In this post our guest blogger Jane Mansour showcases the Family Independence Initiative in Boston, Massachusetts. The project is a good example of the principles of ‘guerilla policy’ in action. Jane is an expert and consultant in international welfare to work and the commissioning and funding of public services. She blogs regularly at Buying QP. Thanks to Jane for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.
The argument for the benefits of user and staff involvement in policy making is considerably strengthened by numerous example of projects that have been successfully designed and delivered using this blueprint. These range from actual projects – of which FII discussed below is a great example – to the use of a crowdsourcing approach to gather solutions for identified and specific local needs. These raise questions about the extent to which this approach is scaleable, and how this can be done without losing what made them work in the first place.
This week I met Jésus Gerena, the Boston Director of the Family Independence Initiative (FII). FII families create support networks in their own communities rather than accessing help through a key-worker or institution. As an organisation it has impressive results – in the first six months of operation participating families in the Boston wing of the programme saw their incomes rise by an average of 13% and their savings by 22%. These statistics and many others covering family finances, schooling (both adults and children) and health and activities are compiled monthly. The data is actively uploaded by the participating families themselves. They are paid for this, and for leading, counselling and facilitating the monthly groups they attend. These payments total in the region of $2000 a year per family.
The FII was the brainchild of Maurice Lim Miller; he was honoured this week by the MacArthur Foundation with a ‘genius award’ which carries with it a grant for $500,000. It works by not helping people in poverty. No, that was not a typo. The FII do not help, staff can be (and have been) fired for doing so. What the FII does do is provide an environment in which people have opportunities to succeed. Families work together to problem solve, record their gains and losses and have access to resources should they need them.
There are the three fundamental values that underpin the organisation’s approach. Firstly, the families are in control. Secondly, there is a formal feedback loop consisting of monthly and quarterly meetings and data collecting providing peer accountability. The process of recording information in and of itself, impacts positively on behaviour. Lastly there is access to resources to move forward. These resources are often in the form of matching or doubling the contributions participants make towards education, housing or business goals, but they can also be used to meet urgent practical needs (eg. a car or dental work).
Listening to Gerena’s passion for the FII approach, it is difficult not to get excited about it, about the way that this organisation is not only challenging much of the way that social policy has been cast, but is succeeding in doing so. The scaleability of successful but reasonably small projects is fraught with difficulty. The world of public policy is littered with examples of innovative projects that are hailed, placed in the spotlight, enlarged and ‘replicated’, but that then fail to deliver on the bigger stage. This is then followed by a blame game that often focuses on delivery, sometimes on commissioning, occasionally on design.
In two years the Boston operation has grown from 35 to 200 families. Gerena thinks there is the potential to continue expanding to 1000 families but, and it is an important but, this expansion needs to happen organically through families introducing themselves and others – a combination of ‘core catalyst families’ and ‘ripple families’. Scaling up fails when the guiding values behind success are confused within the method in which they are delivered, when the ‘how’ is mistaken for the ‘why’.
There are broader public policy lessons to be learned from the work being done by FII. These are not that welfare savings can come from the wholesale removal of frontline staff, or that bids to deliver programmes should need to be scored on how often the words ‘family’ or ‘social capital’ occur, or that a new New Deal for Communities is the answer. The lessons are far more challenging than simply producing a shiny new programme.
Miller has written a brief paper identifying the changes he thinks necessary for substantial change in the outcomes for low-income families. It’s worth reading in full. His final call to action identifies four changes that need to happen:
“1. We need to more accurately communicate the resourcefulness, capacity, and caring that is the true picture of lower income families and communities
2. Funders must allow for program approaches that provide help based on family and community initiative and strengths
3. Policy makers, funders and leaders must seek direct feedback from the consumers of programs they create and respond to that feedback
4. The target families must self organize and advocate for themselves and their communities”
As I sat in the FII office, it was striking that there are clear echoes in the UK – in terms of approach, positive outcomes, frustrations with the system, but also in the difficulty in capturing the wins and replicating them either regionally or nationally. Successful, sustainable ideas are evident in individual programmes but somehow the key to why they work gets lost in translation when ‘reform’ or scaling up occurs. Why is it that successful local programmes so often fail on the big stage? To what degree would this failure be mitigated by taking a different approach to both entrenched social issues and institutional frameworks? What impact would the following considerations have on policy design?
