You wouldn't want G4S running it. You certainly wouldn't want A4e running it. How about Serco? One of David Cameron's "big society" ideas is for a National Citizen Service for youngsters over 16. Naturally someone has to make money by running it, and, according to the Observer, is in line to win 8 of the 19 contracts currently up for tender. As with the Work Programme, charities are involved to deliver it, but many charities are complaining that they are being forced out of existence in favour of the big private companies. The government doesn't care about that. Indeed, it isn't capable of comprehending that there could be a problem.
The Guardian gave a platform to Martyn Hart of the National Outsourcing Association to explain why outsourcing is "here to stay". He insists that, "Outsourcing is far from privatisation – done properly, the client remains in control at all times. The client's purchasing a service, over a long period of time: as paying customer, they are perfectly entitled to specify exactly what they want. But a key facet of outsourcing is the shared bearing of risk: the partners are in it together. Not just financially, but also in terms of reputation. If things go wrong, both brands are weakened and, in the case of the supplier, future custom is jeopardised."
Now, I understand the difference between outsourcing and the kind of privatisation he's talking about. But it's a distinction which becomes less and less relevant when the private companies are large enough to call the shots on these contracts. We saw it with the Work Programme; the contracts were not what the government had originally intended because the only companies large enough to bid wouldn't play unless they got their way, over attachment fees, lack of inspection and so on. Cameron's National Citizen Service will have been designed in conjunction with Serco and others. And the blurring of boundaries between government and these companies - ex ministers on the boards, friends in the boardrooms - works against the idea of partners sharing risk. The only risk is to the taxpayer. We effectively have privatisation of government.
Something else leaps out from Hart's article. The "partners" in outsourcing do not include the people for whom the services are supposedly designed. This is business.