Monday, 21 January 2013

How to reform public services?

If you're looking for a little light reading, you might try this collection of essays by a group of Conservatives calling themselves Bright Blue.  All political parties have such groups, who want to demonstrate how progressive / radical they are.  This one interests us chiefly because one of the contributors is Jonty Olliff-Cooper, of A4e.  Scroll to page 47 (unless, of course, you want to read the rest as well).  It's entitled "Better, cheaper, more human - building progressive Conservative public services".  Jonty is obviously very proud of it.  To be sure, there's a disclaimer at the end of the article that it's his personal opinion and not necessarily that of his employers; but there's a great deal in it which chimes very well with ideas which A4e has been pushing since long before JOC joined them.
JOC and I start from fundamentally different positions, both philosophically and practically, on public services, privatisation and outsourcing.  I believe in a mixed economy.  There is a place for the private sector.  Conservatives believe in the free market unconfined, in the profit motif as the best incentive to doing anything.  Yet at the outset of the article JOC says: "As progressive conservatives, we should reject the orthodoxy that the private sector is the only route to growth. It is not. A flourishing economy requires quality public services too, to educate its workforce, get people back to high-quality work, keep its population healthy, reskill workers in declining industries, and attack the social evils of crime, disillusionment and addiction, which drive up taxes."  It sounds hopeful.  Public services are necessary.  But: "across the political spectrum, the expert consensus is that many public services intervene too late, are too bureaucratic and expensive, and do not give people what they really need or want."  This is an assertion without evidence, but it's preparing the ground for something which is introduced later in the piece.  Services, he believes, should be delivered on a "right to try" basis, ending the monopoly of the public sector; a position where "government stops trying to do everything itself, and instead pays whoever is best able to meet its objectives."  He continues to write in defence of the public sector.  It's not its fault if it doesn't work properly.  Where is this going, one wonders.
This country has a great deal of experience now with outsourcing.  We know exactly what can go wrong.  But this experience is never reflected in the visions of the ideologues.  As JOC developes his argument, and talks about "where we are going wrong" he neglects entirely the reality of years of private sector involvement in the delivery of public services.  "Current provision fails because it finds it hard to see the whole person," he says.  What follows is very much A4e's long-held belief in a sort of wrap-around contract which tackles all the perceived needs of the people whose behaviour government wants to change.  Mental health, addiction, offending, unemployment, debt - all should be addressed by an integrated approach rather than piecemeal with separate contracts.  While his analysis sounds perfectly reasonable, the implications are not.
He gives three options.  The first is to "Stop specifying the process; start specifying the end point."  This boils down to something like the Work Programme; a clear definition of an outcome and payment only on results achieved.  Well, that's working well, isn't it?  The WP was never solely PBR because it cost too much to deliver the service (I use the word loosely) before any outcomes could be achieved.  The new outsourcing of the Probation Service is to be on PBR but, we gather, in a modified fashion.  This option also leads to the "We don't care what you do as long as you get results" approach, which leaves the hapless client with no rights.
Second, JOC wants to "Slash commissioning bureacracy".  This is where the thesis unravels.  He wants a "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach, permitting anyone who thinks they can deliver a service to try to do so, a licence system, paying by results.  This would not exclude the public sector, he insists, which could compete if it wanted to.
In both the NHS and education we are seeing private and public sectors "competing" but the end result is not in doubt.  There was a move recently by Monitor, the body charged with overseeing the changes in the NHS, to recommend that private companies should not be charged corporate taxes because the public sector did not pay them.  This seems to have been quashed for the moment, but will certainly continue to be an issue.  In education, the public sector, i.e. local councils, are increasingly being left with no role except to pick up the pieces.  They cannot compete, and nor should they.
The fact is that, especially in the sort of services JOC envisages, the public sector cannot compete with private companies.  Who would be doing the commissioning?  A council cannot put a service out to tender and then bid for it itself.  Is it, then, supposed to watch a private company set up a rival service and pay them for outcomes?  That might be attractive to a big private business, but a council is answerable to its residents, not to shareholders, and would not be able to maintain a department which had a diminishing role; nor could it run a department at a loss, as businesses are willing to do.  There are instances of local councils bidding for contracts from government.  This works only as long as the contract is profitable.  In the current climate (or in any climate, come to that) no council or other public body would be in a position to lay out money on a gamble that it could make a PBR contract pay.
Experience also tells us that the flourishing start-ups JOC foresees would soon disappear.  We have three or four huge outsourcing companies in this country, and if the government wants to spread the net wider it has to look abroad.  Small enterprises rapidly get swallowed up or driven out by the big players, who are prepared to work at a loss if it secures them long-term business.  JOC's vision is a fantasy.
His third point returns to the delights of PBR.  "The deeper the need, the deeper the help", he heads it, and could add "the bigger the payment".  He rejects the idea that this is "naked Tory privatisation" (although nothing he has said convinces me otherwise).  He describes "a person down on their luck", with multiple problems, all of which could have a price to the organisation which could address them; "an organisation that would provide a single source of advice and support, and help you with all your issues, an organisation which understood you, your family, and the place where you grew up; one that would stand by you for the long term; treat you like a human, not a number; and back you to build a different future for yourself."  I don't think he means to be patronising.
As a vision of public service reform, this is deeply flawed.  It professes to admire the public sector whilst putting forward plans which would wipe it out.  


