Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 26th October 2012)

We love public and voluntary service bloggers. At their best, they capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that Westminster-commentators can’t – and they have the real expertise and insights we need to improve social policy. Here’s our selection of the best frontline blogs we’ve read this week. Do send us your suggestions for great posts we’ve missed – and those frontline bloggers we should follow in the future.

Welfare

A4E? Who are they? What are they about?

From The Big Picture

Posted on 23rd October 2012

“What are A4E up to next? Well according to David Cameron they would make an ideal company, along with our old friends G4S, to become involved in the process of Rehabilitation… The scheme will see firms such as G4S and A4e, along with charities and voluntary groups, offered cash incentives to put offenders back on the straight and narrow. We already give these companies enough money, and now we’re going to give them more? Do they have a proven track record?”

Retired and Angry, retired from the Metropolitan Police Service, examines the recent history of A4E – and doesn’t much like what he finds.

Carers

If it works, break it

From Ned Ludd Carer

Posted on 24th October 2012

“Surely, if the carers and service users find these services valuable, that should count for a lot. But in the world of cuts, they don’t care what works, what’s valuable. They just want the overspend caused by their own unrealistically low budget reduced.”

Ned Ludd, carer, gets angry when ambushed by his local council’s plans to cut personally valuable “getting a life services”.

Social care

People with dementia need an independent voice

From The Age Page

Posted on 25th October 2012

“For a variety of reasons, most older people are unable to complain or express a view on the type and nature of care they need or want to receive. Worst of all perhaps, most are unable to influence the quality of service they have every right to expect or how or where to lodge complaints, if they have any.”

Sarah Reed reflects on the ambitions in the Government’s dementia strategy, and suggests this means we need to ensure that those who struggle to speak for themselves can be heard.

Education

This much I know about…an alternative to the English Baccalaureate Certificate

From John Tomsett

Posted on 21st October 2012

“If Jeremy Hunt announced a backward-looking reform to appendix operations which would be hugely invasive and leave patients in hospital for a fortnight (such as I experienced in 1977), the medical profession would deride him. Why aren’t we deriding Gove over his EBC proposals, which are the educational equivalent?”

Headteacher John Tomsett argues that educationalists need to begin an urgent campaign to provide an alternative to the Government’s proposals for an English Baccalaureate Certificate.

Things to know about ED Hirsch and the ‘Common Cultural Literacy’ idea

From Laura McInerney (@miss_mcinerney) writing on lkmco

Posted on 23rd October 2012

“ED Hirsch’s ‘Cultural Literacy’ has become quite popular in England this week due to him featuring on a Radio 4’s Analysis and also being the subject of a blog by Daisy Christodolou, Managing Director of The Curriculum Centre. Hirsch is the man who wrote the book ‘Cultural Literacy’ which he followed by creating ‘Core knowledge‘ an age-ordered curriculum with an emphasis on facts that, if taught correctly, he argues will give children the most important cultural knowledge. But to understand his work it helps to understand its American context, as the reason for his popularity in the States is really quite different to the way his ideas are being framed in the debate here in England.”

In this post Laura McInerny describes Hirsch’s model of ‘cultural literacy’ and its roots in the US – and questions how appropriate it is for the UK.

Policing

Re-offending – ‘Payment by results’ will not work

From Inspector Gadget

Posted on 22nd October 2012

“I have read the PM’s plans for ‘payment by results’ in terms of the re-offending rates of prison inmates with interest. This will not work. A bit like trying to use the wrong gate, ministers need to listen to police on this one. I’m sure it will be shown to have worked, but it won’t work for the simple reason that these days, criminals only go to prison in the first place if they are persistent offenders.” 

Inspector Gadget argues that the use of payment by results won’t work to reduce re-offending. He speculates that this idea probably came from a think tank who in turn have been sponsored by an organisation with an interest in securing ex-offender rehabilitation contracts. Inspector Gadget argues that the most effective way to deter ex-offenders from re-offending is a lengthy stay in a closed prison, preferably far away from home.

‘Re-inventing the wheel’ or just ‘Strapping two u-turns together’

From MinimumCover

Posted on 24th October 2012

“I want us to be bold and imaginative about transforming policing and the wider criminal justice system to save time and money and deliver a better service for the public. These are the words of our ‘beloved’ Home Secretary which she used to describe her latest improvement to the way Police investigate and prosecute offences. This bold and imaginative move introduces the power for Police to independently charge a number of offences that currently require consultation with the CPS.”

MinimumCover welcomes reforms to charging powers – but questions whether Theresa May can call these proposals ‘bold’ or ‘imaginative’ when they return powers that the police used to hold previously.

