Since his appointment as chair of the Children’s Social Care Review, serious concerns have been raised about the independence of Josh MacAlister due, in part, to his role as founder and CEO of the fast-track social work training organisation Frontline that has received millions of pounds in government funding over the past eight years. In response, MacAlister claimed that he is no less independent than anyone who has secured government funding, including those working in local authorities and academia. However, in the context of growing concerns about political bias in public appointments, and the widespread corruption seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is worth exploring whether the picture is indeed as simple as MacAlister suggests. This article applies the research methodology of network ethnography to explore MacAlister’s interdependence within contemporary policy networks in England, in particular drawing on the work of educational researcher Stephen Ball.
Network ethnography is an assemblage of research techniques that seek to map, visit and question the networks involved in policy development (Ball, 2016). In doing so, Ball (2017) suggests that a researcher can follow policy and develop a picture of actually existing neoliberalism, plotting the connections and the relationships through which policy travels. This includes examining both current and previous connections, acknowledging that stepping down from an organisation does not necessarily mean that a person’s network becomes detached from that organisation, or those they worked with there. Therefore, network ethnography is a decidedly qualitative exercise, seeking to identify substance and meaning through the subtle, and often hidden, ways that networks feed into policy development (Ball and Exley, 2010). The visualisation of these connections also acts as a medium for following these connections, and supports those unfamiliar with the context to quickly grasp the scale of the interconnectivity.
Ball has applied network ethnography extensively to educational policy networks, including in relation to philanthropy (Ball and Junemann, 2011), policy mobility (Ball, 2016), think tanks (Ball and Exley, 2010) and privatisation (Ball, 2009) and his network maps frequently span multiple pages. However, in applying network ethnography to social work in England I have limited the mapping to a single page in order to make it more accessible. I have also only included individuals and organisations that are within three degrees of separation (three connections away) from Josh MacAlister or Frontline to avoid the network analysis drifting too far from the focus on the care review. Only significant connections were included, for example working directly for an organisation, or being a member of an organisation’s board. Key organisational partnerships were also included, as in the case of Ark providing seed funding and incubation for Frontline. Despite these restrictions, the level of complexity and interconnectivity within the network was still substantial.
It is important to acknowledge that there has been previous work to map the connections between key actors in this area that I drew upon. Below are two examples, the first is taken from Ray Jones’ (2019) book In Whose Interest? and the second was produced anonymously and has been shared widely on social media.
While the second of these graphs includes personal connections alongside business and professional connections, and Ball frequently includes personal connections in his work as well, I elected to exclude these. This decision was taken because personal relationships are more difficult to identify and prove, while also being more open to interpretation and concealment. While I tried to capture as many significant connections as possible, I stopped the mapping when my judgement was that the diagram was becoming too convoluted to be useful. The complex picture does demonstrate the level of interconnectivity that this relatively small group of actors has with each other, and why MacAlister saying that he has now stepped down from his role in Frontline, Shift and other various boards may not be sufficient to ensure his independence. Below is the care review network map that emerged:
The map can also be viewed here, from where the document can be downloaded in order to access the functional links.
Despite this convoluted picture, there were many connections, organisations, and individuals that were left out, and in many ways this mapping only scratches the surface of the network. For example, while a large number of financial firms are included in the map, this does not fully capture the level of involvement of private financial capital within the network. For an indication of just how extensive these connections are, check out the partners/supporters pages of Teach First or The Difference or even the list of Frontline partners/supporters that was deleted from Frontline’s website around the time of MacAlister’s appointment to lead the care review, but can still be accessed as it looked in September 2020 here. Furthermore, the focus was on showing connections to the Department for Education, because it was this department that launched the review and appointed MacAlister. However, there are also many connections with other government departments as well. For example, Camilla Cavendish is currently working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on adult social care reform. There were additional political connections that were difficult to plot. For example, Purcell (2020) highlights that many of the ideas behind Frontline were discussed in private meetings between then Minister for Education Michael Gove and Martin Narey in the early 2010s. MacAlister himself describes how he called in sick to his new teaching job in order to attend a meeting with Gove and Andrew Adonis to plan Frontline. The reality is that adding Gove to this map could have exponentially expanded the complexity for these and other reasons. Narey, too, has a number of additional connections that are worth exploring, some of which have been outlined in this blog. There are a number of connections to major media outlets that have also been excluded too. For instance, Adonis has previously worked for both the Financial Times and the Observer newspapers. As a final point, it is important to acknowledge that the focus here is decidedly on children’s services, because this is the focus of the care review. This does not mean that these networks are non-existent in adult services, and a very different but heavily overlapping picture would likely have developed if the mental health fast-track training organisation Think Ahead, and its leaders and board, were taken as the starting point.
