Michael Gove’s approach to education reform is the opposite of open policymaking

Education Secretary Michael Gove has unveiled “rigorous selection” tests for trainee teachers in a move he claims will improve the status of the profession and raise standards in the classroom. It’s a pity his own approach to policymaking doesn’t live up to the same standards he’s asking of teachers.

Announcing the policy, Michael Gove said: “The evidence from around the world is clear – rigorous selection of trainee teachers is key to raising the quality and standing of the teaching profession.” Despite an apparent inconsistency with previous announcements – in July Gove declared that, like their private counterparts and free schools, academies in England could employ people who are not working towards qualified teacher status (QTS) – at least this policy was based on evidence and developed by a review group of headteachers and education experts. For many of his other reforms, Michael Gove seems to make policy in secret, ignore what teachers and other experts think, and go against the best available evidence.

For example:

Michael Gove’s colleagues have committed the Government to open policy making as well as open government. The Civil Service Reform White Paper published in June 2012 contained a commitment announced that: “Open policy making will become the default. Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise. We will establish a clear model of open policy making.” Our project with The Democratic Society is currently examining how open policy making can be made a reality.

The Government has also promoted the evidence agenda, and is considering the case for new institutions that would perform an advisory role similar to the role that NICE plays for the NHS and the Early Intervention Foundation does for early years, to help ensure commissioners in central or local government do not waste time and money on programmes that are unlikely to be effective.

No-one seems to have told Michael Gove about either of these initiatives. No wonder teachers are starting to make their own education policy.


Open policymaking: Should there be a ‘duty to involve’ for national policy?

As Edward Andersson from Involve noted in his recent blog reviewing the new consultation principles issued by government: “Today consultation has, for many citizens, become a byword for formalistic, tick box exercises, done to mask a decision which is already a ‘done deal’.” Edward rightly suggested that the new principles, while important, fall short of providing the solution to this widely shared view of consultation. Could one solution be a national ‘duty to involve’, similar to the requirement that some local public services are already subject to? In which case, national policymakers should look to their local counterparts for what works.

This post is part of the project on open policymaking and better consultation, hosted by the Democratic Society in association with the Cabinet Office. As Anthony Zacharzewski, head of DemSoc, has summarised it: “Open policymaking is the natural corollary of open data and transparency, requiring openness and allowing public participation at every stage of decision-making and implementation. It supports citizen action and positive involvement of the public in shaping laws and services.” This active engagement is obviously very different in scope and ambition to traditional consultation, but this doesn’t mean we’re starting from scratch. If, as the Government has said, in the future “all policies will be made openly”, we could learn from where there have already been attempts to achieve a different, more deliberative approach to decision-making – in local government and local public services.

Many of these local duties to involve citizens have been introduced through national policy. For example, Section 138 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 imposed a duty on all councils and ‘best value’ authorities to involve ‘local representatives’ when carrying out functions by providing information, consulting or ‘involving in another way’. Councils must engage with a balanced selection of the individuals, groups, businesses or organisations the council considers likely to be affected by, or have an interest in, the council’s functions (including children and young people as appropriate). For the National Health Service, legislation which came into force in 2003 placed a duty on certain organisations to involve and consult, but managers were not always clear when they had to involve people or how it was best to do this. The 2007 act aimed to make this clearer; the duty requires NHS organisations to involve users of services in the planning and provision of services, the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way services are provided, and decisions affecting the operation of services. Section 242 of the earlier consolidated NHS Act 2006 was also supported by useful guidance on achieving ‘Real Involvement‘ from service users and communities.

The NHS’s operating framework further emphasised that this engagement should be ongoing, not just during periods of change. Primary Care Trusts and NHS providers should “…create greater opportunities for their communities to make their voices heard, raising awareness of those opportunities and empowering patients and the public to use them and LINks [Local Involvement Networks]; [and] take greater responsibility for communicating with their local populations and stakeholders to ensure better understanding of, and confidence in, local NHS services.” More recently, the NHS constitution underlines that public and user involvement should be part of the fabric of the NHS: “You have the right to be involved, directly or through representatives, in the planning of healthcare services, the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way those services are provided, and in decisions to be made affecting the operation of those services.”

