Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to assess the applicability of relational contract theory in situations where government departments contract with non-government welfare organisations to deliver human service programmes. Its limits are highlighted by an assessment of programmes for domestically violent men that epitomise “management of incomplete contracts” central to the theory.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper is based on an evaluation of contracted-out programmes for perpetrators of domestic violence in Australia that set out to compare and contrast distinct models of service delivery by documenting programme logic, service delivery effectiveness and effects on programme participants. It reflects on the difficulties of monitoring such programmes and considers the implications of this for contracting theory and for human service practice.
Findings – In contrast to critiques of contracting-out in a neo-liberal environment that emphasise how accountability and reporting requirements limit the autonomy of contracted agencies, this paper highlights considerable variation in how programmes were managed and delivered despite standardised service delivery contracts developed by the government department funding the programmes. This leads to a consideration of “incomplete contracts” where service delivery outcomes are hard to measure or there is limited knowledge of the contracted agencies by the contracting government department.
Originality/value – The paper highlights a situation in which the recommendations of relational contracting theory can exacerbate the difficulties of quality assurance rather than minimise them. It then argues a need for workforce development in the government departments and the contracted agencies, to enable a nuanced monitoring of the programmes’ service delivery and promotion of quality assurance processes.