Analysis of the Network
As in the case of Ball’s research, some actors in this network are more connected than others; however, it is the collective nature of this web of influence that creates much of its policy making power, and all included are to some degree insiders compared to those outside of the policy loop (Ball and Exley, 2010). Therefore, it is worth outlining some observations about the individuals and organisations identified. The individuals are mostly male (74%), which is particularly problematic considering the degree of control they are exercising over the predominantly female profession of social work (85% of children’s social workers are female). There are few registered social workers, and a large number alumni from Teach First, the fast-track teacher training provider that Frontline was based on (including MacAlister). There are also a large number of individuals who have received royal honours. When it comes to the organisations involved, it is notably that the six largest consulting firms in the world are all represented. Many of these organisations have been implicated in financial, political and humanitarian scandals. For example, in early 2021 McKinsey agreed to pay a settlement of $600 million for its role in perpetuating opioid addiction in the USA, Credit Suisse are currently embroiled in a corporate espionage scandal, Deloitte have recently paid $80 million to settle claims related to their role in corruption in Malaysia, EY have been revealed to have purposefully covered up evidence of organised crime in the UK, in 2019 KPMG were required to pay a $50 million fine for using stolen information to cheat on audits, and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and McKinsey are both currently helping to develop a new ‘megacity’ in Saudi Arabia which, it is alleged, has resulted in the displacement of the Huwaitat populations there. In fact, just googling any of the financial firms represented in the network, alongside the word “scandal”, provides ample examples of why we should be worried about their increasing role in children’s social care. Several of the organisations included have also been involved in public and private partnerships seeking to expand the controversial use of predictive analytics in children’s social care, including SCIE, EY and Nesta. It is additionally noteworthy that many of the actors identified here are also identified in Ball’s education policy network maps, such as Ark, Amanda Spielman, Nesta, Teach First, KPMG, Adonis, BCG, Credit Suisse and Deloitte, suggesting a significant overlap between education and children’s social care policy networks that warrants further exploration.
Ball (2016) highlights how a small group of networked policy actors like those outlined here come to know each other quite well, sharing ideas, making commitments and developing trust through attending the same social events, award ceremonies, dinners, and, as in the case of the recent founding of the Oak Academy, being in the same WhatsApp groups. Through this process, ideas gain momentum and support, and are shared across the network through repetition, quotation, cross-referencing and co-authoring (Ball and Exley, 2010). Network actors frequently hold multiple roles, change roles often and move across private and public sectors. Those involved can act as trustees for each other’s organisations, sit on each other’s boards, promote each other over social media, and write and speak at each other’s events. The care review is not even the first time that someone from within this network has been tasked with undertaking an “independent” review of another actor in the network. For example, CASCADE have undertaken several independent evaluations of Frontline, and Martin Narey has been tasked multiple times with undertaking independent reviews on behalf of the Department for Education, including in relation to social work education and residential children’s social care.
The interests of those involved therefore become heavily intertwined with each other, as well as being intertwined with the government. The grouping of the Department for Education as a single actor in the network map loses some of the nuance related to how influence is wielded in that department by many of the actors involved. For example, both Alan Wood and Isabelle Trowler have sat on the board of the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme, a government funded initiative based on research carried out by McKinsey and implemented in part by Deloitte, that has awarded millions of pounds of public money to many organisations identified in the network map, including the London Borough of Hackney, Achieving for Children, Pause, Frontline, TACT, Coram and Morning Lane. Wood and Trowler both also acted as advisory panel members, alongside Julian LeGrand, for the LaingBuisson Report that recommended a number mechanisms for outsourcing children’s social care in ways that would benefit many of the organisations and individuals in the network. Trowler has been a vocal supporter of the controversial National Assessment and Accreditation System (NAAS) that as of March 2020 had cost £24 million, with contracts so far awarded to, among others, Morning Lane, Deloitte and KPMG. A freedom of information request also suggests that MacAlister had a role in the development of the NAAS, as he received (and accepted) a direct invitation from then Minister for Children Edward Timpson in 2015 to be involved in the development of “social work assessment methods” alongside Trowler, Morning Lane and others. Timpson would later serve on the Children’s Commissioner advisory panel alongside MacAlister. Government reports that Trowler is involved in frequently make suggestions that will benefit organisations and actors in the network, including a recent government study that recommended specific funding be provided to WWCSC, an organisations she continues to sit on the board of, and another report that suggested that all social workers involved in private law children’s proceedings should be “nationally accredited child and family practitioners” (presumably by the NAAS). As one final point of note, a freedom of information request has revealed that Narey was on the interview panel for Trowler when she was appointed Chief Social Worker.
Analysis of the Network and the Care Review
In the short time since it was announced in January 2021 the influence and involvement of this network have been on stark display in relation to the care review. This is obviously most notably through the appointment of MacAlister as chair. Some of the concerns related to MacAlister include that he was the lead author of a proposed Blueprint for Children’s Social Care that was published in November 2019 and outlines a model of reform for children’s social care. This document strongly suggests that he may have preconceived notions about what reform in this area should look like. Joining MacAlister among the nine authors of the Blueprint are several additional actors represented in the network map, including three employees of BCG and three employees of the Centre for Public Impact. Examining the Blueprint through the lens of this network map also provides a window into understanding how consensus was built and support garnered for the model in ways that are not outlined explicitly in the Blueprint. For example, Isabelle Trowler revealed in a 2016 interview with Donald Forrester that she had visited the Netherlands to learn about Buurtzorg. Furthermore, both Stephen Rice and David Wilkins advocated in 2017 journal articles for the potential of Buurtzorg in children’s social care in England. This suggests that instead of being a Frontline, MacAlister or even BCG Blueprint as I and colleagues have suggested elsewhere, this may more accurately be characterised as a network developed Blueprint, with MacAlister acting as the frontman.
