The other day I was expressing sceptism about the launch of yet another strategy by Government to make a better go of outsourcing. I commented on the almsot total lack of proper objective evaluation of the success or othewise of outsourcing, which has gone much further in England than in any other country. I was asked what I thought such evaluation would look like. As the LinkedIn post has vanished, here is my answer:
That is an extremely good question.
A proper objective evaluation would have to be carried out by someone both expert and independent of both commercial and union interests and of Government. It would establish whether there are credible measures of performance, if not, suggest them, look at the data for both sectors, and establish the true costs of each sector. It would look at possible side effects, and at how costs are reduced – whether by reducing wages so far as to propel workers into poverty, for example. It should also consider the type outsourcing – they are many very different types of course, some allowing direct inter-sector competition but many not – and at how well competition has been managed and how it could be managed better. And how well contracts are being managed. And it would look at overall benefits, for exmaple, whether it has stimulated improvement in the public sector.
It would cost a little to do well – by rough reckoning maybe one five hundredth of one per cent of the value of outsourced contracts, per year. But at present, it isn’t done at all. I dont know of one, apart form my own study on prisons. That's not because I'm cleverer than others - it's because I bothered. MoJ has stopped doing it for prisons. When I asked DH what studies they had done for healthcare and social care, they said none. The King’s Fund library has almost nothing. Think of the upheaval that readying the NHS for competition caused under Cameron - and nothing to show for it!
No one has a clue. And yet this huge experiment in out sourcing by far (proportionately) the biggest in the world, rolls on, year after year, in a state of perfect ignorance, unless and until we learn something from the many procurement disasters. For which no Minister and no official ever suffers any consequences whatsoever.
There are two reasons why this has become much more urgent. First, we seem to be witnessing more and more disasters in Government procurement – probation contracts, Birmingham prison, FM contracts, Turkish PPE and Chinese COVID tests, witness the flood of single supplier tenders in recent months and of course, almost anything done by MoD. Second, the coming fiscal and social crisis, triggered by COVID, but coming on top of years of cuts, especially in local government, makes it vital that procurement isn’t for the same old same old, cheaper but degraded, but for a new way of meeting need. So, we are asking an institutionally incompetent Government to be suddenly much cleverer – but without bothering to evaluate what is has done so far.
Sound good to you?
Interesting piece by David Gauke, one of the liberal Tories sacked by Johnson, who says he initially supported the Government on COVID, noting the exceptional and novel challenges it poses, but that he ceased to do so as the sheer number of disasters and misfires mounted up. He makes the point: "A Government that shows humility and honesty will retain the benefit of the doubt, but that runs counter to a ‘never apologise, never explain’ ethos. "
So true. 'Sorry' is one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of any leader (if genuine and if not over-used - and if leading to real improvement), but the more insecure and autocratic the leader, the more it feels to them like weakness to admit they have done anything wrong or failed in any way. I think of the way Martin Narey, my boss, used to go on the media immediately and admit that something that had just gone terribly wrong in prisons WAS indeed terribly wrong and could not be defended. He thus disarmed criticism before it was fairly launched. Johnson, and especially Trump, represent the polar opposite: never apologies. And boy! does that not work!
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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