In posts over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at the issues of accountability, transparency and reliability raised by the Government’s ‘open public services’ agenda, in particular its plans to outsource more public services. We’ve focused especially on how outsourcing threatens to undermine another recently announced Government initiative, that for ‘open policy making.’ In the absence of reliable and rigorous evidence for the benefits of outsourcing, why have so many think tanks continued to push outsourcing?
Some of the loudest cheerleaders for outsourcing have been in think tanks. In addition to conservative parts of the media, many think tanks have played an important role in promoting the ‘Whitehall consensus’ in favour of outsourcing – whatever the reality of outsourcing at the frontline for the people who use public services and the people who provide them.
The explanation for some think tanks ignoring the public and public service workers is that often think tanks consider them to be part of the problem. Starting in the 1970s, a group of commentators began to characterise organised frontline workers and service users as the underlying cause of the country’s problems. These commentators were often found in, or heavily informed, by right-wing think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies.
Their argument was that public sector workers and ‘interest groups’ (including people who benefit from services) in effect hold politicians to ransom until governments pay them off by spending more on services. This only serves to make these interests stronger and so turns the “collectivist ratchet” inexorably away from a free society and towards the big state. As a result, not listening to frontline workers (and ‘self-interested’ service users) became a matter of political principle – the only route to genuine reform in the public interest.
Another implication of this argument was that if the state couldn’t be slashed overnight (because interests in favour of the state were too strong), then private companies should at least be given a much greater role in delivering public services. This would produce more efficient and effective services. It would also reduce the power of public sector unions – and possibly pave the way for privatisation.
A related argument often made by some think tanks has been that public services are over-regulated – over-inspected, over-measured, and over-directed. Combined with outsourcing, in practice this means that private companies taking over the running of public services should expect less close inspection than used to be the case with the public bodies that previously ran services (although the same commentators are largely quiet when it comes to addressing failures of ‘light-touch inspection’ such as Winterbourne View).
It’s not surprising that right-wing think tanks pushed this argument – it’s their job to promote their particular ideology and they do it unashamedly. What’s more surprising is that supposedly progressive left-of-centre organisations have also promoted the Whitehall consensus in favour of outsourcing and less regulation – or as they prefer to put it, for more ‘diversified provision’ and greater ‘innovation’. The question is why – and why they have often seemed so uninterested in asking the more fundamental question as to whether outsourcing improves the quality or efficiency of public services, especially from the point of view of the people who use and pay for these services.
Think tanks often present themselves as fiercely independent – as ‘intellectual outriders’ that are prepared to ‘think the unthinkable’. In reality, think tanks also need to pay the bills, and outsourcing interests often have deep pockets. This is the time of year when think tanks promote their party conference events. Sponsors of think tank events at last year’s party conferences with a direct interest in outsourcing included PwC, Vertex, Pearson, Careers Development Group, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, Sodexo, Avanta, Manpower, Working Links, Deloitte, KPMG, and G4S.
Most of the time, government feigns ignorance regarding the potential influence of these interests. Last week however, the Department of Health dismissed a paper written by Conservative MP John Redwood for the Centre for Policy Studies as “misleading and inaccurate” in part because of “influence” (unspecified) by Partnership Assurance – “an insurance provider known to be critical of a cap on care costs” (in his paper, Redwood had called on the Government to abandon proposals by the economist Andrew Dilnot to cap the costs of elderly social care).
It’s ironic of course that the Government dismissed the Centre for Policy Studies’ argument for the same reason that the CPS has consistently used for dismissing the views of public sector workers and service users – that of narrow ‘self-interest’ at the expense of genuine public interest. Applying the same logic would mean that government should ignore the arguments made by many think tanks when it comes to outsourcing public services. Should it – and will it?
Rail privatisation offers a warning from history for the Government’s ‘open public services’ agenda to outsource more public services. In our previous post we suggested that rail privatisation has never been wholly accepted because the Major Government overlooked the essential ‘publicness’ of the railways. In this post we identify five specific damaging consequences of rail privatisation that should cause the current Government to consider much more carefully how it approaches outsourcing or risk repeating the same mistakes in other public services.
1. Expectations of greater efficiency from privatisation have not been realized
One of the principal expectations from privatisation was that the railways could be delivered more efficiently in the private sector because of the motive to generate profits. British Rail was already pretty lean following a cost cutting exercise in the 1980s, and in fact the opposite has occurred. The unit cost of the privatised rail industry is significantly higher than that of British Rail because economies of scale have been lost and the complexity of the industry has thrown up new costs. The public subsidy to the industry is considerably higher than it ever was for British Rail.
