Abigail Townsend: So what has the private sector done for us?

Outside players must come clean on their contribution to public services
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The Independent Online

For readers who don't live in London, I apologise. I appreciate that the tedious moans and groans emitting from the capital on a regular basis about London Underground will hardly be high on your list of priorities. But the latest local grumble highlights wider issues, not least about our attitudes towards the private sector getting involved in public services.

Last week's ire was directed at Bob Kiley, the American executive once charged with turning round the capital's transport system and now acting as a consultant to Transport for London (TfL). It emerged that he is paid £3,200 a day, though no one at TfL could actually say what, exactly, he does on any one of those days. Cue headlines writ large, general hand-wringing and a larger than normal amount of sneering at Mayor Ken Livingstone.

I am not about to defend Mr Kiley's pay package - £737,500 for 200 days over three years - nor, to be honest, do I really care. Because the problem is not the money, but the lack of clarity about what he does for it, and this is something that many up and down the country seem incapable of getting right.

The country's demand for public services has never been higher. As a population we expect much: good schools, free healthcare and transport that works. May that never change. But we are increasing in numbers and getting older, and supporting it costs money - lots of it. No politician would ever say "good point, let's put up taxes". So as a compromise - and I'm not saying it is ideal - the private sector has been brought in to help out. Of course it is going to want profits in return. But until someone comes up with a better solution, it is the one we are stuck with.

Yet the situation can be improved, and one of the best ways is to increase transparency. Confirming how much consultants are paid is irrelevant. What we want to know is what has been done, in as much detail as possible, to earn it - and that includes both directors and companies. Any profits need to be explained and linked to work done. Everyone - employees, stakeholders and the general public - should be made aware. Questions should be answered. In other words, accountability must be at the forefront at all times.

After all, this is no different to how public companies behave. In the City, when the news is good, everyone is happy. When the news is bad, people are, in one way or another, punished.

Of course private sector companies involved in public services would argue that they already do this. And to an extent they do, publishing results, remuneration packages and annual reports. They have even been known, occasionally, to admit failures. But information needs to be constant, simple to understand and across the board. There also needs to be much more of it. Should this happen, it might actually help sway people's attitudes for the better on private sector involvement. Even possibly in the capital.

Let's not be catty

The other favourite bugbear last week - and this one is enjoyed by everyone, not just southerners - was fat cats. Harriet Harman decided to fall back on something of an old chestnut when she spoke at the Labour Party conference about her dislike of them.

It was just all a bit out of date. The worst aspects of fat cattery have been highlighted, criticised and, by and large, dealt with. No companies dare face the angry investors and dire PR that are guaranteed if they neglect the new-found demand for corporate social responsibility.

I still maintain that much CSR rings hollow, and that only a few companies are looking to bring fundamental changes to the way that they do business. But I do believe we know a great deal more about executive pay packets - and that the City puts up with a great deal less if performance is below par. Huge salaries and bonuses are still the norm, but so are sackings when things don't work out.