Saturday, September 12, 2009

Let's Embrace Outsourcing

The 2010s will I believe be the decade that Councils stopped doing things. Or rather stopped doing things themselves and focussed on their core business of making sure things got done. For that is actually their purpose. They are not there to do things. And when they do, they're not normally very good at it (I can say this, I am a Councillor!).

But who would expect them to be any good at any one thing? These are ridiculouly over-diversified organisations. Indeed what other organisation would credibly claim it could competently look after abused children, manage the roads, support carers of older people, redevelop towns and empty the bins? All of these are specialisms. Councils are doing the football equivalent of playing in all positions when in truth they can do only one remotely well.

Barnet, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith, Essex. All of these Councils are leading the way in asking `Why should we deliver this?' and, if there is no compelling reason why, finding someone who can deliver best and cheapest. Although these are all Tory Councils, and I am a Lib Dem, I think history will prove them to be right and that all parties will live with this eventually, rather in the way they did once the Tories did what no-one else thought possible by smashing trade-union power.

The result of Councils asking themselves that big question is that they rapidly come to the conclusion that No, they ought not to be trying to run everything. No other business could run so much well, so why should they? Plus few other businesses are lumbered with the disatrous long-term costs that the public sector still bears (the six months paid sick leave, the king's pension etc). It makes sense to have fewer of these people on the books.

The logical outcome of all this is a much bigger future role for the private and third sectors. Now, the private sector is already limbering up, getting ready to run on the pitch. The third sector dressing-room, however, is a less unified place. Some players are hungry, keen to run into the new territory, seeing the possible improvements that can be made to the dismal offer made by local authorities to vulnerable groups.

Others though, while on the team-sheet, are more half-hearted. They want to do things but have reservations about what this might say about them as players. And a small minority are not going on that pitch for love or money. They line up with the Dave Prentice's (Unison leader) of this world and say that the state should continue to do most things and take the rap when it all goes wrong. Because that is democratic and at least the public sector is accountable.

Well, excuse me, this is where I come in, Mr Coucillor. Public services, just because, they are provided by local authorities are not more accountable to elected members than those provided by Capita or Turning Point. I would argue in fact that in-house services are less accountable. Because, essentially, they are `family'. Giving your family - the people you employ- the hard time they deserve is a lot less difficult than giving it to people in whom you have no other interest than what they do for you (or are saying they are doing). Outsourcing means more accountability, not less.

We stand at an important junction. In 1995, Suffolk County Council employed about 18,000 people. Today that number stands at about 30,000. An increase of over 50%. This is about to change. Not only is there less to spend, we now know that markets must be opened up. It has taken a long time but we're nearly there. The third sector needs to recognise that its time has come and get out on that pitch, determined to win.

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