The reality of local engagement might only rarely meet these ambitions, and many local policymakers, managers and clinicians might question the extent to which the public can play a constructive part in decisions on reconfiguring clinical services. Views on the success of local LINks vary widely, and they are due to be replaced by Local Healthwatch organisations in April 2013 as part of the ‘new NHS’. But this gap between aspiration and reality may be more a matter of developing and using the right methods for engagement – and being seen by local communities to be making genuine efforts at this engagement – rather than a fundamental problem with the aspiration itself (these are after all public services, paid for by the public, and they should surely be accountable as such).

Organisations such as Involve (a partner in this discussion) have a wealth of experience about what works locally (Edward referenced some very useful resources in his blog) – surely some of these principles and practices could not only be better shared locally, but applied to national policy as well? As we’ve noted before, one of the reasons that the Government’s NHS reforms ran into such difficulty was the view held by stakeholders that the policy was developed in a fundamentally closed way rather than constructively and collaboratively. The Government says that empowering individual patients and increasing the local accountability of health services is at the core of its reforms; shouldn’t we apply the same principles of empowerment and accountability to the development of health policy as well as the operation of health services – and to any policy for that matter?

The Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan, where its committment to open policy was announced, makes no reference to existing local methods of engagement and how these could inform open policymaking at a national level. Nonetheless, national policymakers should look to the methods that have been used by local policymakers and planners to engage their communities and service users in decision-making – both the successes and the failures – and consider how the most effective approaches could be adopted and adapted for national policy. Open policy is an ambitious agenda. Making it real will require effective methods for engagement, but also ways of requiring that policymakers develop policy openly. As well as learning from local methods of engagement, do we need an equivalent national ‘duty to involve’ stakeholders in policy development?


Open policy requires open research – the CBI’s report on outsourcing public services doesn’t meet this standard

Last week the CBI published research that claimed that government could save billions by outsourcing more public services to private business. Ironically for a report titled ‘Open Access’, the main problem with the report is not its argument but its lack of transparency. For such an important issue as the future of public services and who delivers them, we aren’t given enough opportunities to judge for ourselves whether the report’s claims stand up to scrutiny. Open policy requires a much greater openness about the data and analysis used to support such conclusions – otherwise it’s just a press release.

The CBI’s Open Access report claims that “opening up public service delivery to independent providers” (that is, outsourcing public services) could achieve savings of £22.6 billion “or more”. For such a big claim, the research has a fairly simple methodology. The researchers (Oxford Economics) looked at 20 different service areas to determine the average cost savings from greater efficiency and productivity from outsourcing (a figure of at least 11 per cent, within a range of 10-20 per cent); applying the same calculations across the estimated £278 billion of public services which the CBI believes could be fully ‘opened up’ produces potential savings from outsourcing of £22.6 billion.

Trade unions have criticised the report for a ‘lack of evidence’ (for example, Unison) and for not taking into account any of the transactional costs associated with outsourcing including procurement, tendering and contract management, let alone when private providers fail to deliver. The Local Government Association called the report’s calculations “ludicrous” for effectively double-counting savings from services which have already been outsourced. Other commentators have identified specific flaws in the research (for example, for fundamentally misunderstanding who already provides what in the housing sector).

Beyond this, it’s also important to note that efficiency is not the same as effectiveness, which is to say, cheaper does not always represent real value for money. This is especially the case when it comes to public services where there are often broader considerations to be made regarding ‘public value‘ – encompassing not only benefit to the individual service users but also to communities and society as a whole.

For example, it’s unfortunate that the CBI’s report promotes the Work Programme as a model of good practice, both because of the identified risk of fraud in the programme, but also because of the significant concerns about the programme’s impact on charities. As the NCVO has argued: “The Work Programme continues to pose major issues for charities particularly around managing cash flow and taking on risk and very large contracts prevent smaller and more specialist organisations from playing their full part. More seriously it’s clear that the payment structures used continue to threaten the viability of contracts.” However ‘efficiently’ it achieves its objectives, if a programme undermines the diversity of provision including from smaller charities, can it really be regarded as generating better ‘value’ for society?