If you’re a frontline blogger, do send us your latest blogs on policy issues or posts from the past that you’re particularly proud of, and they could be included in next week’s round-up. Get in touch with us at: info@guerillapolicy.org or via Twitter @guerillapolicy and @guerrillapolicy


Best of the frontline bloggers (week ending 5th October 2012)

We love public and voluntary service bloggers. At their best, they capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that Westminster-commentators can’t – and they have the real expertise and insights we need to improve social policy. Here’s our selection of the best frontline blogs we’ve read this week. Do send us your suggestions for great posts we’ve missed – and those frontline bloggers we should follow in the future.

Local government

Graph of doom – fact or fantasy – an alternative perspective

From Mr Reasonable

Posted 1st October 2012

“Barnet Council have been pushing a chart …which has gained the rather unpleasant title “The Graph of Doom” to show how the Council will run out of money for any services other than Adult Social Care and Children’s Services by 2030. This chart has been used in Cabinet documents to justify the need for the One Barnet Outsourcing programme. It has also gained traction in the national press where it is seen as a revelatory document which we should all be accepting as the gospel according to St. Barnet.”

A ‘reasonable and respectable resident standing up for common sense’ in the London Borough of Barnet dissects the infamous (in policy circles, at least) ‘Graph of Doom’ – and shows that the reality is more of a ‘Graph of Choices’ instead.

Disability

Disability issues finally break through at Labour conference

From Diary of a Benefit Scrounger

Posted on 3rd October 2012

“No matter what we did, we had to break the consensus. We had to make sure that the opposition opposed. Just two years ago we had nothing and no-one. Today, we have a very different board to play on. Many will say it is not enough, and of course, they are right. But as a friend once said to me, “Don’t judge on where someone is, judge on how far they traveled.”

Sue Marsh provides a perspective on this year’s Labour Party conference where disability issues finally made it into the mainstream – after a massive effort by campaigners and activists.

Probation

Train crash

From On Probation Blog

Posted on 3rd October 2012

“As I’m writing this, there are civil servants down in London at the Ministry of Justice drawing up contracts for the benefit of private companies such as G4S. How is anyone to feel comfortable or reassured that they are any better than their colleagues over at the Department of Transport in being able to fairly assess the relative merits of different bids, and especially those that have to be measured against public sector bidders?”

Jim Brown speculates on what the West Coast mainline franchising fiasco means for the outsourcing of prisons and probation services by the Ministry of Justice.

Carers

Children shouldn’t be responsible for filling gaps in care

From Carers Blog

Posted on 1st October 2012

“One of the problems we face is that where local authority care budgets are cut, then if someone has care needs, that care still has to be provided by someone – and it inevitably falls to friends and family to provide it. This is hard enough for adults, and we know many are struggling to cope with cuts in services and family finances. We need to make the point crystal clear that it is never acceptable to expect a child to fill the gap in care which is left when services are cut.”

Moira Fraser of the Carers Trust reports back from the Labour Party conference and shares her concern that those organisations working to support young carers are not communicating their messages clearly enough.

Policing

National Police Air Service launches today – lies and spin

From Police Aircrew

Posted on 1st October 2012

“There are some basic facts that need to be cleared up. You wouldn’t think “facts” needed clearing up would you because they are facts; the truth and therefore should be clear to all. Unfortunately Mr Green the Policing Minister has either been misinformed or is not telling the truth.”

Welcome to a new frontline blogger, Police Aircrew. In their first post they debunk the facts that have been presented to rationalise the police helicopter service into the new National Police Air Service. The new service is designed to save £15 million a year; in this post Police Aircrew speculates about further cuts that are coming down the line.

If Michael Portillo forgets you…

From Catemoore’s Blog

Posted on 29th September 2012

“When Michael Portillo looks at a person in a uniform, he sees just that. A person in a uniform. If that person is driving a fast car with blue lights flashing and siren blaring, or if that person is involved in an active arrest, shouting at suspects or perhaps cuffing a prisoner, Michael Portillo’s brain recognises a Police Officer. If that person is guarding a gate or standing on a fixed point or chatting to the public, he just sees a person in a uniform. That person might be an armed officer but could just as easily be a PCSO or G4S guard or security at an airport. His mind does not differentiate any more.”

A ‘woman, mother, wife, carer and retired Met officer’ reflects on how the quasi-official appearance of private security company employees may have affected how the public perceive the police as just another group of ‘jobsworths’.

Previous reads

Here’s another great post published in the last few weeks.

Clustering and Payment by Results: The end of service user centred mental health care?

From The Masked AMHP

Posted on 27th September 2012

“Most mental health service users will be completely unaware that when they are assessed by Community Mental Health Teams or in hospital their mental health problems and symptoms are now subjected to an arcane system known as Clustering.”