Long vs short-term investment: FII is aimed at the working poor – those who are increasingly ineligible for state safety nets, face significant marginal tax rates on any additional earnings and are in real danger of sliding back into poverty (cycling between work and benefits). It relies on the safety nets being there, it is an extension of benefits rather than a replacement for them – any savings to the welfare budget will only be felt in the long-term as people move up the income ladder. When the focus is on cutting spending rather than raising revenue, and results are needed quickly the long-term nature of many interventions is overlooked.
Look for ‘A Duh’ rather than ‘A Ha’ moments (Gerena’s phrase). There is a tendency to look for exciting, new, revolutionary change but often small, practical, simple and obvious opportunities are overlooked. Users and staff are the key to understanding what these are.
It requires a significant power shift to trust in people to make decisions about their own lives, find their own support network and provide the resource to enable them to make positive changes. What could this look like and how can it be supported by the state?
The need to end funding silos for people with multiple needs has been much discussed. The introduction of the Universal Credit in the UK aims to streamline benefits. The focus is on simplifying the benefits people receive rather than on the way they live and how services they interact with are funded and delivered. Bringing funds for the latter into one pot (universal support?) would have a very different impact.
What and how do incentives work for middle and high earners? Can the rewards for initiative they receive be extended to benefit claimants and those on low incomes? Skills policy and funding is an area that immediately springs to mind.
Feedback and data are both vitally important and often overlooked. This involves a change in perspective, from the compilation of simplistic league tables of outcomes towards rich seam data mining of the information gathered on the journeys of individuals as they bounce around the system.
There has been a tendency in policy design in the UK and elsewhere to believe that successful programmes will only come from providing more intensive external support. The experience of FII is that the ongoing cycling between work and benefits can be prevented through the creation of long-lasting social structures and support networks, underpinned by feedback and resources. The challenge is in reproducing co-operative policy making and delivery on a regional or national stage.
 These outcomes have improved over time and the experience of the two Californian programmes is of an income increase of 20%.
 These sums are not included in the increased income calculations
The West Coast mainline franchising fiasco shows that the current approach to outsourcing public services has serious flaws that need to be addressed – the much too complicated and secretive nature of outsourcing is the problem, rather than the people handling the process.
Last week Patrick McLoughlin, the new Transport Secretary, cancelled the West Coast Mainline franchise deal. The Department for Transport has been on a damage limitation exercise ever since, with McLoughlin blaming the fiasco on officials at the DfT “because of deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes made by my department in the way it managed the process”. Philip Rutnam, the Permanent Secretary at DfT, has also joined in telling staff that they must accept that the reversal was the fault of officials. Meanwhile, Kate Mingay, one of the three officials suspended by DfT (an ex-Goldman Sachs employee parachuted into the civil service because of her private sector expertise) has hit out at the way her role in the procurement has been portrayed by the Department.
Blaming officials is an easy way to distract from the substantive story: whether the current approach to franchising used by the DfT is fundamentally flawed. The Department argues that mistakes were made from the way the level of risk in the bids was evaluated due to human error – in particular the way in which inflation and passenger numbers were taken into account, and how much money bidders were then asked to guarantee as a result. But the assumptions about inflation and passenger numbers are dependent on the state of the UK and global economy and the ability of the future franchisee to bring in new customers. Colin Cram, writing for the Public Leaders Network, argues that: “…this enters the realms of guesswork and slight changes in assumptions can lead to different outcomes for contracts that may be for only three or four years, let alone 13.” If the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility continues to get its predictions on economic growth significantly wrong, how can we expect the assumptions made in the rail franchising process to be watertight?