Further, while the report recognises the widely shared public concerns about outsourcing public services, it also effectively makes these problems that government needs to solve – as if government is to blame for them: “The Government must take important steps to ensure the public retains confidence in the opening up of public services by becoming a more effective market manager and ensuring that the best, most effective providers from all sectors have the opportunity to manage our public services. Providers too must work with the government to address the public’s concerns about value for money, accountability and service failure.” Certainly government has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that public money is spent responsibly, for example that providers are properly audited. But if they are to be given millions or billions of pounds of public money, private providers also need to do more to prove their worth and reliability, such that they can be trusted to provide public services (something not helped by last week’s further revelations about the G4S Olympics debacle). Of course, one way to avoid such problems would be not to outsource more public services – but this is a view that the CBI regards as “dogmatic”.

However, the main problem with the CBI’s report is that we can’t properly determine the accuracy or veracity of the research for ourselves. It seems particularly questionable to assume that the same level of savings can be achieved uniformly across different areas of public services, and yet to quote from the research: “If an average 11% of productivity improvements is achievable across just £24.5bn out of the £666bn annual public sector expenditure on services in the UK, then similar levels of savings must be possible: not just in the un-open proportion of the markets researched but in the unopened proportion of the estimated £278bn of public services spending which could practicably be more opened up to independent provision.” [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, it’s not possible for us to investigate this much further. The problem is the methodology – or rather its lack of openness. As acknowledged in the report: “There is as yet little published information on the scope and performance of services delivered by independent providers.” The average saving figure used in the report is based on “existing research, and information from public bodies and providers” – including crucially from a survey of CBI members. The CBI has produced a nicely presented summary of the analysis by Oxford Economics; the actual analysis (which is a bit more difficult to find) is pretty opaque, especially when it comes to this survey of CBI members. One phrase that keeps popping up in the original Oxford Economics analysis is: “The degree of potential cost savings that could be achieved through outsourcing these services is estimated from responses to the CBI member survey.” In other words, the most critical figure in the research, the basis of the argument made in the report, comes from what the CBI’s own members claim – a claim we are unable to judge for ourselves because we are provided with no further information about it (for example, how many of the CBI’s members responded, what size were these providers, what specific types of services they provide, etc). For an argument in favour of open public services, this represents a remarkably closed approach to evidence.

As the CBI’s report notes, we are in the middle of the biggest wave of government outsourcing since the 1980s, with more than £4 billion in tenders being negotiated in 2012 alone in services ranging from prisons and police to defence and health. Given this, we need much more robust and reliable research about the benefits and the problems that outsourcing more public services would produce – before we outsource these services (perhaps irreversibly). The research commissioned by the CBI may or may not be a useful contribution to this analysis; the problem is that because of the report’s own lack of transparency, it’s very difficult for us to know.


Consultation can’t fix our broken politics – we need new ways to engage the public in policymaking

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.


Open policy is a challenge to government consultations – and an opportunity

More than 40 years ago the American sociologist Sherry Arnstein developed the ‘ladder of participation’ to represent the degree of involvement by citizens in decision-making. Arnstein’s levels range from ‘non-participation’ at the bottom of the ladder – at worse, the manipulation of citizens – to ‘citizen power’ and true citizen control at the top. One of the challenges for government today is that many people increasingly agree with Arnstein’s view of consultation as basically a form of tokenism. More positively, Arnstein’s ladder points to the possibility of different forms of engagement that could contribute to a better, more trusting relationship between citizens and government.

The widespread skepticism about consultation reflects a broader context of course – the steady decline in the number of people who say they are engaged and interested in politics and who trust politicians. To its credit, the current Government has recognised the extent of the problem and is trying to do something about it. Its Civil Service Reform White Paper published in June 2012 announced the Government’s commitment to ‘open policy making’, that:

“Open policy making will become the default. Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise. We will establish a clear model of open policy making.”

