The government is pressing ahead with the privatisation of many services and outsourcing. In fact, central and local government, the NHS and wider public sector are relentlessly extending the reach, scope and volume of public service outsourcing. A change in Conservative leader could accelerate this.
In part, this is a direct result of government policy to redefine and reduce the role of the state and the public sector, and the related policy of austerity.
I accept (and surely few can rationally argue) that not ‘only’ the state, whether at local or national level, can or should deliver and manage public services. There has always been a delivery role for the business sector and even more so for the social sectors.
‘A fresh mindset has the potential to herald a renaissance
– if not a revolution – in the delivery of truly public services’
However, with regard to non-public sector delivery, I log two strong caveats. First, it is important, especially when services are contracted to the business sector, to ensure public accountability, as well as transparency for both service and financial performance and ownership of the delivery vehicle. And second, it is essential to set the boundaries beyond which the business sector should be excluded from public service delivery on the grounds on public interest, accountability, security and public acceptance. There is a strong case for an ongoing public debate on where these boundaries are and should be. Without such a debate and some agreed consensus, there is a real risk of ‘outsourcing creep’.
I am also uneasy that for too many politicians and public sector senior executives, the natural default seems to be to regard the business sector as either fundamentally better at service delivery or ideologically the preferred deliverer of public services, or both. Such a blinkered and often lazy mindset is both wrong and unhelpful, for it means that alternative viable models of service delivery are too easily dismissed or, worse still, not even considered.
Public services are not the same as retail consumer services so the continuous talk about and desire to use markets as if all public services were like retail shopping can often be both mistaken and misplaced. The relationship between the supplier (both the professional and the delivery organisation) – and the user are different in so many ways including economic and power relationships. Most public services are usually (though increasingly not always) funded through taxation. Many have a wider public benefit beyond the benefits for individual service users. And some, of course, are about enforcing law and public norms – not the role of a supermarket!
When commissioning services, whether at local or national level, the public sector should always adopt a democratic approach involving service users, communities and staff. And it is vital to remember that commissioning should never simply be about procurement – so adopting a strategic commissioning approach should never exclude the use of in-house provision. Indeed, there is a case for assuming that ‘in house’ should be at least the benchmark default ‘option’, but at the same time recognising that specialist providers in the social and business sectors can be better for some services.
Indeed many specialist services can be best delivered in bespoke ways by local community and voluntary organisations – albeit that they require adequate funding. It is perfectly legitimate to support such solutions through grant aid rather than cumbersome and expensive contractual arrangements. This provides a significant opportunity for local authorities in particular to link their service commissioning and delivery to their democratic renewal and growth agendas.
As the politically driven trend towards more privatisation and outsourcing grows, there is, I believe, an urgent need to refocus minds on alternatives, especially those models which are based on democratic principles, are user and/or staff led and designed to maximise the public benefit. Specifically the public sector should support an expansion of services are based on co-operative principles and practices; and encourage co-design and co-production.
I would encourage trade unions, community groups and others to develop new models as much to oppose traditional outsourcing.
A fresh mindset, most particularly among local public leaders, has the potential to herald a renaissance, if not a democratic revolution in the delivery of truly public and community services.
I can only hope that there are, out there, public sector leaders from across the political spectrum, ready to respond – and even be revolutionaries!