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.
- "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.
- 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.
- 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."