This is not the first time that assumptions about economic growth and customer numbers has gone wrong, for example the previous experiences with the East Coast mainline or in the commissioning of welfare to work services. The Work Programme was designed for a far more positive economic climate than we now find ourselves in. DWP’s estimates of the number of customers in receipt of Employment Support Allowance have proven to be wholly unrealistic, with serious consequences for the business models of prime contractors and charities.
The risks associated with complex procurement processes such as the rail franchise are compounded by the secretive nature by which they are often conducted, behind a veil of ‘commercial in confidence’. As we’ve argued before, this ‘closed shop’ approach leads to poor decisions and a profound lack of public engagement – until something goes horribly wrong. The complexity involved also means a significant diversion of resources into the process of franchising rather than actual delivery of services. Franchising might work however if the process was more transparent and the assumptions about passenger numbers (and any other projections) were open to rigorous scrutiny by others outside of the process – so why isn’t it?
The West Coast fiasco has much wider implications that the policy establishment probably doesn’t want the public to consider. Cheryl Gillan, the former Conservative Welsh Secretary, has argued that a root and branch re-examination of the High Speed 2 rail project is needed if the public is to have trust in such a significant investment of public resources. Instead, plans for competition and outsourcing are being accelerated in prisons, probation services and health. In this context, the secretive, complex and bureaucratic nature of outsourcing needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. If the public is going to be on board, then a public debate is needed on the merits and risks of delivering services in this way – which surely is what the Government’s open policy should be all about.
Fundamentally, the political establishment doesn’t engage the public in a debate about the merits of rail franchising because the public doesn’t support the idea. This ‘outsourcing by stealth’ approach wins neither hearts nor minds. Various surveys continue to show a strong majority of public opinion in favour of re-nationalising the railways – one recent survey found that 70% of respondents supported such a move. Impossible? New Zealand provides an example of such a policy put into action. Its rail and ferry network was privatised in the 1990s and asset-stripped and run down by an Australian outfit. It re-nationalised both in 2009. Michael Cullen, the then Finance Minister said privatization had “been a painful lesson for New Zealand”. Kiwi Rail in public hands has been able to invest in its long-term future whilst also generating significant financial and economic benefits for taxpayers in New Zealand.
Here, despite the strong public preference for a nationalised rail network, none of the three main political parties are committed to such a policy. At last week’s Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband and Maria Eagle made positive noises in this direction but no firm commitments. So we are left with an unpopular, risk-laden, fragmented rail network – and the policy establishment searching around for scapegoats when they should be looking somewhat closer to home.
Is consultation broken – or is it our political system? Consultation seems to have become the lightening rod for general discontents about politics and policymaking. Let’s improve consultation – but let’s also rethink how we do policy and politics at the same time.
In the Open Policy project with the Democratic Society in association with the Cabinet Office, we’re exploring what ‘open policymaking’ means in practice, and how we make it effective and democratic. But we’re starting the project in consultation – what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be improved.
A widely held view of consultation is that it is a sop – an exercise that governments are legally required to undertake but which rarely changes policies that have already been decided. This might be both broadly true and largely unfair. Consultation is only one mechanism, one particular stage in the policy process; it was never intended as the sole mechanism for engaging ‘the public’, let alone to ensure that policies have a democratic mandate that other parts of the political process have failed to invest in them.
In our previous post for this project we suggested how open policy represents a challenge to consultation. For us, taken to its logical conclusion (to its greatest openness), ‘open policy’ means we need to develop a radically different approach to policy and research. In terms of social policy, this means developing approaches that enable public service practitioners and services users to conduct and engage in research and policy analysis directly. These groups are at the frontline of public services and social issues, and as a result they have practical expertise and experience that could be used to improve social policy, especially to make policy more credible and pragmatic.