Chris Grayling when he was Shadow Transport Minister admitted that the way privatisation was organised “…helped push up the cost of running the railways – and hence fares – and is now slowing decisions about capacity improvements. Too many people and organisations are now involved in getting things done – so nothing happens. As a result, the industry lacks clarity about who is in charge and accountable for decisions.”
2. The rail industry has coalesced around a small group of large private sector providers who are (almost) too big to fail
The rail industry after privatisation was highly fragmented. This fragmentation has now been reduced but has resulted in a small group of private sector companies who now dominate the market. The complexity and scale of these contracts has skewed the market in favour of these large private providers who have the scale and deep coffers to absorb the risks associated with running a franchise.
Nonetheless, the narrowing of the market around this small group of providers is a risk. On three occasions, the state has had to step in and pick up the pieces because a company has pulled out of a franchise. The exit of Virgin Trains from the rail industry has further reduced the options available to government. Two of the recent new entrants to the rail market have been the national train operators of the Netherlands and Germany who have been accused of profiteering to subsidize their domestic operations. Where will the new train operators come from if another company fails or is judged to offer a poor quality service?
3. The private sector has profiteered from parts of the rail industry
To many people, private profit shouldn’t have a place in an industry that receives a £4 billion subsidy from the public every year and where consumer choice is highly limited. But there’s profit and then there’s profiteering. One of the publicly neglected aspects of rail privatisation is that running a Rolling Stock Leasing Company (or ROSCO) is a very lucrative business. Three were created as part of the break-up of British Rail and all are now owned by a combination of banks and private equity. ROSCOs have found older rolling stock to be especially commercially attractive as they can continue to generate revenue for stock even after the construction costs would have been written off by British Rail. This has also helped to inflate the fares paid by customers.
The privatization of ROSCOs is another example of the public sector selling assets at below their fair market value. The National Audit Office in a 1998 report stated that the UK Government had not realised fair market value for the sale of these assets. Eversholts Leasing later HSBC Rail was sold for £518 million in February 1996 but a year later the business was sold on for £726 million, a gain of some 40 per cent over the sale price by the Department for Transport.
More generally, train operating companies own virtually nothing, hiring most of the assets required from Railtrack and ROSCOs whilst also contracting out areas such as onboard catering and cleaning services. For this reason, Baroness Vadera, when she was a special adviser to Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer, described the privatized passenger train operating companies as ‘thinly-capitalised equity profiteers of the worst kind’.
4. Privatisation led to a loss of skills and flexibility
The Hatfield disaster in October 2000 – caused by a broken rail as a result of faulty maintenance procedures – illustrated the loss of skills and flexibility from the rail industry as a result of privatisation. Railtrack, which had responsibility for rail infrastructure, had outsourced almost all of the maintenance and renewal of track. Outsourcing maintenance and renewal both removed flexibility (unless it was already included in a contract) and led to a drain of skills and knowhow from Railtrack. In the aftermath of the disaster, thousands of speed restrictions were imposed unnecessarily across the network because Railtrack did not have the expertise to know whether other parts of the track were also at risk of an immediate tragic failure. Railtrack was a disaster waiting to happen according to Christian Wolmar in his book On the Wrong Line: how ideology and incompetence wrecked Britain’s railways; the system it operated in was brittle and not designed to cope with sudden challenges. Hatfield sealed its demise and replacement by Network Rail, which has taken a different approach to maintenance by bringing some of this in-house again.
5. The views of users and frontline staff were sidelined
British Rail argued that if it was to be privatised then the rail network should be privatised as one entity. Instead the Treasury, under the influence of the Adam Smith Institute, advocated for the creation of 25 passenger railways franchises as a way of maximizing revenue. The effect of this was to create a complicated system with over 100 different companies delivering bits of the rail system, which made it difficult for the views of users and practitioners to be heard. Passengers were unclear on who was responsible for what or who to direct their questions or complaints to. Public accountability suffered as a result.
The views of passengers have also been neglected in franchise decisions. Passenger satisfaction targets in franchise agreements don’t carry sufficient clout. According to Passenger Focus, only 42 per cent of rail passengers are satisfied with value for money, yet increases in rail fares have continued this year despite the concerns raised by passengers. Given the amount of public money invested in the rail industry last year, as well as the cost of fares, surely the views of passengers should be at the forefront of rail policy?