  1. PBR in theory would work, However that is all it is a theory. PBR means how can we maximise our profits, we shall do the least we can and rely on those people who apply who do everything, and claim the results. Giving proper education/training for people costs money, Things that will help people get a long term job, Now we come back to the How can we maximise our income. Now I am not saying they all do this just the Major companies appear to be doing this. This PBR is also a short termism dream, Invest in true training true education and in the long term the skill set of the unemployed will rise and make them a better selling point, But once again this costs money. The smaller companies (precious few of them) cant afford to invest this way, the Bigger wont invest and the people who really suffer are the unemployed.

  2. Private Sector good Public Sector bad (or vice versa) is not the best way forward. It is yet another divide and conquer tactic used by the government and various think tanks to persuade people into a particular line of thinking and ultimately get their policies accepted and made law.

    This thinking permeates a long way down. For example, this morning on BBC Radio 5 Live, there was a phone in asking why Britain struggles with bad whether in light of the recent snow. A couple of callers blamed the public sector for being 'lazy' when it came to operating in the snow. One mentioned how trains came to a halt and another had a go at his local bin men. Both said this clearly without realising that trains are now in private hands (despite relying on public subsidies) and refuse collection in most towns and cities is carried out by private waste management companies!

    This bit by Cooper is a good 'un:

    "Co-production – inviting the people who actually use a service to be involved in designing or running it"

    Sounds nice and fluffy. Who does he actually mean though? Take the Work program for example. If he (Cooper) means the clients, the actual end users of the WP, then he really should see how such people are dismissed and indeed called virtual liars when simple criticising the scheme. Look at how Emma Harrison reacted on the recent CH4 News interview. She called one of A4e's clients' claim of being seen only once a month "improbable". She did similar to me in an email exchange a couple of years ago! So how on Earth can "inviting the people who actually use a service to be involved in designing or running it" be achieved when these very same people are likely to be ignored and have their fears and concerns dismissed?

  3. The Welfare State was created specifically because the private sector could NOT cope with social and economic hardship.

    Lets take a more recent example of private sector inititive - the Work Programme. It has failed miserably. I have been on the WP 13 months and have had no help whatsoever. No job offers, no job interviews, no work experience opportunities, no work placement oppportunities, no training, no re-training. Nothing.

    They do not want to help.

    That said, I never got any help from the Job Centre either.

    The problem of unemployment (and social and ecomomic hardship) is far more complex than simply outsourcing social services to the private sector.

