No government can serve its citizens properly while outsourcing on the scale that this one does. It’s time the practice stopped

For too long, the political parties have believed that public service is bad

Share

An undercover BBC Panorama investigation just found what was described as “systemic fraud” in the management of the tests that are used to gauge which foreign students should be allowed visas to study in the UK. This service is outsourced, partly through the American company ETS, which sets the exams (but does not appoint the invigilators who run the actual tests). It has also just emerged that the Government is preparing to oust Atos Healthcare from its £500m contract for providing work capability assessments of disabled people. Hundreds of thousands of them have been wrongly judged fit for work and therefore ineligible for government support. These are just the latest episodes in the disaster that is the outsourcing of public services by the Government. Failure and fraud are the two themes. How have we come to this?

Remember that from the middle of the 19th century until the early 1970s, we had what was widely believed to be the best Civil Service in the world. It saw the nation through two world wars, the General Strike, the Depression, the Cold War, the liberalisation of the 1960s and into the age of globalisation and high technology. A parliamentary committee recently concluded that a strong Civil Service “remains the most effective way of supporting the democratically elected Government and future administrations in the UK”.

But, alas, we don’t have that any more. Career politicians with little experience of life outside politics have wrecked it. One way, is by suborning civil servants into serving the propaganda needs of the government of the day. Thus, our Whitehall Editor, Oliver Wright, reported recently that senior Tory strategists in Downing Street have issued an edict to government departments effectively banning them from highlighting speeches, initiatives and events that are not central to the party’s key election themes. Charming. At the same time, a civil servant whistleblower alleges that in the Ministry of Justice, the Secretary of State has instructed political special advisers to review every single response to a parliamentary question to ensure that a favourable reply is presented. The whistleblower adds: “As you might imagine, this has infuriated officials at all levels with constant requests for redrafts of accurate answers and by dragging them into the spin machine.”

A second problem is the tendency for Government ministers to scapegoat individual officials, rather than to learn lessons from such failures as the West Coast Main Line franchise fiasco and the debacles at the UK Border Agency. This may be one of the reasons why there has been a very high turnover in senior staff.

Coupled with this unduly negative attitude to the Civil Service is a naïve admiration for the commercial sector. With the political class having, for the most part, zero experience of running business enterprises, it has had difficulty in imagining what could go wrong with outsourcing. Even government departments themselves often fail fully to grasp the nature of the public services for which they are responsible. So they don’t really know where market mechanisms are appropriate to drive service improvement and where they are not.

Then there is the serious problem that outsourcing suppliers often seek to game for their own benefit the reward structures created by commissioners and regulators. Typically they will find ways of “parking” users with complex needs – in other words, unprofitable cases – and of creaming off those who are easier to support, and therefore more remunerative.

For too long, the political parties have believed that public service is bad and private sector is good. It has seemed intuitively correct. But take my experience just yesterday. I went down to my local Marks & Spencer and, as usual, found the staff helpful and the people working at the checkout unfailingly polite and cheerful. Earlier in the day, I had visited my local hospital for a blood test. As I was examining the list of departments inside the entrance to find out where I had to go, a young woman with a clipboard came up and asked if she could help. Which she did. I proceeded to the blood-testing department, ready to read my newspapers while I waited. There was no delay. I was in and out in five minutes. Private service good, public service good.

So this is the question. Can we recreate an effective Civil Service and public service, well regarded by Parliament and voters alike, in which people are proud to serve? It needn’t be more expensive. Then we could largely dispense with outsourcing and the difficulties it brings.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'