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.