I spent most of my working life in IT and a large chunk of that in public service, watching it slowly go down the plughole of outsourced chaos. I say slowly, but the plughole analogy is an apt one. As the process continues, it speeds up.
What remains of a public service ethos rushes at an ever-increasing rate towards the vortex of contracts, profits, bonuses and dividends. Real concern for whatever the poor sod who depends upon the service is called these days, continues to head for the sea while government points in mock astonishment at the failure of complex systems, contracts, contractors, quangos and other service providers that they, themselves, have set up.
One, often overlooked, feature of this service-flushing mechanism, is that it is beset with non-return valves. Once a service has been flushed down the toilet of faceless corporate greed, it has pretty much gone forever and, the examples of private sector players simply “getting away” with failures certainly outnumber the times when they are properly called to account. The answer doesn’t lie in better contracts either. We simply can’t afford to run a shadow service that could enforce taking back a failing private sector service in a timely way.
When I worked at a south London council many years ago, we took the view that we were making such a mess of paying benefits that a private sector partner couldn’t do any worse. Guess what? We were wrong. By the time we could demonstrate that simple fact, we had passed our staff to them; we were using their systems; they had all the data and the case histories; and they were being defensive. We could have gone to the law and probably terminated the contract many times over, but we could not have provided benefits to our claimants in the interim in an area of social provision that remains a nightmare 40 years on.
Introducing third party providers into service delivery is too seductive, too easy, too useful for those actually responsible for service provision, that they find it irresistable. It is a brilliant strategy for those anxious to avoid the consequences of their own failure, as it clearly makes it much more difficult for them to be held directly responsible for anything.
At best it muddies the water. It introduces the possibility of a scapegoat, of problems with “the system” where one or more third parties are involved, of historical problems with the contract, of one or more of the players getting into financial difficulties, of cross finger pointing, and so on.
The term me.gov seems to have arisen from Laura Citron of WPP’s paper “The Next Generation of Digital Government” where it was used to describe the government’s desire to personalise the online citizen interface. But thankfully in the proud tradition of not taking any crap, it was quickly adapted and adopted in its variant form to describe how various parties act when that crap hits the fan. “Not me Gov”, being the apocryphal cry when any shady-looking group of individuals are confronted with the challenge: “Who did this?”
There was always a robust, if dark, sense of humour in local government IT circles and I recall that my own staff credibility was significantly enhanced when, in response to a Senior Management question about what I would do if a risky procedure I was proposing to get us out of a hole, failed, I suggested we should send out for more fans.
This only served to reinforce the widely-held corporate belief that I was not senior management material. The fact that the proposal actually worked didn’t carry as much weight as the “Flippant” way I approached it.
In fairness, I guess they were right. I came to the same conclusion years later after an extended period at Senior Management level in two different authorities, trying to deal logically with various Chief Officers, Chief Executives and Elected Councillors.
A recent example of the “Not me Gov” syndrome (or is a trope these days? – everything seems to be a trope) is the tragedy of Grenfell Towers and the way that all the players shift and dance to avoid being the one left standing when the music stops. Will the music ever stop? Or, if it does, will those most affected still be around to see what happens to those who profited?
Throwing public services down the toilet is also throwing away what used to be called “The Public Service Ethos” and I am left wondering whatever happened to values of decency and personal responsibility? Why have they been replaced with weasel words like “I need to stay on to sort this mess out”, which seems to be code for making sure that the blame ends up somewhere else. Why do we allow our politicians and leaders of business to get away with blaming “systemic failures” and constant arse-covering when they not only should, but do, know better? Why do we allow politicians to be rewarded for failures of epic proportions by being moved quietly sideways? What hold do they have on their masters/mistresses? What loyalties are they invoking? What favours and debts are they cashing in? Or is it just that those in charge are even more daft than their subordinates? Hard to imagine, I know.
Examples are all around us. Almost every time a service is outsourced it goes wrong, or results in excessive profits (or financial collapse in pursuit of excessive profits). Just look at Prisons, Probation, Train franchises, Bus franchises, Brexit Ferry contracts, PFIs of various forms, Health and Care Services, Schools, Building services contracts, Security services, Roads maintenance, Refuse collection, and so on. It seems that we never learn. We are fed a constant Mantra: The market will provide; the market is efficient; the market is sacrosanct.
Actually when it comes to public services, the market is crap.
Trickle-down benefits, my arse! Lets all award ourselves a massive tax rebate by way of a bonus for being such a bunch of chumps. That seems to be the way the market works.
We have spent billions baling out these contracts and it always seems that the public purse picks up the tab while the private shareholders laugh all the way to the bank…and don’t get me started on banks!!
Could this situation have something to do with putting self-interest above all else and then pretending that it is for the good of others?
Maybe we could make it sound more respectable and call it enlightened self-interest?
Hmm, have I heard that somewhere before? Where is Adam Smith when you need him? Maybe alive and well and living in The Virgin Islands.
Of course, other tax havens are available but do not carry the same fortuitous branding.