The nationally-owned British Rail was far from perfect, but most people think that rail privatisation has been a relative disaster for the reasons discussed here. Rail privatisation represents a warning from history for a Government that seems intent on outsourcing more of our public services – will it learn the lessons?
It’s been almost twenty years since John Major’s Government privatised British Rail, but unlike some other sell-offs the issue of who owns and runs our railways continues to attract widespread public controversy. In recent posts we’ve been looking at the tensions between the Government’s ‘open public services’ agenda for outsourcing and its ‘open policy’ agenda for greater transparency. In this post we suggest that rail privatisation has never been wholly accepted because the Major Government overlooked the essential publicness of the railways – a warning from history for the current Government’s attempts to outsource much of our public services.
Rail privatization is back in the news again with the announcement that Virgin Trains lost out to FirstGroup in its bid to continue to manage the West Coast mainline, a contract that Virgin has held since 1997. Richard Branson quickly offered up a withering criticism of the way the Department for Transport conducts its franchising arrangements for new passenger train operating companies (or TOCs). Branson has threatened that Virgin will walk away from the railway market for good, having spent £60 million on four thwarted bids, because (it says) it won’t play the game of offering up unrealistic performance targets to win business. Of course, this could just be regarded as sour grapes – but Branson is usually too savvy to let a knock-back make him seem like a bad loser. Rather, it’s best to assume he means it, and that his criticisms of the franchising process are heartfelt and somewhat accurate. If this is the case, how did we reach this point where Britain’s best-known businessman expresses so little confidence in what was supposed to be such a flagship privatization policy?
The 1993 Railways Act privatized the rail network. British Rail was broken up into over 100 different companies, with the complete separation of infrastructure (track, rolling stock, stations and signaling) from passenger train services. The latter were broken up into 25 different franchises (or contracts) leased to private sector passenger train operating companies. The number of franchises has subsequently been reduced, with a small group of private companies now dominating the market, including the likes of FirstGroup and the national rail companies of Germany (Deutsche Bahn) and the Netherlands.
Rolling stock, meanwhile, was transferred to three Rolling Stock Leasing Companies (ROSCOs), who were privatized and sold to private equity investors and banks including Abbey and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Rail infrastructure was transferred to Railtrack, which outsourced all maintenance and renewal to private contractors. Railtrack was quickly privatized in 1996 to prevent the unwinding of railway privatization by the incoming Labour administration. After the Hatfield rail disaster, Railtrack was sold to Network Rail and, remarkably, its current legal status is unclear with disagreement as to whether it is a public or private body. Franchising was also outsourced but was eventually brought back into the Department for Transport given the political sensitivities over the railways.
Proponents of rail privatization claimed it would improve quality and efficiency. While there are more trains on the network and there have been some improvements in safety, there have also been many downsides to privatization. There has been a significant rise in unregulated fares – particularly walk on tickets bought in stations or on trains. Costs have risen, since rolling stock is now leased from ROSCOs and construction costs would have previously been written off by British Rail. The unit costs of the privatized industry have risen significantly as the various train operating companies are not able to realize the economies of scale available to the previously national network. The complex nature of the industry has also watered down accountability and confused the general public (and no doubt often policymakers as well).
The numbers of passengers on the railways has also increased significantly but the start of this can be traced back prior to privatization. Factors such as the cost of petrol and increased road congestion could also help to explain this rise. Nonetheless, the public subsidy to the rail network has increased to about £4 billion in 2010/11 – down from a high of £6.5 billion in 2006/07 but far higher than what was given to the sector under public ownership. The effect of this has been to place an even greater burden on profitable routes such as the East and West Coast mainlines to return a significant dividend for the taxpayer – hence the reason perhaps that the Department of Transport has put so much faith in the highest bidders for these routes.
This faith hasn’t always been realized. Two operating companies, GNER and National Express, have handed back the East Coast franchise because they were not able to service the expected payment targets. Both providers over promised in order to win the franchise and ran into financial difficulties trying to deliver their plans. The result has been a legacy of under investment and cost cutting – which of course has ultimately cost passengers.