Where does this leave today’s approach to consultation? Consultations are often about what government intends to do. It hardly makes sense to complain when government does what it said it intended to (indeed, we commonly criticize government for the opposite). In the case of particularly contentious policies or those that haven’t been sufficiently publicly debated, consultation will never be able to resolve the perceived lack of a public mandate.
As a thought experiment, just imagine a consultation process that was much more ‘open’ – one whereby policy did change dramatically compared to what was originally proposed. The problem immediately becomes apparent: government could in theory find itself in an endless ‘consultation loop’, with each new stage of consultation radically changing the policy in question, to the extent that a new round of consultation would be required to accompany it. Government would never get anything done, and quite rightly this would generate accusations of endless ‘dithering’ and ‘u-turns’ – of being in office but not in power.
In recognition of the devalued nature of consultations and possibly the ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner in which too many consultations are approached, the Government has announced it is moving to a more “proportionate and targeted approach” (this announcement produced what is perhaps the least thrilling headline ever on the BBC News website). The new guidelines recognise the need to “avoid creating unrealistic expectations” by making it clear where policy has been finalised and will not be subject to change as a result of the consultation. This makes sense – much of the criticism directed at consultations stems from unrealistic or inaccurate expectations among respondents. The guidance recommends instead that the objectives of any consultation should be clear, and depend to a great extent on the type of issue and the stage in the policy-making process.
However, the new guidance also risks replicating the current confusion about consultation by advising that: “Engagement should begin early in policy development when the policy is still under consideration and views can genuinely be taken into account.” From a democratic point of view this is unarguable – but the problem is that consultation can’t hope to meet these aspirations. ‘Public consultations’ in most cases aren’t – they don’t reach the public or garner many responses from them. They also aren’t really a form of deliberation; they’re not about policy formulation, rather they are more commonly about policy adjustment. Why be cynical about what should be obvious? Government sometimes makes the mistake of trying to appear as if it is engaged in open policy formulation when it isn’t, but we don’t have to collude in this and then blame government when this turns out not to be the case.
We need new forms of participation for early policy development, and for research, evidence-gathering and analysis. This isn’t and can never be the job of consultation. Unless we create a much clearer distinction between consulting on policies that government intends to enact, and developing new policy agendas where government isn’t sure what should be done, we will see much more of what we call ‘guerilla policy’ – grassroots policy research and development that people and organisations do for themselves without being given ‘permission’ by the policy establishment. There have always been campaigns and protests of course; what’s different now is that people can mobilise, coordinate and share information so much more quickly – including to overturn official policy (or at least severely undermine its credibility). We happen to think that we need more guerilla policy – but we recognise that government might not.
What’s important about this project is that it encompasses how we can improve consultations today, but also how we can develop radical new forms of engagement in policy tomorrow. The extent of the crisis in democratic legitimacy suggests we need to do both. Sorting out which is which will be crucial to our work. So in the spirit of the exercise, let us know your view – are there aspects of consultation we should retain, or does ‘open policy’ require us to start again with a blank sheet of paper? Comment on this site or on the Open Policy forum for open policymaking and better consultation.
Christopher Hitchens used to evaluate the credibility of any person or organisation by their willingness to cite ‘evidence against interests’, that is, to acknowledge facts that are contrary to their own position. It’s a good test – and one that many policymakers, commentators and think tanks would fail regularly. With this in mind, we should challenge our own view that social policy would be better if it was informed by the people who use and provide public services – after all, doesn’t the Hillsborough cover-up show that we can’t trust bodies such as the police not to put their own interests before the public interest?
We’ve argued previously against the view, promoted in particular by right-wing think tanks and commentators but implicitly taken up by much of thinktankland, that public sector workers and ‘user groups’ need to be largely ignored in policy development because they are inevitably self-interested and self-serving. Our view is that social policy would be better if it was informed by the expertise, experience and insight from the frontline.