    We need DIRECT and PRACTICAL help.

    1. I've been on the WP for the same amount of time and have experienced pretty much the same thing as you have and it disgusts me that this "programme" has cost 5 billion pound. I hate to say it, but I agree with these people that say that we would be better off without the WP than with it. One of the first things my current WP advisor told me when I met them early last year was "we need to start speeding things up now", they've said it again twice since then and I still feel no closer to getting a job since they first said it. I only see my advisor once every 3 months and they have to ask me every time what it is I'm looking for workwise. Doesn't sound very personal to me, sounds more forgetful. I can respect that they have around 2000 clients in my local office but that's not my fault. I was sent there by the JC to get help finding work and it's failed miserably.

      The way these courses should be used is for people making new claims after losing their jobs, not 2 years later when it just comes across as patronising.

    2. They definitely have courses available now, so they can safely say they have an entire range of City and Guilds courses for clients to do. Mainly Employability and Personal Development but possibly they also have others that can be done internally.

      They also have flyers for this organisation

      Whether such courses will help you find a job is of course open to debate, but they are certainly providing courses and skills.

    3. I have been on the WP for 12 months, they have done nothing what so ever to help me. All I have had is a 3 job search sessions, what I do at home, constantly. a mock interview session and a motivation session. I've asked my advisor about real, proper, paid jobs. I was told that is up to you by by doing your job search.On my next appointment I will be seeing a Skills Advisor. Does anyone what to expect from this.

    4. I've been on the WP for almost the two years I was told it lasted and my experience has been pretty much the same. Apart from one terrible woman, the advisors I've met have been nice enough but rather ineffectual. 'Must speed things up now', is a common phrase I've heard too. I don't think they're allowed to do much else.

      Are we allowed to name names in praise? There is one guy, just one, who seems to do his best for all he's allowed freedom to do. He's actually had ideas, called up places and tried to talk to people, the very least the Workfare thing should have done. Though I always thought the labour exchanges did that as part of the service once.


      PS: One thing I thought A4e (or any of the contractors) should have had is a dedicated job database, client privilege access and with good new local vacancies. They had the money and government backing to set one up, surely. Not just the ricketty thing IDS wants compulsory.

  4. The fluffy bunny nonsense from Oliffe-Cooper is just a regurgitation of the paper that has been lurking around an obscure corner of the A4e website for some time. It too was written by him.
    I downloaded it and attempted to read it but eventually was forced to give up for fear that I would burst a blood vessel out of sheer anger at the authour's ignorance of the subject and seemingly blind messianic belief that only he knows how to reform (at a price) our social services. The pity is that insane and uninformed propaganda such as this has an easy and virtually unopposed route to the ears of those in power and before we know it is accepted as the way forward. Look forward to A4e, G4s, Serco, Capita and the other plunderers of the public purse running everything from day care centres, the police, the NHS, etc. etc.
    Where there's a trough expect to find the usual snouts in it.

  5. JOC is aged about 32, I believe, and he told me, in September 2012 via Twitter, that he aspires to become a Tory MP.

    JOC’s articles always amuse me because his thinking is so woolly. Vague, utopian, patrician, patronising theories about how to “help” the poor bluddy plebs via outsourcing all the public service provision involved is all that his articles ever produce.

    I can understand why JOC never produces anything that would convince me. His mother, Dr Anna Olliff-Cooper, is a very senior doctor who works part time via an agency:

    I do not doubt that Dr Olliff-Cooper is very well-educated, skilled, experienced and dedicated to providing genuine medical help to her patients.

    I had the opposite impression of A4E’s Emma Harrison when she appeared on Channel 4 News in October 2012. Mrs Harrison would not have lasted for a minute if the W2W industry were regulated in the same way as the medical profession is.

    I agree with JOC’s contention that the best way to design the provision of a public service is to get the customers of that service, the consumers of it, to help to design it. However, JOC does not go on to describe exactly how this could be done. Therefore he is merely waffling out a few vague, woolly theories, it seems to me.

