The West Coast fiasco points to the real problem with open public services

The West Coast mainline franchising fiasco shows that the current approach to outsourcing public services has serious flaws that need to be addressed – the much too complicated and secretive nature of outsourcing is the problem, rather than the people handling the process.

Last week Patrick McLoughlin, the new Transport Secretary, cancelled the West Coast Mainline franchise deal. The Department for Transport has been on a damage limitation exercise ever since, with McLoughlin blaming the fiasco on officials at the DfT “because of deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes made by my department in the way it managed the process”. Philip Rutnam, the Permanent Secretary at DfT, has also joined in telling staff that they must accept that the reversal was the fault of officials. Meanwhile, Kate Mingay, one of the three officials suspended by DfT (an ex-Goldman Sachs employee parachuted into the civil service because of her private sector expertise) has hit out at the way her role in the procurement has been portrayed by the Department.

Blaming officials is an easy way to distract from the substantive story: whether the current approach to franchising used by the DfT is fundamentally flawed. The Department argues that mistakes were made from the way the level of risk in the bids was evaluated due to human error – in particular the way in which inflation and passenger numbers were taken into account, and how much money bidders were then asked to guarantee as a result. But the assumptions about inflation and passenger numbers are dependent on the state of the UK and global economy and the ability of the future franchisee to bring in new customers. Colin Cram, writing for the Public Leaders Network, argues that: “…this enters the realms of guesswork and slight changes in assumptions can lead to different outcomes for contracts that may be for only three or four years, let alone 13.” If the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility continues to get its predictions on economic growth significantly wrong, how can we expect the assumptions made in the rail franchising process to be watertight?

This is not the first time that assumptions about economic growth and customer numbers has gone wrong, for example the previous experiences with the East Coast mainline or in the commissioning of welfare to work services. The Work Programme was designed for a far more positive economic climate than we now find ourselves in. DWP’s estimates of the number of customers in receipt of Employment Support Allowance have proven to be wholly unrealistic, with serious consequences for the business models of prime contractors and charities.

The risks associated with complex procurement processes such as the rail franchise are compounded by the secretive nature by which they are often conducted, behind a veil of ‘commercial in confidence’. As we’ve argued before, this ‘closed shop’ approach leads to poor decisions and a profound lack of public engagement – until something goes horribly wrong. The complexity involved also means a significant diversion of resources into the process of franchising rather than actual delivery of services. Franchising might work however if the process was more transparent and the assumptions about passenger numbers (and any other projections) were open to rigorous scrutiny by others outside of the process – so why isn’t it?

The West Coast fiasco has much wider implications that the policy establishment probably doesn’t want the public to consider. Cheryl Gillan, the former Conservative Welsh Secretary, has argued that a root and branch re-examination of the High Speed 2 rail project is needed if the public is to have trust in such a significant investment of public resources. Instead, plans for competition and outsourcing are being accelerated in prisons, probation services and health. In this context, the secretive, complex and bureaucratic nature of outsourcing needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. If the public is going to be on board, then a public debate is needed on the merits and risks of delivering services in this way – which surely is what the Government’s open policy should be all about.

Fundamentally, the political establishment doesn’t engage the public in a debate about the merits of rail franchising because the public doesn’t support the idea. This ‘outsourcing by stealth’ approach wins neither hearts nor minds. Various surveys continue to show a strong majority of public opinion in favour of re-nationalising the railways – one recent survey found that 70% of respondents supported such a move. Impossible? New Zealand provides an example of such a policy put into action. Its rail and ferry network was privatised in the 1990s and asset-stripped and run down by an Australian outfit. It re-nationalised both in 2009. Michael Cullen, the then Finance Minister said privatization had “been a painful lesson for New Zealand”. Kiwi Rail in public hands has been able to invest in its long-term future whilst also generating significant financial and economic benefits for taxpayers in New Zealand.

Here, despite the strong public preference for a nationalised rail network, none of the three main political parties are committed to such a policy. At last week’s Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband and Maria Eagle made positive noises in this direction but no firm commitments. So we are left with an unpopular, risk-laden, fragmented rail network – and the policy establishment searching around for scapegoats when they should be looking somewhat closer to home.


