The Department for Education has admitted errors in its handling of a potential conflict of interest between the chief social worker for children and her former company Morning Lane Associates.
The DfE said it was reviewing its procedures to make them “more robust” after a National Audit Office investigation found flaws in the steps taken to mitigate the risk that Isabelle Trowler’s actions might favour, or appear to favour, Morning Lane “inappropriately” after her appointment as chief social worker in September 2013.
Morning Lane, a social work consultancy co-founded by Trowler, had no DfE contracts at the time of her appointment as chief social worker. In the three years since the company has been part of successful bids for DfE funding worth around £2.9m to the firm, the NAO said.
The NAO found Trowler herself took several actions to mitigate any potential conflict of interest in her new post.
She resigned from Morning Lane and sold her shares prior to taking up post as chief social worker. When she was appointed to a panel to assess bids for the Department for Education’s £100m innovation fund she “immediately” raised the issue of a potential conflict of interest given her close relationship with Morning Lane’s remaining director. She also removed herself from discussions of innovation fund bids involving Morning Lane.
The chief social worker also took no part in decisions by the DfE to award Morning Lane two contracts worth a combined £384,000 to act as improvement advisers for the government, the NAO found.
However, the NAO investigation raised several issues with the DfE’s actions, and records of those actions, to mitigate or manage the potential conflict of interest during Trowler’s time in post (see box below). The watchdog also found that the chief social worker had been consulted on one bid involving Morning Lane for a major contract, worth an initial £2.6m, to develop an accreditation system for children’s social workers.
The DfE told auditors that Trowler was only consulted on the proposal after an evaluation of three bids for the contract had been completed. The evaluation had found a consortium led by accountancy firm KPMG, and including Morning Lane, was the “only viable option”. As a result it was selected as the government’s preferred bidder and Trowler’s views were sought on it.
Trowler took no part in the assessment of the three bids and had withdrawn from that process because Morning Lane were part of the KPMG consortium.
The DfE said it had sought Trowler’s views at the later stage in order to ensure the KPMG/Morning Lane application met ministers’ requirements and would deliver “the strongest possible assessment system” and good value for money. However, the DfE admitted that alternative approaches, such as seeking the views of other social work practice leaders, “might have been taken to more fully manage any perception of a conflict”.
At the time Trowler was consulted on the KPMG/Morning Lane proposal the procurement process was in the “standstill” period. This is a short period when bidders are told of the contract award decision and have the opportunity to challenge it. The DfE received no challenge to the decision to award the accreditation deal to KPMG and Morning Lane.
Responding to the NAO’s findings, a DfE spokesperson said: “The chief social worker has no financial connections to Morning Lane Associates and, as this report shows, she has always taken the appropriate steps to recuse herself from discussions involving the company.
“The report highlights a number of areas where the department’s processes could be more robust and we are reviewing our processes in light of this report.”
‘No record’: the gaps the NAO found
The NAO investigation found the DfE failed to follow its own guidance on managing conflicts of interest and had gaps in its record keeping:
- The DfE had no record of actions agreed in advance with Trowler to manage any actual or perceived conflict of interest flowing from her previous involvement with Morning Lane Associates.
- In her three years as chief social worker, Trowler had not been asked to complete an annual ‘assurance’ record setting out potential conflicts of interest. DfE policy requires all senior civil servants to complete the records. The DfE said an “error” had led to some staff, including Trowler, not being asked to complete the documents.
- While Trowler had “immediately” raised the issue of a potential conflict of interest with DfE when she was appointed to the Innovation fund investment board, there was no record of the conflict having been declared, or discussed, at the initial meeting of the board itself. The DfE had advised Trowler that she should discuss her potential conflict of interest with the board chair and have it registered in board minutes. The chief social worker told the NAO she did discuss it with the chair.
- There was no record of the way in which Trowler excused herself from decision-making on the innovation programme, and whether she actually left the room when Morning Lane’s bids were discussed or simply did not take part in the discussions. The DfE and Trowler told the NAO she did leave the room.
- There was no record of how the chief social worker and DfE determined in advance what action was appropriate to manage her potential conflict of interest in the procurement process for the accreditation contract. There was also no agreed protocol for any contact the chief social worker should have with Morning Lane Associates, against the background of a declared conflict of interest.