In the case of Hillsborough, as the publication last week of the report of the Independent Panel confirmed, the police engaged in an extensive and coordinated cover-up of the truth. This went all the way to the top of the South Yorkshire Police. Chief Constable Peter Wright authorised the alteration of police statements to delete words like ‘chaos’, ‘fear’, and ‘confusion’ in criticism of the police operation, in order to enable the police and others to blame Liverpool supporters for the disaster. 164 police statements were altered in the wake of the disaster, and 116 of these received substantial changes to remove comments “unhelpful to the force’s case.”
The coroner also took blood alcohol levels from all of the deceased, including children, to try to draw a link between the late arrival of fans and heavy drinking. Perhaps most sickeningly of all, police officers carried out computer checks on those who had died in an attempt to impugn their reputations. As one comment on the Liverpool Echo‘s website asked last week: “How could such a cover up have happened? So many different authorities getting away with lies. And to get away with it for so long is simply astonishing. They must know the hurt and the pain that they have caused for so long. And still they continued to hide behind the lies, carrying on with their own lives and careers.”
This type of behaviour is not confined to the police of course. NHS staff have abused and neglected patients, and hospitals have tried to cover it up and threaten whistle blowers. Charities have mistreated and ignored the vulnerable adults and children they claim to care for. Public sector trade unions have bullied their own members and failed to represent their real views and interests; they have also stopped managers from dealing with poorly performing employees or from improving services for the public. Given this, why should we listen to the people who provide services? Won’t they always represent their own interests first?
The problem is institutions, not individuals. There will always be some people who act badly and harm others, including inevitably in public services. But only badly led and managed organisations can effectively legitimize such behaviour and try to silence those who challenge it. When we argue that the people who provide public services should have a greater role in policy, we don’t mean a stronger role for those organisations such as large charities or trade unions that can already promote their views to policymakers, rather we’re talking about the individuals on the frontline who are ignored not only by policymakers but also sometimes by the organisations that claim to represent them.
Could the Hillsborough cover-up ever happen again? Some columnists have suggested that the ‘forensic transparency’ now offered by mobile phones and Twitter would make it much more difficult and that there is a danger of over-reacting to scandals such as the Hillsborough cover-up by not trusting any public institutions. But the best mainstream media article of the week for me was by Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph, who recognised the broader implications:
“Over the years, the police have been one British institution that has proudly stood comparison with the very best in the world: unarmed (though less so than they used to be), impartial, independent and largely incorruptible. Perhaps that was always a naive caricature; but it was a view so deeply ingrained in our national psyche that we were unwilling to give credence to powerful evidence that suggested otherwise. However, it was not only the police who let down the Hillsborough families: the very institutions that most of us trust to get to the bottom of things – the courts, the media and Parliament – were all culpable.”
This is perhaps a rather middle class view – many working class communities have always had a less trusting view of the police – but it’s a strange week when the Guardian tells us to ‘go easy’ on the establishment and the Telegraph reminds us to be ever-watchful of those in power.
Surely the Hillsborough cover-up demonstrates that policy can’t be left to the establishment – that arrogance and remoteness breeds bad policy and leads to tragedy (as Daniel Taylor argued in the Observer yesterday). It reinforces the importance of the individuals who provide public services having a much greater voice in policy, so that they can speak freely and honestly outside of institutional interests and constraints.
Perhaps what’s most frightening about institutional power is not its ability to make evil decisions but its collective capacity for ignorance regarding of the effects of those decisions. The answer to the question from the commentator on the Liverpool Echo site is that such ignorance comes most easily to those remain safely distant from the consequences – another reason why we should listen more closely to those at the frontline, both service users and providers, rather than the policy establishment. As C. S. Lewis wrote:
“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of Admin. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid dens of crime that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see the final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”
We have a new secretary of state for health – but not apparently a new policy for health, or a change in the way that health policy is made. The way to improve the NHS is apparently the same as it was before Andrew Lansley was sacked – more outsourcing and competition. Jeremy Hunt has been appointed to implement this policy by being a ‘better communicator.’ But the Government’s reforms are unpopular not because of how they have been presented, but because of how the policy was developed – including the fact that no-one voted for them.