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.


How open public services is a way to outsource unpopular policies

In this recent series of posts we’ve been exploring the tensions between two competing Government agendas – for so-called ‘open public services’ and ‘open policy-making’. The former is supposed to improve public services by widening the choice of providers, while the latter is meant to improve policy by widening the range of voices that influence policy. These ‘tensions’ aren’t necessarily undesirable for policymakers – outsourcing can be a useful way for Government to ignore the views of those on the frontline when these views conflict with its policy agenda.

Last week Atos was appointed to carry out assessments for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) securing two contracts worth over £400 million. PIP is the new benefit to replace Disability Living Allowance from April 2013 for new claimants (with existing claimants migrating onto this benefit by 2016). This decision has proved to be highly controversial because of Atos’ £100 million a year role in the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The WCA is the main assessment for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claims.

The WCA has been a public policy fiasco, which has caused real anxiety and fear for people who have been forced to go through this process, as highlighted in recent documentaries by Panorama and Channel 4’s Dispatches. The media has been littered with examples of people who clearly should not have been found fit for work. According to an Early Day Motion last year, 1,100 claimants died while under compulsory work-related activity for benefits and a number of those found ‘fit for work’ and left without income have committed or attempted suicide.

As a result, there is considerable fear, distrust and anger amongst disabled people towards Atos, and the company has faced serious criticism from campaigners, charities and the media for its role in the policy. However, the concerns of disabled people have clearly not featured in the decision to commission Atos to deliver PIP – indeed, they have been dismissed.

Perhaps this is because the problem is the policy, not necessarily the provider. Charities and commentators have argued that the process is flawed, the tests are too impersonal, take little or no account of the wider circumstances and motivation of a person, and that the fluctuating nature of some conditions is not sufficiently taken into account (charities have instead called for a ‘Real-Life’ Assessment rather than a one-sized fits all approach). GPs at their annual conference in May called for the WCA to be scrapped because the assessments are “inadequate” and “have little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons”. They called for the tests to be replaced with a more “rigorous and safe system”. Of the 390,000-plus appeals that have been lodged against decisions not to grant the benefit, just under 40% have been successful. By some estimates the appeals process has actually cost more than the value of the Atos contract to deliver WCA.

Helpfully from the Government’s point of view, criticism of the role of Atos has often obscured concerns about the policy itself, in spite of the fact that the design of the assessment itself is the problem. Professor Harrington was appointed to review the process and recently announced that he is quitting after his third review is completed. Paul Farmer of MIND also stepped down from the Harrington Scrutiny Panel, highlighting a variety of concerns about the WCA. The WCA contract was a poisoned chalice and any provider delivering this contract would have faced similar criticisms.

The policy has also had serious implications for another initiative, the Work Programme (discussed in previous posts), with the flow of customers in receipt of ESA significantly below the estimates provided by DWP to bidders when commissioning the Work Programme. The scale of appeals against WCA decisions has created this logjam in the system, which was not anticipated. The effect of this has been that many charities in the Work Programme who expected to work with ESA customers have seen little or no referrals, whilst the financial models of primes have been affected given that this customer group attracted the biggest financial payments.

Work Programme providers are also required to recommend customers for benefit sanctions – this is an integral part of the design of the programme and providers face consequences if they don’t carry out this aspect. As with WCA however, it is providers who have faced criticism (in this case for their role in sanctioning customers) when the design of this sits with the Department for Work and Pensions. Sanctions are a policy decision and they can only be implemented by DWP – they are not a provider decision.

The outsourcing of both PIP and WCA are examples of the Government’s open public services agenda in practice, whereby public services are opened up to greater competition from the private (and to a lesser extent voluntary) sector. Previously both the WCA and PIP could and would have been delivered ‘in-house’ by Jobcentre Plus. But with outsourced provision, badly designed policies such as WCA and the Work Programme can lumber on while the media and others focus on what’s ‘gone wrong’ with a particular provider. What price open policy then, when providers are effectively being paid to cover for poor policies – at least for a while?


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.


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.