Our own project, Guerilla Policy, is about developing a radically different approach to policy and research. We want to develop a way for public service practitioners and services users to conduct research and policy analysis. 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.

Unsurprisingly then, we agree with the Government that open policy is an idea whose time has come. Policy development has been too closed, to a too narrow set of participants, for too long. We agree with the Government that Whitehall hasn’t got a monopoly on policy expertise, and we’ve made some initial suggestions about the ways in which Government can make open policy a reality, including by making open policy itself an open and transparent agenda and by opening it up to new participants.

One of the challenges facing open policy is the widespread lack of confidence in consultation, and whether the conventional approach to consultation can be improved or needs to be ditched altogether. Two relatively recent examples point to how significant doubts about the authenticity of consultation processes can very quickly translate into very strong reactions against the policies being consulted on.

First example: more than 538,000 people took to social media to protest against the consultation which proposed to sell off England’s forests (this included a major campaign by the online community 38 Degrees). In the face of an avalanche of protest, Caroline Spelman, then Environment Secretary was forced to suspend the consultation and apologized in a statement to the House of Commons for the way it had been handled: “I am sorry. We got his one wrong. We have listened to people’s concerns.”

Second example: earlier this year the Spartacus ‘Responsible Reform’ report was researched, written and promoted by a band of disabled activists who felt that a consultation on welfare reform was being manipulated by the Department for Work and Pensions. The report, based on a rigorous analysis of responses to the Government’s own consultation on reform of Disability Living Allowance, revealed the overwhelming opposition to the Government’s proposed reforms. The report took the social media world by storm, including trending number one on Twitter.

It’s not hard to see why this is happening; research by the Consultation Institute suggests that in only 40 per cent of consultations is it possible to make a clear link from the outcomes back to the responses received. In response, we are witnessing the emergence of new forms of ‘unsanctioned’ citizen consultation and mobilization. There’s always been protest of course, but these citizen-led campaigns, supported by social media and the internet, are increasingly fast-moving, flexible and distributed. We call this ‘guerilla policy’ – citizens stepping into the gap when they think the political establishment is failing to recognize, let alone act on, their views.

Such campaigns are difficult for policymakers to anticipate, and hard for them to respond to. Fundamentally, these campaigns aren’t just calling for different policies in the areas they care about; they’re also calling for a different way of making policy. In this respect, guerilla policy also offers government the possibility of a more positive approach, one that enables citizens to shape and inform policy in a more meaningful way. Social media-supported campaigns have the power to overwhelm consultation processes if the public loses confidence in the integrity of these processes. But social media also potentially offers a cheap and easy way to engage many more citizens to improve policy.

For us, what’s especially missing in consultation (to quote from the Government’s own proposals) is how to “enable policy to reflect the real-world experiences of citizens and harness public engagement with the policy making process.” We’re not suggesting that government delegates its ultimate responsibility for policymaking – for full ‘citizen control’ in Arnstein’s terminology. But the challenge for government – and for the open policy project we’re conducting with DemSoc – is that unless we find new ways to improve how to develop policy such that it reflects the experience and insight of citizens, then citizens will increasingly do this for themselves, working against government rather than with it.

This blog is the first post for our new project, in partnership with The Democratic Society. You can get involved by visiting the discussion space for the project, hosted by DemSoc in association with the Cabinet Office – and of course you can also share your views on this site.


Open policy needs people to step outside of institutions to tell the truth

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.”


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 outsourcing can reduce real choices for people using services

In recent posts we’ve been exploring the tensions between two competing Government agendas – for so-called ‘open public services’ and ‘open policy-making’. Choice is supposed to be a central part of the Government’s agenda to open up public services to greater competition in order to improve outcomes, quality and efficiency. In this post we explore three ways in which outsourcing can actually reduce real choices for people using public services.

You might have missed it, but in June the Cabinet Office announced an independent review led by David Boyle into the barriers to choice in public services. The review is looking to address the factors that prevent people from understanding and exercising the choices available to them in a range of public services. But the review does not address another pertinent question: how ‘open public services’, especially outsourcing, can reduce real choices for the public.

