Increasingly countries are turning to nonprofit organisations to provide health and social care, particularly for people with disabilities. Alongside this change, debates continue about how states should manage the relationship with such organisations. Should features of the old-style "welfare" model be retained? Should aspects of the "new public management" model be chosen to measure the impact of the work? Yet others argue that grassroots organisations should form the basis of a service provision system. In the context of these debates, Ireland serves as an interesting case study of the system of care that can emerge when the state operates a "relaxed control" approach. This paper takes the perspectives of users themselves: family carers who are accessing services for a disabled adult child, to examine the effects of this approach on the ground. We show how geography played a central role in shaping these experiences, and discuss how we can learn from the Irish context. Rather than arguing for narrowly defined contractual measures, we conclude by proposing a renewed focus on relationship building with the aim of effective system operation, in the future of care services. (C) 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.