Saturday, 2 January 2010

"Global leaders in public service reform"

"Global leaders in public service reform" - that's how A4e describe themselves on their website - and David Blunkett MP uses the term in his entry in the Register of Members' Interests . ["Adviser on business development to A4e Ltd; global public service reform. (£25,001–£30,000 per financial year) I occasionally travel overseas on behalf of the company."] And in numerous other places they call themselves experts in "welfare reform". It's that word "reform" that bugs me. I believe, perhaps naively, that it's governments which reform such things as public service and welfare benefits. Whoever implements the decisions, it's government which make the decisions. So what reforms have A4e been leading? It couldn't have been with the old New Deal contracts. They were run by Jobcentre Plus on a regional basis, and A4e was one of many providers that worked to JCP's direction. Was it in 2006 when Blunkett, then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, privatised the organisation of New Deal, and A4e got a large number of regional contracts? Those contracts weren't exactly a roaring success - hardly any skills training, loads of resentful clients and half the expected job outcomes. So perhaps A4e led the reform which resulted in Flexible New Deal? Emma Harrison likes to say that she lobbied government to change the way the existing contracts worked. But FND seems to have been largely the work of David Freud, and the contracts were resisted by all the providers (some didn't even bid) because so much of the payment was dependent on sustainable job outcomes. It is doubtful whether A4e are leading the Conservatives' promised reforms, since these take David Freud's proposals in their entirety as their model. And the company no longer dominates this market in the UK.
But "Global leaders in public service reform" reflects a more expansive vision of A4e's activities, and a long list of contracts in education, advice, healthcare etc. in many countries. And perhaps the word "reform" reflects ambition rather than reality. Public service should be a matter for public servants, and any reforms should be designed and decided by elected representatives of the public.

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