Is outsourcing public services incompatible with open policymaking?

Rare sighting of a G4S security guard at the Olympics. Copyright: Press Association.

The G4S Olympics fiasco is only the latest example of what is now unavoidable – the conflict between two Government agendas, one for open public services and the other for open policymaking. Which of these two agendas wins out will decide the future of public services, perhaps irreversibly.

Over the past few months on this blog we’ve put forward the argument that policy should be made openly and wherever possible collaboratively with the people who are directly affected by it – in social policy this means the frontline providers of services and the people who use these services. As part of its recent civil service reform plan, the Government has committed itself to ‘open policymaking’, whereby policy “should be developed through the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering it.” However significant – and we think it should be supported – in reality the open policy agenda is likely to mean little as a result of another Government programme, that for ‘open public services’.

Open public services is about opening-up the provision of more public services to any ‘qualified provider’. Outsourcing is then a critical part of the open public services agenda. In his speech in July 2011 at the launch of the Open Public Services White Paper, David Cameron set out a commitment to challenge the ‘presumption’ that the state should deliver services rather than the voluntary or private sector. Although outsourcing certainly did not begin under this government, we are now witnessing a massive expansion of the role of the private and voluntary sector across a range of services – from prisons, community health services, hospitals, probation services, policing to schools. According to the Economist contracts worth at least £80 billion are currently outsourced to private providers by national and local government, with this number expected to rise to around £140 billion by 2015.

To its proponents, outsourcing is a way to reduce costs, improve efficiency and increase innovation. Fiascos like G4S’s hiring practices aside, the public debate has not reflected the scale of the change that is currently taking place. More than this, outsourcing is now threatening to undermine the very publicness of public policy.

The current ‘closed-door’ approach to outsourcing, whereby details of the services including its performance and impact are hidden behind the cloak of contractual obligations and commercial sensitivities, undermines the openness of policy in public services. It reduces the ability of the general public to hold policy to account. It erodes transparency, ownership, control, accountability and impacts the responsiveness of services to the users and communities they are meant to serve.

As a consequence, this approach to outsourcing also makes for poor policy. Transparency and openness are critical to ensure that policy is tested and evaluated robustly. Put simply, if policy is not held to account then it does not improve. At Guerilla Policy, we’ve been considering how open policymaking could improve public services. We’ve argued that social policy would be better if it was opened up to wider participation by those who use and provide public services. Scrutiny isn’t sufficient – but even effective scrutiny is now being undermined by outsourcing.

This issue – how our public services are commissioned, by whom and from whom, and how this relates to open policy and public accountability – will be a continuing focus on this blog, alongside our developing manifesto through which we hope to describe an alternative approach. At stake in this conflict between open public services and open policy is whether we continue to have ‘public services’ at all in any genuine sense, in the sense of publicly determined, publicly accountable, publicly responsible – if not necessarily always publicly provided – services for all.

We welcome your views.



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