Seven years ago, the Stirrer’s correspondent (The Spook) predicted that one day the powers that be will realise that services should be designed and managed by the ‘undoubted experts’ that exist within the council.
S/he explained that they would be more practical and less expensive than those designed by “by cavalier consultants and back room HR boffins who have no conception of delivering a service and are only concerned that “procedures” are followed and “statistics” are recorded, irrespective of how impractical and resource wasting this might be.
Yesterday the Financial Times predicted that Learndirect, a company owned by the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank, is at risk of collapse, following a report by Ofsted. This prompted a data search which revealed 2013-4 as vintage years for complaints about the performance and cost of outsourcing companies.
Last year a survey of 36 strategic public-private partnerships signed between 2000 and 2007 found that 13 of the contracts – ranging from 7 to 15 years and covering IT, back-office functions, property management and highways – have gone back in-house at the end of contract or as a result of early terminations. In more than a third of cases, councils found that delivering services in-house could save more than outsourcing to commercial companies in long-term, multi-service partnerships. A return to designing, staffing and over-seeing services in-house can improve performance, reduce costs and provide stable employment for local people at all levels, with money circulating in the area, instead of going to distant shareholders.
The New Statesman noted that many companies featured on their list of nine spectacular’ council outsourcing failures were said to be looking “excitedly” at the NHS – hoping for “heaps of public money, ditching service the second the contract is framed and delivering huge returns to their shareholders”. Its 2014 article opened:
“One of the many concepts that free marketeers refuse to abandon in the face of all evidence is the idea that the private sector is better at providing public services than the public sector. Private companies have been cashing in on this fable for years at council and government level. As we file this report, another glorious outsourcing triumph is breaking: the Ministry of Justice has asked police to investigate alleged fraudulent behaviour by Serco staff in its Prisoner Escort and Custodial Services contract”. An online search will reveal that this is one of many problems reported in different countries.
Punitive contract ‘get out’ clauses – real or imagined
The article also listed the amount councils have had to spend to get out of private sector contracts and/or to deal with contract disputes and cost overruns. Note Javelin Park – the Gloucester incinerator contract revelation.
Despite these concerns, four years ago Swindon council brought basic ‘commercial’ services such as waste collection, recycling, highways maintenance and grass cutting, back in-house in order to save an estimated £1.8m. Last year, because of performance problems, financial pressures and NHS policy shifts, Swindon also decided not to renew contract with social work provider SEQOL.
Birmingham City Council recently ended the Service Birmingham Joint Venture with Capita which provided the Council’s information technology, ran the council tax and business rates administration service. The process continues with its move to bring waste and recycling collection in-house.
With reference to Serco, G4S and others – Simon Chesterton goes deeper, beyond issues of cost and efficiency:
He asks (left) whether there should be any limits on government capacity to outsource traditionally “public” functions:
“Can and should a government put out to private tender the fulfilment of military, intelligence, and prison services?
Can and should it transfer control of utilities essential to life, such as the supply of water?”