Thursday, 21 November 2013
Time to put a stake into the outsourcing vampires
A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has called for more ‘openness’ from ministers regarding the performance of private contractors brought in to deliver services formerly carried out by the government.
A handful of big companies Serco (£1.8bn), Capita (£1.08bn), G4S (£718m) and ATOS (£683m) receive huge payments from government for delivering services and yet face little in the way of sanctions when problems arise. The report calls for them to face fines and possible exclusion from further contracts when they fail to deliver.
It is also critical of the Cabinet Office, saying the official charged with overseeing such contracts have little ‘commercial experience and expertise below senior levels’ and that information held on over forty major service providers is ‘inconsistent and incomplete.’ The big sticking point though is transparency, needed as the report points out ‘to ensure that no-one within the contractor can hide problems.’
The government, the report says, ‘needs to ensure it is in the contractor’s financial interest to focus their control environment more widely on meeting the standards expected of public service.’ Put in the language of you and I, since we’re paying them billions of pounds through our taxes we’d quite like them to be at home to Mr Cock-up a little less often.
Amayas Morse, head of the NAO, told the BBC there was a ‘crisis of confidence’ in public trust in services outsourced to private providers caused by some worrying examples of contractors not appearing to be up to the job. He said that whilst some government departments were ‘quick off the mark’ when it came to identifying and resolving problems there was a ‘clear need to reset the ground rules for both contractors and customers.’
Tim Gash of the Institute for Government said, also speaking to the BBC, that ‘without a more transparent and measured approach to outsourcing high profile failures are likely to multiply.’
In response a Cabinet Office spokesperson told the BBC the government’s commercial reforms had saved taxpayers £3.8billion and that the government knew ‘the civil service lacks commercial capability’ in some areas. There were, the spokesperson said, seeking to ‘address this’ but it was imperative to ‘accelerate change to serve taxpayers more, create better quality public services and to promote growth.’
If you ever needed proof that we are being governed by aliens from the planet Politico who think the world, well the bits of it they visit anyway, smells of fresh paint then look no further than the outsourcing shambles.
The sums of money involved is staggering; as is the level of damage done to vulnerable people and local communities when services they have depended on for years simply fail to work. There is a case to be made that old style public services could, at their occasional worst, be bureaucratic and costly, but is the brave new world of outsourcing everything any better?
Thanks to corporate behemoths like Serco and Capita we have been introduced to incompetence on a truly epic scale. ATOS has turned the reforming of disability benefits into a cruel and unpredictable lottery, Capita have made a dog’s breakfast out of handling asylum claims and have gone on to turn the process of recruiting people to the Territorial Army into a farrago of call centre based confusion, just at the moment when the government has decided to replace most of the army with reservists. Oops!
Then, of course there is G4S, the dunderheads who promised to recruit an army of security staff for the Olympics, only to make such a mess of things the real army had to be called in to help.
If you think antics like this constitute an improvement of public services you need to look up what improvement means and maybe book in to see a shrink.
The NAO is right to call for more transparency in how these companies get and operate their contracts; but that is only half of the story. What the public want and have consistently not been offered because a complacent political elite have sold them to a mob of corporate vampires for a mess of pottage, is public services that are delivered locally and overseen by well informed councillors who are answerable to the electorate.
This is something to remember when your local council, as mine has done, lops twenty million off the city’s budget whilst at the same time throwing the doors open to Count Dracula and his mates.
Remember it too when you go into the booth to cast your vote. If you don’t like public services being sold off give your vote to one of the smaller parties trying to whittle a stake to go through the heart of these corporate monsters instead.