Open Public Services – where are we after the reshuffle?

In posts over the past few weeks we’ve looked at the Government’s ‘open public services’ agenda, in particular the outsourcing of public services, and how this threatens to undermine another Government initiative, for ‘open policy making.’ The Prime Minister has reshuffled his Government so that it is focused more on “delivery” for the rest of this parliament – but at the cost of undermining the open public debate that it should be having on the future of our public services.

The open public services agenda involves outsourcing public services to the private sector (and to a lesser extent the voluntary sector). Unprecedented levels of outsourcing are taking place across prisons, probation services, policing, schools, welfare to work and the health service. Virgin Care now run children’s health services in Devon for instance. The Economist magazine has predicted that £58 billion of public services will be outsourced by 2015 as part of this agenda, on top of the £82 billion already outsourced (according to Oxford Economics). And yet – as illustrated recently by the failure of G4S and increasing concerns over outsourcing police services – the Government doesn’t seem to want a public debate over its plans, despite its apparent commitment to open policymaking. Why not, if open public services are as popular as it claims?

The recent furore over the role of G4S and its £283 million contract to provide security staff to the Olympics has placed the outsourcing agenda firmly in the spotlight. G4S were forced to admit just weeks before the start of the Olympics that they would only be able to provide 7,800 of the required 10,400 guards, which resulted in the army being called in to the fill the gap. G4S has claimed that it will take a £50 million hit from their failure to meet the requirements of the contract – but we don’t know yet what its failure cost the taxpayer. Nick Buckles, G4S Chief Executive, is due to appear again before the Home Affairs Select Committee in the next couple of weeks as part of its inquiry into the scandal.

Philip Hammond admitted in an interview with the Independent that in light of the experience of G4S that we can’t always rely on the private sector. In particular he questioned the ‘lean model’ that G4S and other private providers such as Serco use, which has been adapted from manufacturing. Parts of the outsourcing industry uses a ‘just in time’ approach, which in the case of G4S meant that they planned to recruit, train and manage a new workforce that they would build from scratch weeks before the start of the Games. G4S didn’t bring existing capacity to the Olympics contract, rather they ‘sold’ their ability to recruit, train and manage a large workforce in an efficient way in a short space of time. The just in time approach is well established in the manufacturing sector, but there are legitimate questions about its suitability for parts of outsourced public services, something we will look at in a subsequent post.

Hammond and other ministers have acknowledged, at least when pressed in interviews, that the G4S debacle should  make us pause and consider the limits of outsourcing, but these statements have sounded like deflections rather than the start of a genuine and transparent debate about the role of outsourcing in public services. It seems that this debate has already been concluded – just without the public. Theresa May confirmed last week that police forces should press head with their plans to outsource more of their services into the hands of the private sector. Three police forces – in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire – are considering outsourcing more than 1,000 jobs in IT and human resources to G4S. May also ruled out a review of the £1billion contracts that G4S has with the public sector to run prisons, welfare to work and tagging of criminals arguing that the Olympics contract was ‘rather different’ from G4S’s ‘day in, day out’ public sector work.

This reluctance to engage in a public debate is also having a curious knock-on effect on some of the Government’s other initiatives to make public services more accountable. For example, most people in England and Wales will have the opportunity to go to the polls in November to elect a local Police and Crime Commissioner. The Economist reported last week that less than a fifth of voters are aware that there are elections for these roles or what the job of the commissioner involves. It is not surprising therefore to hear that the Electoral Reform Society’s prediction that only 18.5% of the electorate will actually make the journey to the polling station to vote, less than half the average turnout for local elections.

The quality of candidates for these posts has been criticized whilst the Government has also refused to fund an election address for candidates arguing that the internet, local and social media can fill the gap. The lack of public debate around these elections is a concern given the expected remit of these elected officials – Police and Crime Commissioners are clearly an idea that hasn’t caught on.

However, in the context of cuts and outsourcing, in many respects this lack of public engagement is in the Government’s interest – the main topics for debate will inevitably be the 20% cuts to policing budgets by 2015 and outsourcing more police services. Both of these are debates the Government would like to avoid given that the public remains unconvinced that cuts and outsourcing will lead to a more efficient and better quality police service, a view that is shared by many in the police force. Indeed, the outsourcing of public services has never been popular with the public. According to a recent YouGov survey for the Fabian Society, nearly two-thirds of people think that ‘services like health and education should not be run as businesses.’

Last week’s Cabinet reshuffle points to a ramping up of the open public services agenda with key proponents of this in Government bring promoted. The elevation of Chris Grayling to head up the Justice Ministry is a clear signal of the Government’s intention to expand the Work Programme model of outsourcing to revamp the much heralded ‘rehabilitation revolution’, whilst the promotion of Jeremy Hunt to Health Secretary points to an expansion of the private sector in the NHS. It seems like, whatever its promotion of open policy-making, there are some policy issues on which the Government is less interested in having an open debate.



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