Thursday, 30 September 2010

A rising tide

I've made much recently of the somewhat abstract phrase 'public service ethos', but feel have failed to really capture why it is so important, how it works and why losing it will be a disaster.

Just now I have been reminded of a set of circumstances which illustrate the point I am trying to make. I was once told that whilst my Local Authorities in-house care agency would assist other agencies in the private and third sectors with improving standards by spreading best-practice the agencies in the private sector would not reciprocate as they did not wish to give their competitors any advantage.

In other words whilst the public sector took a co-operative approach, seeking a rising tide which would raise all boats the private sector with its ethos of competition has little interest in the bigger picture.

This is why we cannot let go of the ideals of public service.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A vision of the future

On the topic of the perils of contracting-out another story about the care market. 40 homes of agencies shut down after involvement with CQC this year.

The strange thing about social-care is that for what is the Cinderella end of the welfare state (Most of my fellow social policy students interest being focused on 'sexier' topics like the NHS) it has been at the forefront of contracting-out ever since the NHS and Comm. Care act 1990 instituted the purchaser/ provider split. Helped by comparatively low-barriers to entry compared to other sectors the market in contracting-out has boomed in Social Care along with the associated problems.

A vision of the new kind of welfare state?

Sunday, 26 September 2010

On contracting-out

I am getting older. Despite a perspectives on ageing course I attended a few years ago trying to teach me that age is just a social construct there appears little doubt that I now use my personal stereo for listening to Radio 4 just as much as I do for music.

This Saturday I took the opportunity offered by possibly the last sunny weekend day of the year to get out into the country on my bicycle. As I wound my way down a hillside I was listening to a political show on the station which featured Lib Dem Chris Huhne.

One of the topics was of course the whole business of the 'virtual-council'. Huhne was firmly in the against corner. The point he made was that if a council needs to make changes to improve standards then it can take whatever action it feels is necessary. In a contracting-out system the council cannot act straightforwardly as actions can only be through the framework of the contract.

It seems contracting-out is like giving up owner-occupation for renting. Overall control of the property is lost; if I want to paint my room anything other than magnolia I cannot simply grab a brush and paint-pot I must negotiate with the owner of the property first as per the contract and there is no guarantee they will agree. Then there's issues like long-term planning. Is it worth a renter on a 6 month contract planting an apple tree in the garden or constructing a conservatory knowing they may themselves may not receive future benefit from these? Then there is the issue of increasing housing prices. The owner-occupier and landlord both benefit from increased asset value, the renter loses through higher costs.

There are of course benefits to renting. The Landlord bears responsibility for repairs and building insurance. They must also absorb costs from raises in mortgage interest rates which occur during the lifetime of the contract (though this is only in the short-term as these will be passed on when the contract is up for renewal).

Perhaps unsurprising that not many people who are in the position of owner-occupation would elect to switch to renting.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Virtual-councils: A threat to democracy?

I've seen this one coming for long-time. Ever since my former employers shifted several departments over to Capita with talk of the option of more in the future I had an inkling that councils of the future would consist of just a nucleus of key professionals and managers in an overseeing and strategic role. Front-line work would be carried out on a by staff working for a private sector contractor. Now what is being dubbed the 'virtual council'seems several steps closer to reality.

There are arguments, mainly economic, for this move. Cost-control becomes the responsibility of the contractor and council managers become free of the tiresome jobs of setting up and maintaining the systems and structures which will support their aims; instead they simply issue a diktat and leave the messy practical implementation side to someone else. At this point of course we come up against a economic argument against outsourcing; In a relationship governed by contracts any changes will need to be written into the contract, a costly business.

I don't intend to dwell on the economic however, what concerns me more is the philosophical. In particular the ethos of public service and of democracy.
Many people I worked with were driven by a desire to serve their community often the result of deeply held beliefs both religious and secular in origin. It is why they chose a career in social care rather than a potentially more financially rewarding option. Would this ethos survive in the culture of a private company and would the field be worse off for its disappearance?

Secondly there is the democracy argument. At no point in its history have the links between the public, council officers, and the elected representatives been more opaque and more tenuous. I read some time ago a piece about the proliferation of call centres in local government. Rather than improving contact between the public and those who serve them the article argued that contact centres actually made things worse by preventing the public from directly accessing officers. All this is bad for democracy and its bedfellows of transparency and accountability. Will a fragmented network of contractors make this already worsening situation worse? Will we know who to hold to account when things go wrong or when things happen which we don't agree with; or will our elected representatives shield themselves behind the likes of Capita?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


There is one thing which has been troubling me above almost every other thing. I have noticed over the past couple of years there have been reported several of cases in the media where a vulnerable adult has been subjected to a shocking degree of abuse and even in some cases killed by people whom they regard as friends.

Despite their horrific nature the cases there is little outrage about who should or shouldn't resign, who should be fired or struck-off, and which systems should be changed so this never happens again. The media report these cases as they would any other crime story, as something of course shocking, but ultimately an isolated act; not a wider problem which calls for many difficult questions to be asked.

I have therefore been gladdened to see the Guardian showing signs of picking up on this issue, even using the term 'mate-crime'to describe what has been happening. I would recommend everyone read it. It raises a number of questions which we all need to ask.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Cautionary Tale of Connaught

There's two types of blog posts. There are the ones with a long gestation, a loose idea that time turns over in your head as it is whittled down to finely detailed perfection ready to present to cyberspace. These, for me at least, are rare. They are the type of blog posts I mean to write. Type two, the far more common type, are the type where a news story catches my eye during the day, not any news story, but one which inspires emotion within, maybe anger, maybe sadness, relief or even laughter. It instantly creates the urge to comment to just put something down on the page.

Today the story is about Connaught. Interestingly it crosses over with a post I've been meaning to write for months now, a post about the pros and cons of contracting out in the public sector.

My politics and past experience (school dinners in the early 90s) has led me to take a position of public-sector-good private- sector-bad. For me it was definitely a case of Crapita not Capita and my heart would sink a little everytime I saw the moniker 'working with' on a sweater, leaflet or side of a van. Even free entry to my local swimming baths last week didn't allay my narrow eyed cynicism that standards would plunge now the profit motive was introduced like a shark in the pool.

This is the crux of the issue. Our villain is the profit motive. Victorious in driving back the ethos of public service it eschews a logic of doing things only so far as they are profitable. This is why residential care is in such a mess. Standards cannot rise above the level at which profit ceases to be made.

Is this tough a too simplistic reading? Possibly it is true in some cases but, I find myself feeling increasingly sorry for private sector partners seeing them as victims. This is because in some areas the state drives a very hard bargain. Take residential care again, is the problem the private sector ownership of homes or is the problem of poor standards due to the local authorities who raise their funding for placements at below inflationary rates?

The attractiveness of a contract for a government department, or local authority is the ability to pass the buck. The contractor must decide what to cut when funding is squeezed and must also deal with the blame of any consequences from their cost-cutting. Connaughts demise also shows the risk prospective partners undergo. Government is a big player and now has a whole support industry which depends on it. Firms like Capita just did not exist a little over a decade ago but now generate large profits from public service contracting. Markets though shift and power with it, will government begin to assert its power in a not dissimilar was to a supermarket chain over a small producer, or will contractors find new strategies to fight back.