Under Any Qualified Provider, private health providers are likely to profit because, in contrast to existing NHS services, they can offer worse terms and conditions for staff, they will not be subject to the same regulations of transparency and accountability as NHS providers or bound by the same financial regime. AQP is a not about establishing a ‘level playing field’, or even about extending proper choice (since patients will not be told who owns providers including whether they are profit-making). Rather, it’s a programme to turn the NHS into a ‘trojan brand’ for private health provision, paid for by the public, while NHS providers lose income and some will have to close – so making the NHS as a whole less sustainable.
Whether you think these are the right reforms or not, they are not a popular because the public has never voted for them and haven’t been involved in developing them. These policies are not completely new of course – many of these ideas are shared across the main political parties, and this particular policy has already been applied in elective care. But this only reinforces the point. AQP is a classic example of the ‘Whitehall consensus’ – the shared view about the obvious rightness of outsourcing held by the policy establishment in the political parties, most Westminster-centric commentators and think tanks – that ignores what the majority of people who use and provide public services including the NHS actually think and want.
Andrew Lansley’s real problem was that he epitomized this approach to policy-making. The issue wasn’t his personal style or language, more that as a member of the Whitehall consensus he assumed that outsourcing is obviously better than ‘monopoly provision.’ It’s this that explains one of his most famous quotes, to nurses at a Royal College of Nursing conference, that: “I am sorry if what I’m setting out to do hasn’t communicated itself.” He thought the case for outsourcing was so obvious that he didn’t really understand why it had to be made at all.
As befits a former senior civil servant and head of the Conservative Research Department, Lansley’s approach reflected the way that policy wonks often approach public services. They seem to assume that institutions such as the NHS can be re-engineered according to blueprints, rather than respecting them as collective institutions with complex cultural as well as organisational histories. Hiring the like-minded (and self-interested) from management consultants such as McKinsey to sketch out massive structural changes reinforces this blinkered thinking, at the expense of any real world, practical engagement with improving how the health service operates, how patients are treated, and how resources are spent and saved.
In the name of greater efficiency, Lansley’s reforms have already wasted hundreds of millions of pounds and distracted health staff from the day-to-day business of improving services. But the point of hiring McKinsey is that they ‘get it’ – they share the view that the (lack of) evidence for outsourcing doesn’t need to be put before the people because they too assume that private provision must be better than public. This outsourcing of policy to the like-minded, even though they are likely to benefit from the policies they help to develop, is the same reason that parts of public health policy under Lansley were effectively outsourced to fast food companies.
This closed and cosy approach will continue as long as the political class is largely drawn from the same old PPE-think tank-commentator axis which pays the greatest respect to an elegant argument and a nicely designed slide deck, but which lacks any real experience of public services, or indeed any broader experience of life outside the Whitehall consensus. The lack of public engagement, and public mandate, for the Government’s health reforms further erodes public confidence and trust in policy-making. The greatest irony of all is that the reforms were supposed to be about devolving power and enabling shared decision-making between GPs and patients. At the heart of these policies, however, is a fundamental lack of accountability – at the level of some (privately-provided) individual services but also for the reforms as a whole.
What’s worrying about the appointment of Jeremy Hunt is not his lack of knowledge of health services – after all, Andrew Lansley held the health brief for many years, and look what happened. It’s that in his time at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport he adopted a similar behind-the-scenes, and way-too-close, relationship with corporate interests against a loved and largely respected but inevitably imperfect public institution (in this case, the BBC). The NHS is still – just about – a public institution. Its future should be deliberated, developed and determined publicly.
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?
In the previous post, we started to consider whether outsourcing public services is incompatible with open policymaking. In this post, we look at the size of the public services industry and ask whether ‘economies of scale’ also means ‘too big to influence’.
