Came-wrong or Camer-on-the-other-hand?


At the risk of breaking the boundaries of anonymity, I can reveal that I’m too young to have experienced the Thatcher years.  I was alive through them, but was only aware of them as much as I now know of the Hadron Collider: it exists, it’s all pretty complicated and people either think it will give loads of answers or destroy the world.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the same words are starting to spring up around the latest incarnation of Tory government.  Privitisation, attacks on local services, greedy bankers: all of these are things which my parents talk all about but which I am just preparing to form a solid opinion of.  And you know what: I’m on the fence.

David Cameron’s recent announcement that businesses and charities will now have the ability to compete to deliver the services which in recent years have been coming solely from the public sector has been criticised from many corners for potentially destroying those services and opening the door for the private sector to bleed us all dry.  There is no way that any private company will do anything that doesn’t make them money, even if that means providing a sub-standard service and charging ever-increasing costs to do so.  Or does it?

Private sector companies and charities working to a contract have a very clearly defined role during it; to deliver a service to agreed standards for an agreed period of time.  Assuming they do that, they get paid for it.  If they don’t deliver they should get less or even no money, and a bad reputation to match, which again results in fewer funding opportunities in future.  Yes, some of them might scrape their way through and manage to keep their reputation intact to a degree, but I’m wondering how different that is to how things are done at the minute.

I’ve lost count of the number of projects I’ve encountered in the public sector which have been badly thought out, terribly executed and then moved on from with barely a hint of recrimination or evaluation.  If something doesn’t go as well as planned there are plenty of other projects to be working on, and everyone is so busy anyway that the only important project is the next one you are working on.  We’ve spoken before about the public sector’s seeming inability to effectively project manage a piece of work, and few who have worked in the sector can hand on heart say that they’ve never seen corners cut.

I want to be clear here that I’m not saying that all work undertaken is badly done or all mistakes are covered up, merely that the public sector is no better or worse at it than any other sector.  The big difference is that when something goes wrong the team or service involved can’t be changed: those people are usually there on a permanent contract and are rarely held responsible, so are shifted to other teams to repeat the process under constantly trying circumstances.

Should this grand plan of DC’s ever go ahead (and he’ll have one heck of a fight pushing it through) then at the very least local government will have the option of properly monitoring things with serious consequences should a contracted service not be delivered.  And this for me is where the whole idea, at least initially, falls down.  This idea will only ever work if the contracts are well planned at the procurment stage, contracts are openly bid for, with the best organisation being chosen and then properly performance managed from initial stages through to eventual evaluation.  This is not easy, especially on the scale demanded from local goverment, and requires a whole generation of project managers to come to the fore.  It also requires senior managers to have the bottle to withold payment for unsatisfactory work, something that rarely if ever happens.

I also have a problem with the attitudes of many of the naysayers, who claim that every service will now go the way of national rail and see every cost cut to increase profits.  From my limited understanding, this is opening up the doors for charities and businesses (and please let’s not forget the former here, who could be seriously boosted with the extra funding on offer) to bid for businesses against local government.  That’s bid, not get.  If we in local government truly think that we are best placed to deliver these services, we should have a strong enough case to prove it.  If we have all of the skills, experience, links with communities and ideas, we will continue to deliver the work as we will be the prefered bidders.If not, then as long as the process is fair (perhaps one of the bones of contention) the best service delivers will provide the services, meaning local people win.  As long as Councils are strong about the contracts and performance management, the really important people will not lose out.

In these times of little money and increasing demand, let’s make sure that we are spending our time and money on delivering the things that we should be, rather than the things we could be.  Leave the bells and whistles to the dancers and get on with judging and rating.

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One Comment on “Came-wrong or Camer-on-the-other-hand?”

  1. Jeremiah Says:

    Well, I did work through the Thatcher years, and I think we’ve moved on a bit since then. We mostly now have a better idea how to do the commissioning, procurement and performance management to maintain the quality of a service.

    But as you say it isn’t easy – nor is it cheap. It means spending more on those activities, and less on the actual delivery of services.

    If done well, that can actually pay off by shaping services more accurately to meet the real needs. If done badly, it just creates bureaucracy that does nothing to prevent a race to the bottom in terms of both cost and quality of service.

    Will local government grasp this nettle and invest in the skills and capacity to do it well? From past experience, and because of the current zeitgeist, I doubt it. And that’s why DC’s announcement is scary.

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