Firstly, there is no getting away from the impact of the cuts, which are creating poor choices for users of public services. For example, local councils are due to make cuts of about £2 billion to adult social care budgets between 2011-13, with £890 million coming out this year alone as part of the Government’s deficit reduction programme. Outsourcing services to non-public sector providers is seen as the main way to reduce costs.

Take this example: domiciliary care services (care in the home), much of which is outsourced, is one area that has borne the brunt of cuts. Hourly rates for dom care have dropped in some parts of the country to as low as £10-12 per hour. From a provider point of view, the only way to make these contracts work financially is to increase the volume of customers and reduce costs. Given that the majority of cost is staff time, this means becoming a minimum wage employer and reducing staff terms and conditions – a move that many charities and private sector providers are (being forced into) making. It also means cutting the time allocated for care visits to under 30 minutes and sometimes to less than 15 minutes.

Rationing of social care has also meant the things that people want to choose – for example social contact or help with domestic duties such as housework, shopping and gardening – are not available unless they can afford to pay from their savings. According to Age UK 33% of older people report feeling lonely, with this figure increasing to half for those aged over 80. It’s obvious that a 15 minute visit doesn’t leave time for a conversation.

Outsourcing based on price is bound to affect quality. A review into choice and competition in public services by the OFT found that competition based on price alone is likely to lead to a deterioration of quality. This is backed up by the results from a survey conducted by the National Care Forum of 40 social care providers this week, which showed that the social care workforce is rapidly ageing, and that there has been a hike in staff turnover rates. Given the unsociable hours and low pay, social care does not tend to be an attractive career option for young people. 46% of care staff are aged 46 or over, whilst turnover rates for domiciliary care for older people has climbed to almost 28%.

Secondly, information about services available is fragmented. It is well documented that advocacy, information and advice services are withering on the vine as a result of the cuts. Yet good quality information and advocacy support are integral to supporting choice. Information about providers is hard to find with services such as Find Me Good Care, Shop4Support and the Good Care Guide in their infancy. The Government has been reluctant to invest in services such as these – the Social Care Institute for Excellence has invested their reserves into Find Me Good Care instead. Providers have also been agnostic about these services as many of them find business through word of mouth or local authority referrals. Yet without adequate market information, real choice for service users will be undermined.

The views of service users are not always well understood or captured by services. Take another sector as an example: 11,000 pupils are placed in out of authority special schools at an annual cost of £572 million. A review of this market by the Audit Commission found that young people were rarely asked for their opinions or offered choices. Instead, choices are made by parents and professionals, not the young person themselves. Many young people want to be placed nearer to their family but the concerns of their parents tend to take precedence.

Thirdly, the ‘bigger is better’ approach to outsourcing is reducing real choices for people. The outsourced public services market is maturing around a group of large providers who are increasingly too big to fail. The Government is ever more reliant on providers such as Capita, Atos, A4e, Serco and G4S, who alone have the scale and funds to absorb the risks associated with this ‘bigger is better’ approach to outsourcing. A4e now delivers services across welfare to work, adult social care, information and advice and offender management. The dominance of these providers crowds out small charities and providers who cannot compete on a level playing field, which again reduces choice for service users but also commissioners of services.

Choice is nothing new of course; successive governments have embraced it as a way to improve performance across a range of public services, and in one sense the current Government under its open public services agenda is only continuing this trend. But after nearly 30 years of promises of increased choice – often to be achieved through increasing amounts of outsourcing – many of the actual choices available to the public seem less and less appealing. The one choice we don’t seem to be being offered is the political choice to challenge this agenda – for the users of services and the professionals who deliver these services not to be subject to imposed ‘choice’, but rather for them to be able to determine together how services can be improved and for policy wonks to get out of their way. Perhaps the Cabinet Office could add this type of choice to its review, if it is allowed to.


What does the Work Programme mean for open policy?