If you’re a critic of outsourcing, G4S has made it easy for you recently. The company’s Olympic security fiasco underlines everything you believe: that superlarge private outsourcing companies like G4S are largely unaccountable, sometimes unreliable, and – given that they profit from providing public services – fundamentally unethical. To its proponents (and sometime apologists), the public services outsourcing industry promotes greater efficiency, effectiveness and innovation, and as the public scrutiny now on G4S illustrates, they are doubly accountable – to society as well as shareholders.
Our focus here is slightly different. Guerilla Policy is a proposal for a radical openness in how public policy is created, in particular that the people who use and provide public services should have a much greater role in proposing, researching, developing, implementing and reviewing the policy that impacts directly on their services and their lives. In an age of social networks and social media, we think this is entirely possible – if the will exists to make it a reality. We’re encouraged that the Government now seems to be thinking the same way. As part of its recent civil service reform plan, it has committed itself to ‘open policymaking’. Government says it believes that policymaking is often drawn from a too narrow range of views and is not designed for implementation. Instead, it wants to improve policy advice by creating opportunities for a wider range of views and expertise to inform its development.
But as we started to suggest in the previous post, in reality the open policy agenda might be marginalised as a result of the Government’s (perhaps stronger) attachment to so-called ‘open public services’ – the challenge to the ‘presumption’ that the state should deliver public services rather than the voluntary or private sector (promoted through various policies such as mutually-owned providers, the expansion of personal budgets beyond social care, the use of payment by results to reduce re-offending, and the Community Right to Challenge enacted through the Localism Act 2011).
Outsourcing has increased significantly in scale since the 1980s, but the bulk of public services are still provided ‘in-house’. The expansion of outsourcing has been uneven, with a much greater amount of external commissioning having taken place in waste services, transport, prisons, welfare to work and ‘back office’ services such as IT, HR and facilities management. In contrast, the penetration of private sector providers into policing, education and probation services has – up until now – been limited. The historical trend however is clear and seemingly unceasing, whichever party is in power.
When it presents its vision for open public services, the Government tends to highlight the smaller charitable providers that have developed progressive, innovative, ‘people-centred’ services and approaches. It doesn’t tend to showcase the likes of Serco, Capita or Ingeus Deloitte. And yet these, more than any other providers, represent the reality of public service outsourcing today. In recent years, charities and voluntary sector organisations have seen a growth in income from contracts and fees from the public sector (to £12.8 billion per year, according to the NCVO), at the same time as grants have stagnated. However, this is still a relatively small proportion of the £82 billion in total spent on outsourcing by the public sector (according to Oxford Economics), and a smaller proportion still of total public sector procurement (of goods and services of all kinds) of £196 billion (all figures 2009/10). The Economist estimates that this £82 billion figure will increase to £140 billion by 2015.
What has been more dramatic is the growth of a small group of very large providers who have the scale to absorb the costs and risks associated with delivery of many contracts. Welfare to work is a case in point; the Work Programme is a £5 billion programme which is wholly outsourced to a group of large private sector ‘prime contractors’, with only one voluntary sector provider, CDG, delivering as a prime. A4e is a good example of a company that has emerged from nowhere in the 1990s to have an annual turnover of £215 million. The vast majority of its income comes from contracts to deliver welfare to work, skills, advice and probation services.
The increased reliance of government on this small group of increasingly powerful providers is well-illustrated by the G4S fiasco. And if such providers are ‘too big to fail’ – as the need for what is effectively another public sector bailout suggests (this time by police forces and the army) – then what does this suggest for the ability of ordinary people to influence such providers under open policy? If government struggles to hold such providers to account during the delivery (and indeed non-delivery) of contracts, how likely is it that we will be able to influence the way they deliver services, let alone the policies under which they provide them? The critics and proponents of outsourcing might be right to contest issues of transparency, accountability, efficiency and effectiveness when it comes to outsourcing. But as policy insiders themselves, these commentators also ignore the question that the scale of these providers poses for open policy: why should companies the size of G4S – the largest private security company and third largest private sector employer in the world – care what we think?