Identifying the Cause of the Child Support Agency's Problems
by G Bates, D Hutchinson, T Robertson, A Wadsworth, R Watson
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Why does this service have to be managed in the Public Sector?

The allocation of child support is managed as a 'Next-Step' agency. This is a relatively new innovation in government and is a quasi-autonomous agency that directly reports to the DWP. However one must make it clear that it remains very much within the public domain. The following passage discusses issues and highlights reasons why this has to be the case, while drawing comparisons and discussion from the private sector.

Most importantly the allocation of child support must stay within the public domain, as its primary purpose is to alleviate child poverty. Whatever sinister political machinations lie beneath the surface, the allocation of this must stay within the public domain as it is dealing with a highly vulnerable group in society and thus a strict ethical code must be in place, to protect such a vulnerable body from an uncompassionate market.

Whitley and Osborne (1994) highlight the "the 'trust' argument". This accentuates the point that the CSA is dealing with a highly vulnerable consumer and thus must be under some sort of regulation ensuring equality. Although it would be highly cynical to insinuate that no private sector companies had an ethical stance or were untrustworthy, the private sector does have a reputation for being somewhat ruthless and such an approach could be highly detrimental in providing an equal and ethical service that is required. The point here is that regardless of who provides the service the government will be held accountable by the general public for protecting the children. Provision within the public sector therefore allows politicians to remain in control of the service.

It is imperative to point out at this stage that there are some factors that do point to management in the private sector and it would be naïve to assume that managing the CSA in the public arena is infallible as has been shown by its fraught existence. Operations within the public sector are inevitably susceptible to political behaviour. Working within the political arena brings various implications, and McKevitt and Lawton (1994) highlight a very important impact. When operating in the political arena there is frequent reshuffling and this as a huge impact on long-term strategy. As work in different operations is often short lived, then inevitably long term strategic development is hard to develop. This has been highlighted in the CSA, with three so-called radical reforms in its nine year life, and the frequent change in leadership at both the Ministerial and Chief Executive levels.

The age old issue of bureaucracy is also a key constraint, and is something that has plagued the CSA in its life. Time consuming bureaucracy is a constraint that has often been associated with the public sector and is often viewed as a huge limitation in managing in this environment. However as McKevitt and Lawton (1994) point out bureaucracy is often an attempt to achieve equality and uniformity and thus cannot be whole heartedly criticised. It can be suggested that managing in the private sector will help to alleviate the huge amount of bureaucracy, but such companies do not have such a public accountability to equality, and bureaucracy helps to achieve this, whatever the various other impacts of this are.

McKevitt and Lawton (1994:56), state that public sector companies have a wider and deeper accountability, than private firms. They have to operate an open policy on their operations, expose their plans, and justify them in the public arena, laying them open to fierce criticism. In general firms operating in the private sector don't have to face such stringent examination, however when dealing with such a delicate operation as child support one could argue that the public has a right to be informed on plans and performance of such an agency, regardless of which sector it is operating in.

Viewed in its simplest from, dealing with such a delicate issue equality and morals are absolutely paramount to ensuring a "successful" service. The market is not something that has traditionally provided such attributes and thus it appears imperative to operate the allocation of child support in the public sector. Flynn (1997) sums up this sentiment succinctly in the following:

"The whole purpose of public services, is not to make money but to provide collectively; protection, help, restraint and care outside market relationships," (Flynn 1997:11)

Notes

Flynn, N. (1997) Public Sector Management 3rd Edition, Prentice Hall.

McKevitt, D. and Lawton, A. (1994) Public Sector Management - Theory, Critique and Practice, Sage Publications.

Whitley, S. and Osborne, S. (1994) The Public Sector Management Handbook, Longman.

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Page last updated: 11 December, 2002 © Copyright G Bates, D Hutchinson, T Robertson, A Wadsworth, R Watson 2002