Child Abuse Inquiry – An Undeliverable Specification

The UK government inquiry into child abuse has had a disastrous first year or so, with three people appointed as Chair all standing down for various reasons. Now a fourth has taken on the role and the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has defended the inquiry after criticisms from the last Chair, New Zealander Justice Lowell Goddard.

Now this has nothing to do with procurement of course, but we can't help thinking that there are certain similarities with the procurement issues we have seen across a number of major public sector projects. Just like a more conventional procurement, this inquiry has a "specification" (the terms of reference), and it has a "supplier" - the Chair and the team that supports that individual.

And just like a number of  procurement exercises from the past, the specification appears to be undeliverable. The inquiry is supposed to be looking at child abuse in 13 different areas. Let's list them ...

Westminster

The Roman Catholic Church

The Anglican Church

The internet

Residential schools

Nottinghamshire councils

Lambeth council

Lord Janner

British institutions and organisations abroad

Custodial institutions

Child sexual exploitation by organised networks

Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale

Accountability and reparations for victims and survivors of abuse

That feels a bit like trying to buy a software system that will run your finances, manage all your customer-facing activities, carry out manufacturing planning, recruit your staff ...  Personally, the whole thing looks unmanageable just from contemplating that list.

Now of course some suppliers will tell you they can build such a system, just as there will always be someone who is prepared to take on this inquiry chair role, whether out of genuine public spiritedness, the prospect of good fees for many years to come, or the glory. But one job of a good buyer is to ask - is what we are trying to buy really feasible? Is there a business case for this inquiry, a detailed plan? Has anyone worked out how many people will need to be interviewed, how many pieces of evidence will need to be gathered, to get to the findings? What does that mean in terms of the time and resource needed to bring it to a conclusion?

Already, one of the criticisms is that the inquiry has not yet acquired a case management system to manage the documentation - hardly a good start. Of course the sensitivity here is that the Prime Minister Teresa May set the whole thing up when she was Home Secretary, so the prospect of even changing the terms of reference leaves her open to political fall-out.

But this just does not look "doable". In the procurement world, we would go back and re-scope the specification, or break up the requirement into separate parts, or look at a phased approach. However, we don't suppose this common sense approach will happen here, for purely political reasons. So we predict that many millions will be wasted before the inevitable collapse or change of focus for the inquiry comes.

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