The Masked AMHP describes the impact of the use of clustering and payment by results in the commissioning of local mental health services – and argues that the real ‘customer’ under this approach is the new GP consortia rather than service users.

If you’re a frontline blogger, do send us your latest blogs on policy issues or posts from the past that you’re particularly proud of, and they could be included in next week’s round-up. Get in touch with us at: info@guerillapolicy.org or via Twitter @guerillapolicy


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.


The Games Makers versus G4S – what the Olympics means for outsourcing

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.


How does outsourcing constrain open policy?

In the previous two posts we have asked if there is a tension between two competing Government agendas – open public services and open policy making. In this post we set out fours ways in which the current approach to outsourcing of public services can stifle open policy.

The ongoing saga surrounding the role (or more often, the non-role) of G4S in providing Olympic security has again highlighted that important aspects of outsourced public services – including performance and contract terms – are often hidden from public view behind a wall labeled ‘commercial in confidence’. This has significant implications for open policy, in at least four respects.

Firstly, outsourcing sometimes obscures performance. The Government’s flagship Work Programme is a case in point. This £5 billion programme has been heralded as a radical approach to reducing long-term worklessness. It uses a payment by results approach where providers are paid on achievement of outcomes. Providers have the freedom to decide how they will deliver the service without prescription from government (often called a ‘black box approach’). The problem is that effective transparent scrutiny is difficult because providers are not able to share data about what is working and what isn’t. They are required to sign comprehensive contracts, which prevent them from sharing performance data unless it is already in the public domain. Providers must also not attract ‘adverse publicity’ from their media work or face consequences if they do. Charities and media commentators have questioned this but ministers have refused to change this.

Rather than protect the policy in its relatively early stages, this has only served to intensify the questions as to whether the Work Programme is working effectively. Various charities are pulling out of the programme or going bankrupt, raising concerns about the viability and sustainability of the policy. Data leaked to Channel 4 News indicated that only 3.5% of individuals referred to A4e are securing a job outcome. The way the Department for Work and Pensions has released performance data about the programme has made it difficult to effectively scrutinize the policy overall, a view shared by ERSA – the welfare to work trade body.

Secondly, where public services are not provided by the public sector, this can result in data no longer being available to public policymakers. Francis Maude has argued that data belongs to citizens and not the state, but this hasn’t been reflected in all contracting processes. In a recent Q&A on open government Vicky Sargent from Socitm pointed to cases where council contact centres have been outsourced and the data about enquiries is no longer available to the council because it was not explicitly included in the contract. Vicky rightly argues that retaining the right to data from outsourced systems is critical.

Thirdly, what this reflects is that different providers are treated differently when it comes to transparency. Local Government departments are required to publish all expenditure above £500 as well as salaries of senior officials.  Similar rules apply to Whitehall departments but the same rules don’t apply to outsourced service providers. The Freedom of Information Act also doesn’t apply to private and voluntary sector providers, even though it would if the same services were delivered in-house. This inconsistency in applying transparency rules between services delivered by the state and those by the private/voluntary sector means that we are seeing ‘black holes’ open up in public service commissioning, to the detriment of public accountability.

Fourthly, this situation is likely to undermine the greater use of evidence in policymaking, for example Sir Jeremy Heywood’s desire to see a social policy equivalent of NICE that could issue social policy ‘kitemarks’ for particularly effective and proven approaches. How could such an approach be adopted consistently across public services? Knowing what works and what doesn’t could help the Government in its ambition to increase social investment in areas such as long-term worklessness, but this is unlikely to be realized if we aren’t able to analyse the performance data, costs and timescales across all programmes whoever provides them.

Transparency and scrutiny is not a luxury, rather it is essential if we are to understand whether policy is working and if it isn’t, how it could be improved. We need to understand the impact of public expenditure and whether it represents value for money. We need to make informed decisions, based on evidence, about existing and future policy. Policy will be weaker if a substantial part of the evidence base is hidden behind a veil of supposed ‘commercial confidentiality’. At stake is whether outsourced services are still ‘public’. If public money is being spent in the public interest, then surely how this money is spent should be transparent.

As we suggested in the previous post, the current situation has allowed a further serious problem to develop, of which the G4S fiasco is just one outcome – the emergence of a small, very powerful but somewhat unaccountable group of providers who have significant interest in public policy stemming from their role in delivering a range of public services from prisons, welfare to work, hospitals through to schools. Given their size and scope, independent and transparent analysis of the activity of these providers is essential if we are to scrutinize how this investment is spent and to what effect. Any future social policy equivalent of NICE surely requires a stronger and more secure foundation than this – something we will address in a future post.

We will be looking at each of the issues raised in this post in more depth in future blogs.  Please tell us what you think.


Have outsourcing public service providers become too big to care?

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?


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.