, and have more decision-making powers and autonomy to innovate. The problem is the government equates this too easily with contracting out to external providers. In fact, councils have shown there is ample scope to reduce hierarchies and pursue innovation in social work within council employment.

If anything, the constant harking to the private sector to come up with solutions risks holding innovation back. Too many councils will put their energies into the comfort zone of setting up commissioning and client functions, running tendering exercises and designing contract monitoring functions, when they should be asking their social workers: ‘How would you like to do things differently?’

Procurement exercises take many months and usually involve lawyers, consultants and accountants. The changes to working practices social workers want to see can often be achieved quickly when social workers, support workers and administrative staff themselves are allowed to devise and implement solutions.

These proposals feel like a smokescreen for the government’s continuing failure to address chronic underfunding which has left local authority social work over-stretched and under intolerable pressure. To cut local authority budgets by 40% at a time when need for social work support is soaring, and then claim councils are not fit to run the services is disingenuous at the very least.

Everything we know about serious cases tells us that in children’s social work we need more joined-up working and close accountability – not the fragmentation and dilution of oversight that outsourcing will bring.

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2 Responses to ‘Outsourcing statutory social work risks quality, accountability and value for money’

  1. Alan April 23, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    Outsourcing is always a bad option, from the start it is putting a service from a none profit making organisation to a profit making one, so if costs allegedly decrease something must be sacrificed. Generally pay and pensions are cut then quality of service deteriorates with accountability becoming none existent. Over the last thirty five years I have seen many examples of outsourcing in various environments that range from Steelworks to Domiciliary Care and I have yet to experience an example where standards have been good enough to maintain the status quo. The only way to keep quality and accountability is to keep it in house.

  2. Jim Greer April 27, 2014 at 11:05 pm #

    I don’t think it should always be automatically assumed that outsourcing is a bad thing. When I talk to individual social workers I find that most do not have access to computer databases when outside of the office. Most do not have laptops or tablets either. The reasons usually given for these things is concerns about security but this is causing social workers additional admin time by having to type things they have already written. Then there is the failure, with a few notable exceptions of local authorities to communicate successfully with the public and create a positive image for their services.
    I do not think that companies like Serco will do any better. Indeed experience suggests they will do infinitely worse.What we should be doing is encouraging social workers to become more entrepreneurial and consider setting up private practices and bidding for contracts.
    Under the PCF all social work students need to learn about organisational issues. However, this needs a balanced approach with an honest discussion about the costs and benefits of alternative ways of organising and managing social services. This needs to be objective and evidence based, not ideological.
    It also needs, from Government, a cautious approach with more pilots, a slow transition to a more mixed economy, and help and advice to social workers who want to run the businesses themselves.
    If we rush into change as seems to be happening with the privitisation of probation the results could be very bad indeed.
    It is important that the people running services are experienced professionals not companies like G4S that have already shown themselves to be incompetent to run public services.