Richard Branson argues that the selection of the new franchisee for the West Coast mainline shows that the Department for Transport has not learnt the lessons from previous failures. The short-term political desire for a good headline has over-ridden the long-term interests of the network – and the concerns and opinions of rail users, despite active representation from passenger groups. But the broader lesson from this ill-conceived and rushed policy might be that some services need to be properly publicly accountable, even if not every aspect of them is delivered by the state. Does the current government understand the essential publicness of our public services?
Olympics over (at least until the Paralympics start), we can get back to where we were – wondering how G4S cocked up so badly providing security for the Games, and what it might mean for outsourcing and social policy. The Olympics have provided a stark contrast between the performance of companies like G4S and the thousands of volunteers and public sector workers who made the Games happen – something to remember when it comes to who we trust to deliver public services.
The biggest cheer at the closing ceremony was undoubtedly for the volunteers. An astonishing four million people applied to be volunteer ‘Games Makers‘, and 70,000 were chosen. Spectators’ and tourists’ experience of their help and hospitality seems to have been almost universally positive (volunteers’ own stories seem to have been equally good).
Then there’s the behind-the-scenes public sector workers – the planners, highways staff, events and civil emergency teams, social workers and others who supported the Games, often on top of their regular responsibilities. Comments on the Daily Telegraph’s site might regularly refer to public sector workers as “parasites” and “scum”, but when it comes to delivering for the nation it seems that the public sector still has its uses and some forms of ‘public investment’ are okay.
This is not private sector-bashing; many businesses and sponsors also made the Games happen. The National Lottery also played a crucial role in the Games’ success, through its investment into hosting the Games themselves, as well as into the success of Team GB’s athletes. But the G4S experience shouldn’t be forgotten. It points to at least three important issues in outsourcing.
The first is about trust. On our behalf, the Government trusted G4S to deliver and the company failed. Thankfully there were no major security incidents, thanks to the thousands of public sector workers in the form of the police and army who stepped into the breach at the last minute. What we need to know now is whether this failure relates specifically to G4S or not. If G4S is a particularly poorly managed company that can’t be trusted, its performance in delivering so many other contracts also needs to be reviewed. Alternatively, if as G4S and others have seemed to suggest, the Government made major mistakes in how it commissioned and oversaw its contract, then the issue is much broader – it’s about whether outsourcing at this scale can ever be trusted.
The second is about openness. G4S’s clumsy and surely counter-productive ‘donation’ of £2.5 million to the armed forces shouldn’t succeed in obscuring these issues, rather it raises more questions. We will only find out the answers if we can see the contract that G4S was given, and in particular how the company will ever be held accountable. How many security staff did G4S (2011 revenues of £7.52 billion) actually deliver? What penalty clauses are there for its non-delivery? How much will it paid for what it did manage to do – and how much will it (properly) recompense the public sector for the additional costs that it (we) had to cover?
The third is about what we value and what motivates us. Some commentators (and ministers) have claimed that the Games reflected the Big Society. The Games Makers in particular demonstrated that people are prepared to volunteer in huge numbers. This doesn’t mean we can deliver public services on the backs of volunteers, but it does suggest there is a vast and often neglected commitment that could be harnessed to improve society. Even The Economist magazine (a consistent advocate of outsourcing) noted last week that volunteering has gone up during the recession – not because of the Big Society but because people care about their local services and communities and so are more motivated to ‘save’ them when their budgets are being cut. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony (also largely a volunteer army) might have been “multicultural crap” to reactionary misanthropes, but the reason it moved the rest of us is that it reminded us of social achievements driven by a commitment to collective good rather than private benefit.
How many of the Games Makers would have turned up if their job was to save G4S’s neck? The latter might not have offered much pay, but the former weren’t offered anything – beyond the opportunity to be part of something that matters, to make a contribution to a national moment. The Big Society (by whatever name you want to call it) won’t happen if people feel they are being asked to take the place of public services that they’ve already paid for, especially if large outsourcing companies are getting paid at the same time. Perhaps it wasn’t coincidence that while we were distracted by the Olympics, it was ‘leaked’ that the Government is set to give the contract to manage the National Citizen Service to Serco (2011 revenues of £4.64 billion). Put to one side the question of why volunteering – something that charities do all the time – requires a for-profit outsourcing company to manage it. The G4S fiasco suggests we should make sure the penalty clause is so strong – and so transparent – that we won’t have to rely on Serco’s sense of ‘charity’ if and when it fails to deliver.