    JOC – get yourself a *real* job and do it for at least 12 months. Get your head out of the clouds, your feet on the ground and get a *real* job as a bin-man or similar. Prove to me that you are more than merely a precious. privileged petal. Do that first and then I might start to take you seriously, boyo.

  6. I think in this day and age, the digital age that is, we should be looking for more ways of helping ourselves in our pursuit of seeking employment and not relying on the government to do it for us. As well all know too well, the government always looks for the quickest route but not neccesarily the cheapest, which is why we get schemes such as the work programme. Then, to make it seem as if the scheme is working, they start fiddling with numbers and coming up with ridiculous terms and excuses.

    All in all, I would much prefer it if the government just backed off and left people to find work in their own time. This diluting of the benefits system is getting silly now. It's here and it's here to help people who need it. Deal with it, guv.

    As for reforming public services...

    As long as the DWP keep saying "this is mandatory...", there will probably never be public services again. Making stuff mandatory for jobseekers means lining the pockets of private companies. It's sad, but it also happens to be true.

    1. I attended a work programme "Work Shop" recently. Apparently, the reason none of us can find a job is that we lack confidence to telephone companies and ask if they have any jobs. Most jobs are never advertised.

      I thought of the channel four interview with Emma Harrison, the recent story of how over a hundred thousand people are not counted as unemployed because they are in the work programme, and the stats that proved that you have a better chance finding a job on your own than if you are referred to the work programme.

      I sat at a computer to try to find some of these hidden jobs, but gave up when a Sky news story came on about a bank making another 950 people redundant.

      So, at the next Work Shop do I list the evidence of how awful the employment situation is, and how the work programme isn't equipped to deal with it, or do I just sit quietly and suck it up?

      Writing this I have a awful headache. Thinking about it all is making my head hurt.

    2. You're not alone. Right down to the little things, the balances are against you. As I only found today, you're only allowed two absences a year, for whatever reason, and after that you're punished. Two weeks money off. Then three months and so on, if you can't successfully appeal the 'sanctions'. And the woman at the desk sounded almost smug telling me all that when I tried to fix things, when I rang ahead to tell them my bike was broken and I had only half the bus money.

      (Mind, I did escape punishment today, only for the fact I mixed up the appointment days!)

      You do seem to get fewer rights than at work with A4e and Workfare. If things were hard but fair, that would be something else too. But if you're sick or suffering some other emergency, you're punched.

      THEN you have to worry about finding the scarce jobs, or face even more aggro if you can't find the 'right' ones, or enough of them. And that's apart from the seriously disabled pushed into work and no benefits.


  7. Off the subject...I asked the WP why they did not reimburse the actual cost of travel to attend(the max they pay is £3.30) followed the complaint procedure and finally got a letter as a reply "We buy are tickets in bulk from a carrier at a cost of £3.00" ok,but for an unscheduled appointment I am unable to do this..We will post you a ticket..ok post me have to come in and sign for it first..will you pay for me to do this.. yes but to a max of £3.30..but my cost is £ stated we buy in bulk.....obtuse?

  8. Just read John Battle,former MP,saying that unemployment benefits account for only three percent (3%) of the total social security budget.

    1. Makes sense.
      approx 10 million pensioners (£107/week)
      approx 2 million unemployed (£72/week)

      then housing benefit etc for the rest of the budget

      The pensioners have paid tax, but then given that there are 10 million of them and they still vote, nobody would want to upset them too much would they?

    2. Most pensioners still pay tax. The personal allowance before tax is less than the state pension. If you have an occupational pension, however small, and / or any other income, you lose 20% of it.

  9. Work programme coaches say, a person should work part time, all well and good, but........ 16 hours a week is the same as jobseekers allowance, take fromthat bus fares £10 a week even to travel local, and a perrson is worse of than being on jobseekers allowance, what happened to the goverments mantra of "A person will be better of in work under this goverment,?


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