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Olly Swann

Value – not variance – is key to reforming children’s services

To say that the recent House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report ‘Transforming Children’s Services’ was critical of the Department for Education (DfE) would be an understatement.  Hot on the heels of similar criticisms from the National Audit Office, it underlines that DfE are painfully slow at enacting necessary reforms.

Several of the points made in the report stand out:

  • “The Department for Education regards children’s social care as its most important responsibility. If it is to live up to that responsibility, it must first address what are persistent shortcomings in its understanding of the sector.”
  • “The Department still cannot explain the significant variation between local authorities in the activity and cost of children’s social care, nor does it have an adequate understanding of demand pressures.”
  • “[The DfE] will need to rapidly acquire that understanding if it is to make a convincing case for funding to the Treasury. But beyond that, it must show leadership in Government.”
  • “Based on what it decides, the Department should commit to regular reporting on cost effectiveness, incorporating ratings on how well authorities use resources.”

Whilst these recommendations will have come as no surprise to anybody working in or with local government, it is clear that the sector’s patience with Whitehall’s policymakers and purse-string-holders is running thin.  Central government will no doubt continue to be distracted by Brexit for a while yet, but when it decides to get back to the day job and address some of our country’s major socio-economic challenges, it will realise that children’s services needs attention even more urgently than adult social care.

Children’s social care needs a new lens to gauge performance and to support its case for further investment.  It’s time to widen the debate beyond the amount of money available, and focus on what is being achieved with it: we must shine a light on value, not variance. Solutions that enable public services to focus on outcomes per pound spent already exist; our Valuing Care programme and the analysis enabled by the IMPOWER INDEX are proof that such an approach can both improve lives and save costs.

A focus on outcome productivity in children’s services would unequivocally deliver the step changes in understanding being called for by the PAC, as well as allow for comparable ratings.  It would also, when applied at scale, help the sector define what ‘good’ children’s social care is.

Given that the Chancellor kept his powder dry in the Spring Statement, the sector has more time to gather the intelligence it needs to make a clear and compelling case for resources ahead of the Spending Review later this year. It should take this opportunity, and focus on value rather than variation.

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