In this recent series of posts we’ve been exploring the tensions between two competing Government agendas – open public services and open policy making. In this post we examine these tensions in more detail, using a flagship Government policy – the Work Programme to tackle long-term worklessness.

The Work Programme is regarded by Government and others as a model of outsourcing that should be replicated in other areas of public services. The Economist magazine has predicted that £58 billion of public services will be outsourced by 2015 as part of the Government’s agenda for ‘open public services’, on top of the £82 billion already outsourced (according to Oxford Economics). Much of the comment surrounding the Work Programme has focused on what it means for the future of outsourcing – but what does it also suggest about the potential for open policymaking?

The Work Programme is a £5 billion initiative that has been heralded as the most radical attempt by UK government to address long-term worklessness. It is based on the principle that government will get out-of-the-way and will financially reward providers who perform. The Government has argued that delivery of this programme should be outsourced rather than delivered in-house, because this will drive innovation and significantly improve performance compared to previous programmes such as Flexible New Deal. Responsibility for both delivery and risk has been transferred to large generally private prime contractors who are largely paid on results, that is the number of people entering into work and keeping their job for up to two years.

However, one of the striking things about the Work Programme, given its size and remit, is the lack of publicly available performance data. This seems to run counter to what the Government has said about the importance of open data, transparency and now open policy. For example, the Government’s Open Public Services White Paper states that ‘Provides of public services from all sectors will need to publish information on performance and user satisfaction’ – yet the same emphasis isn’t always apparent when it comes to this flagship Government programme.

Effective transparent scrutiny of the Work Programme 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. Provides face serious consequences if they flout these rules especially if they generate ‘adverse publicity’ for the programme. Nonetheless, some data have trickled out, and the first analysis of performance was released by the Department for Work and Pensions earlier in the summer. This followed a data set released by trade body ERSA in May. ERSA and the Department estimate that one in four people are going into work after being attached to the programme for six months.

The Government has argued that there are complications in releasing timely data about the Work Programme, both because it is new and because there are customers coming onto the programme all of the time, which can distort the overall impression regarding its performance. The Minister responsible, Chris Graying, in evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee in March this year argued that his Department is publishing data about the Work Programme in accordance with Office of National Statistics guidelines covering both what, when and how statistics are published. However, a careful reading of his evidence  might suggest that the ONS rules don’t actually prevent DWP from releasing Work Programme performance data – in other words, that the Department has more room for maneuver than the Minister appears to suggest. We’d be happy to be corrected on this interpretation – if someone from DWP or indeed ONS wants or is allowed to get in touch.

What is certainly true is that it is still very difficult, a year into the Work Programme, to build an accurate picture of whether the policy is in any way on course to deliver against its original objectives. This vacuum of information is creating a lot of unease about the policy. It has been left to the likes of the National Audit Office and the Social Market Foundation to fill the gap – much to the chagrin of the Government. A report from the NAO earlier this year stated that the Government’s assumptions about the Work Programme were over-ambitious, and that only 26% of job seekers would secure work compared to the Department’s target of 40%.

Given the scale of investment in this programme, both political and financial, it is unsurprising that there is so much interest in this policy – and so many demands for more openness and transparency. There are legitimate questions to be answered as to whether the Work Programme is working in the way it was intended. A number of charities have pulled out of the programme whilst others have gone bust because of the financial constraints of the payment by results model used in the programme. St Mungo’s, a well-respected charity is the latest example to pull out after failing to receive any referrals. The NCVO has also raised a number of concerns from their members about how the programme is being implemented. Given this level of public interest and concern, lack of transparency becomes counter-productive – rather than reducing possibly inaccurate comment and analysis, it only serves to increase it.

The Work Programme points to a real tension between the Government’s open policy and open public services agendas. The Government wants to create a vibrant and efficient market of providers for outsourced public services. It also says it wants the performance of providers to be transparent and open to public scrutiny. But if other, equally important areas of provision such as reducing re-offending, public health, skills, and drug and alcohol recovery employ the Work Programme model, this suggests that open policy in public services will be severely limited, and that the public will know less than they should about what their money is funding and what the results are.