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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Christian Kerr

Pennies in the karma bank? Big philanthropy, English social work reform and the neoliberal bind

This article expands on themes and topics I introduced in a recent webinar on privatisation and marketisation in children’s social care.

Neoliberalism is a label often lazily applied, which has not been helpful. However, discussion about contemporary social work cannot ignore the impact of the neoliberal turn on practice, policy, working conditions in social care and, crucially, on the lives of those we hope and aim to support. Within the debate about privatisation and marketisation, usually held to be key signifiers of neoliberalisation, relatively little attention has been given to the influence of global big business on social work and social care reform. As a result, there has been little critical exploration of the potential implications of this for social work practice and policy.

A key example of big money’s incursion into English social work is Frontline, the Department for Education (DfE) funded child protection social work fast track training scheme. During Frontline’s gestation, strategy consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) ‘volunteered to step in and give Josh [MacAlister, Frontline’s chief executive] the ‘nuts and bolts’ support (resources and expertise) to turn his idea into reality’. The pro bono support Frontline has received from BCG has increased in monetary terms year on year — £200k worth in 2015–16£230k worth in 2016–2017, and £235k in 2017-2018. An annual report for 2018-2019 is yet to be published so it is not known whether that trend continues.

BCG is one of the largest management consultancies in the world, with a total annual revenue of $8.5 billion (2019-2020). It has extensive connections to the public and private sectors worldwide, consulting on everything from education to agriculture to defence procurement. BCG’s business offer is knowledge and expertise in literally every aspect of modern commerce and the societies in which it occurs. Frontline touts BCG as one of its ‘founding partners’. BCG partner and Managing Director, Jacob Rosenzweig, is currently a trustee of Frontline, as is Rosenzweig’s predecessor, Craig Baker.

BCG’s extensive business interests include UK government contracts totalling many millions of pounds, including consulting and advising on Brexit. In 2018, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, Senator Elizabeth Warren called on BCG and other consultancies to answer questions about their roles in providing services to the Saudi regime. BCG supports the Saudi government with numerous projects, including education, the development of a highly ambitious futuristic mega-city and defence procurement – that latter while Saudi Arabia regularly conducts air strikes against Yemeni civilians. In 2019, BCG was implicated in the Luanda Leaks scandal, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists produced evidence that the firm, along with other Wall Street management consultancies including McKinsey, KPMG and PwC (all of which also key players in UK public sector reform) had facilitated the capture of Angolan state assets by Isobel dos Santos, daughter of Angola’s former President.

It is notable that Andrew Adonis and Michael Gove, who were both instrumental in the genesis of Frontline, have links to BCG – Adonis is a former BCG education advisor while Gove’s former special advisor, Jamie Hunt, held a consultancy role with BCG. Gove’s register of interests contains four references to him having ‘received direct help in research development from the Boston Consulting Group’ (though it does not say what that help was). Even cursory internet searches combining the names of key government figures and special advisors, past and present, with ‘Boston Consulting Group’ reveal the extent to which BCG is enmeshed in our governmental apparatus.

Frontline has a plethora of other corporate partners from which it receives cash donations. This is known as ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) – philanthropic activity by global big money in the form of tax-sheltered social change schemes. More recently, CSR has morphed into the explicitly more interventionist ‘corporate statesmanship’ – big business CEOs having decided that with their great power comes the entitlement to actively intervene in public affairs.

The lineage of Frontline clearly indicates the direction of travel for social work and social work education in the UK. The template for Frontline is Teach First, an English fast track teacher training scheme which is based on the Teach for America programme that over the last 30 years has grown to be a major force in education reform in the US.  The largest private funder of Teach for America are the owners of supermarket giant, Walmart, through their Walton Family Foundation, whose £20m donation in 2013 came with a condition that trainees placed in public (state) schools would attract less funding per head than those placed in charter schools (analogous to our academies) – $4000 and $6000 respectively – a pertinent example of how corporate donors influence the focus of social change movements. Like Frontline, Teach First is generously funded by the DfE while also being funded and backed by many corporate partners, notably management consultancies Deloitte and PwC, transnational bank Credit Suisse and outsourcer Accenture. Again, it is reasonable to ask: what is in it for them? Even a passing look at, for example, BCG’s business links to the Saudi regime and its role in the Luanda Leaks scandal would appear to put the lie to these connections being attributable to simple altruism. Pennies in the karma bank? Or concerted effort to advance private business interests in the public sector?

It is hardly a revelation that global corporations are frequently involved in morally questionable activities. Few, if any, of us can claim moral purity in respect of our own direct and indirect relationships and intertwinements with such organisations. What does your bank get up to with your money? Is your university free of links to the global arms trade? What contracts does your employer have with global consultancies? How do you benefit from these links? The triumph of neoliberalism is to make us all complicit, even if many of us do not know it. We are all neoliberals now, because we are all of us enmeshed in systems in which the advancement of neoliberalist ideas and interests is hardwired. As much as it is anything, neoliberalism is a permeating worldview — a seductive set of ideas and reflexes, remarkably efficient at spreading, replicating and adapting itself to any context. The success of neoliberalism in becoming the dominant organising principle in Western societies derives from its ability to enlist, co-opt and colonise other ideas and movements in order to turn them to its own ends. English social work, ever on the lookout for new ideas to help in its mission to solve social troubles and already well down the path of corporatisation, is ripe for such co-option.

But our complicity, witting or not, is no reason not to challenge the regime. In fact, it makes it all the more urgent and necessary. The answer to the inequity and injustice that beset lives and communities is surely not to ladle on more of the stuff that caused those things in the first place. The rhetoric of saviourism that surrounds fast track course like Frontline are the problem, not the solution. To be truly anti-discriminatory and anti-racist, people with privilege (and I include myself in this) first need to get out of the way and then advance, before their own, the rights and interests of those with less privilege. Put simply, people need allies, not saviours. And those of us with privilege need to put the work in to get alongside, collaborate, and do with, not to, those in need of social support.

It is unprecedented for an English social work training programme to be part-founded by a global management consultancy andto have the backing of no less than four of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world. The scale and scope of these firms, and the operations of unfettered business logic driving them, means the taint of something unsavoury is never far away. Take, for example, BCG’s connections to the Trump administration. Senior BCG adviser, Ron Nicol, was a member of Trump’s transition team. BCG’s CEO, Rich Lesser, chose to remain on Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum following the announcement of Executive Order 13769, otherwise known as the Muslim travel ban, even as others, such as Uber’s then-CEO Travis Kalanick – hardly a moral paragon himself – resigned from the Forum following the widespread adverse public fallout. More recently, Trump announced his intent to nominate BCG Associate Director, Bradley Hansell, a ‘recognized expert in strategy [who] serves as a leader in the North American Public Sector practice’ as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security. A key question, given recent and ongoing events that have exposed the deep-rooted racial inequalities in Western societies, is how any of this squares with Frontline’s seemingly new-found commitment to anti-racism, as set out in its recently-produced Racial Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. Will this plan extend to Frontline condemning BCG’s involvement with the overtly racist Trump presidency? Or will Frontline, much as BCG itself avoids taking a stance on Trump’s particular brand of reckless nationalism, continue to publicly ignore the (white) elephant in the room?

While recognising we are all of us caught in the invidious compromise of neoliberalism, it is still legitimate to ask, given these organisations’ records, why Frontline has actively sought and continues to partner with firms and corporations whose conduct – as becomes clearer with each successive scandal – runs starkly counter to social work values. What have such firms to offer an English social work training scheme? What do they receive in return? And, given the litany of questionable practices, at what cost to the public trust in the profession?

Christian Kerr is a social worker.

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