The early stages of the care review also suggest this network will be highly influential in the process. Many of those in the network have made public statements in support of the review and MacAlister’s appointment. The first two people identified as playing a role in the care review alongside MacAlister were Jenny Molloy, who has taught at Frontline’s summer institute, and Shazia Hussein, who has previously collaborated with Narey on his 2016 review of children’s residential care. MacAlister’s unredacted contract also shows that he is explicitly required to work with two organisations: Social Finance and WWCSC. Both these organisations have close ties to MacAlister and others in the network, in particular WWCSC. Coram were recently announced to be playing a supporting role in the care review, and ministerial meeting information has revealed that Minister for Children Vicky Ford held a preliminary meeting with the president of Coram David Bell all the way back in August 2020. One of MacAlister’s first actions upon being appointed was to request that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) investigate the social care market. Incidentally, Jeremy Newman, a panel member at the CMA, is also a board member of Frontline. MacAlister is now working closely with Rachel De Souza who has launched her own review of childhood in collaboration with the Oak Academy. A freedom of information request has shown that many of the organisations in the network map were among those invited to the private launch of the care review, including Coram, Reach and WWCSC. Only two universities received this invitation, Cardiff University, employer of Donald Forrester and David Wilkins, and host of CASCADE, and Kent University, where David Shemmings is Emeritus Professor. Two advisory groups have also been announced to support the care review. Several individuals in the network map are represented on these panels, including Trowler, Forrester, Feinstein and Broadhurst, as well as individuals with direct connections to Shift, IPPR, Frontline, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, Coram, Social Finance, WWCSC, Oak Academy and the implementation of the NAAS.
A critique related to this type of network mapping is that if you go looking for a network you will find one (Christopoulos, 2008). Indeed, the obvious way to dismiss this type of analysis is to refer to it as conspiracy thinking. However recent experiences of government and business corruption suggest that if anything the influence of these types of networks is underappreciated and the advantages gained from both formal and informal connections are increasingly being hidden, with the public having to rely on exposure through Freedom of Information requests, whistle-blowers, legal challenges, investigative journalism and even clerical errors. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that the decision about which connections and actors to include and exclude was ultimately a subjective exercise based on my own reading of the landscape. In order to promote transparency, the source of each connection is linked in the network map word document, so I would encourage anyone reading this to make up their own mind about the significance of these relationships (notably though the linked connection may be one of several connections between two actors). In addition, these network links are particularly significant at the moment because of the claims from both MacAlister and the Department for Education (and many others in the network) that the care review is independent. This analysis has shown that far from being independent, the care review is actually interdependent within this policy network. I hope that the mapping can act as a tool for others to build on, reflect on and provides context to the ongoing care review, including in relation to future appointments, involvement, public comments and those who benefit from its conclusions.
Note about the Network Map Word Document
The document needs to be downloaded to be able to access the links. If you zoom in it is easier to click on the individual connections. If you are struggling to trace a connection, clicking on a connecting arrow highlights it and you should be able to find the other end which will also be highlighted. You will need to either right click the connecting arrows and then click on “open hyperlink”, or hold Ctrl and click on the connecting arrow, in order to open the embedded links. If there is anyone more tech savvy than me and is interested in translating this network map into a more user friendly version, or a web version that can be more accessible, interactive and expandable (and maybe easier on the eyes), please do get in touch on email@example.com.
Joe Hanley, The Open University
Ball, S. (2009) ‘Privatising education, privatising education policy, privatising educational research: network governance and the ‘competition state’, Journal of Education Policy, 24:1, 83-99.
Ball, S. (2016) ‘Following policy: networks, network ethnography and education policy mobilities’, Journal of Education Policy, 31:5, 549-566.
Ball, S. (2017) ‘Laboring to Relate: Neoliberalism, Embodied Policy, and Network Dynamics’, Peabody Journal of Education, 92:1, 29-41,
Ball, S. and Exley, S. (2010) ‘Making policy with ‘good ideas’: policy networks and the ‘intellectuals’ of New Labour’, Journal of Education Policy, 25:2, 151-169.
Ball, S. and Junermann, C. (2011) ‘Education policy and philanthropy: the changing landscape of English educational governance’, International Journal of Public Administration,34(10), 646-661.
Christopoulos, D. (2008) ‘The governance of networks: Heuristic or formal analysis? A reply to Rachel Parker’, Political Studies,56, 475–81.
Jones, R. (2019) In Whose Interest? The Privatisation of Child Protection and Social Work,Bristol: Policy Press.
Purcell, C. (2020) The Politics of Children’s Services Reform: Re-examining two Decades of Policy Change,Bristol: Policy Press.