The first key aspect to note with the Department for Education's latest consultation is that it offers very little room to debate policy.
It simply proposes, give or take some very limited exceptions, that the current power to delegate should be extended to all children’s social care functions. The power is currently restricted to looked after children’s services
This is all part of a well-worn ideological path that puts the need for flexibility and greater autonomy for professionals, in the same box as freedom from local authority control. The one, it seems, simply cannot be delivered without the other.
Simpler without the middleman
Elements of this approach have already been piloted, with mixed results. I have no immediate information on how many other authorities have so far, separately, pursued the existing option to delegate.
The wider beliefs that shape the policy of delegation probably include an assessment that delegation will result in cost-saving (services will be cheaper, like-for-like) – which may or may not be associated with a view that private or third sector providers are inevitably more efficient than those in the public sector.
It also seems to me to be part of a wider distrust of the politics and management capabilities of the local authority sector. That may be cloaked by the continued commitment to the sector as commissioners, but I think the benefits of the purchaser/provider split, in this case, provide a convenient cover for a more fundamental central government view that life would be simpler without the middleman.
Distanced from individual responsibilities
My main concern in all of this is that if local authorities are going to intervene in people’s lives and if they are going to take on onerous statutory responsibilities for children, then that responsibility needs to run like a thread of steel through every part of the structure and process that is put in place.
Laming identified what can go wrong when senior politicians and managers become distanced from their individual responsibility. And numerous evaluations have highlighted the continuing difficulty, even in the current structures, of ensuring effective corporate responsibility across councils.
If we see complete delegation of powers, I worry that the ‘thread of steel’ will be further weakened, and that – without some mighty counter-balancing force – the fabric of accountability and responsibility that should be there for children, families, and the public, will increasingly turn out to be shot full of holes.