Sunday, 7 October 2012

The right debate?

There's been an interesting discussion on the Guardian's website about outsourcing in local government.  A "panel" of eleven people with professional interests in the subject took part - they included A4e's Jonty Olliff-Cooper - but other people could join in as well.  Ploughing through the whole thing will probably make you glaze over.  The people who are opposed to, or wary of, outsourcing are outnumbered, but raise obvious points about the way in which the private sector running a monopoly sucks money away from service delivery, the dangers of failed contracts having to be expensively returned to the public sector, and the unaccountability inherent in long contracts.

There are two aspects of this discussion which interest me.  The first concerns language.  All businesses and areas of interest have their own jargon, which saves time among insiders.  But it can also serve to shut out other people.  Worse, it can be used to create an illusion that only an elite understands these things.  The language of the discourse becomes opaque and virtually devoid of meaning - but it sounds good.  Neologisms are coined casually, and no one dare ask what they mean.  It becomes very competitive.  And language can be used to shift meaning, to redefine and rebrand.  Take the use of the word "commissioning" in this debate.  What you and I know as outsourcing, contracting out, becomes something else, in a way that's hard to define.  Olliff-Cooper's use of language throughout the discussion illustrates all of these points. It might be an interesting exercise for someone (not me) to analyse it.  But what matters is that for him and many of the other participants the question is not, "Can local government survive without the private sector?" (the original question posed by the piece) but rather how much more of the functions of local government can we contract out.  There is no moral dimension; even issues of democratic accountability can be brushed aside.

The second interesting aspect of the discussion is what it tells us about A4e's plans and ambitions. 
  1. "At my firm, A4e, we are going to be crowdsourcing what data it is that people would like to see."  Olliff-Cooper then states the obvious caveats, that basically you can't do it.  If you're wondering what "crowdsourcing" means, try Wikipedia.  You won't be much the wiser, because the definition appears to be elastic, but it seems to mean most commonly "outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people".  Whatever, he is reaffirming A4e's intention to be open and transparent.
  2. They have grasped that there is a difference between what Olliff-Cooper calls human and commodity services, and states the problems that this raises quite sensibly.  His solution, however, is "outcome commissioning, or, to put it in less wonky terms, picking what it is that you care about and paying for successfully getting that."  There are huge moral implications to this, of course.
  3. The ambition to have contracts which embrace all aspects of people's lives is still there.  He talks about commissioning "for more than one outcome: providers being repsonsible for helping a person in the round, with their debt, their mental health, their employment, offending, etc."  
So it was an interesting debate, but not the one we need to have.

1 comment:

  1. Whenever i hear the word Transparent I read it to mean cannot be seen at all.


Keep it clean, please. No abusive comments will be approved, so don't indulge in insults. If you wish to contact me, post a comment beginning with "not for publication".