Posts Tagged ‘public services’

In times of austerity, people stick rather than twist

25/09/2011, 10:25:40 AM

by Stella Creasy

In times of economic fear, the political pendulum swings firmly to the purse. A public concerned about losing their job or rising prices wants a government that understands what matters is how their bills are paid. It is a politics not of public services but personal futures. Any party seeming profligate is given short shrift.

The consequences of this government’s debt fixation are now obvious: growth draining from our economy; unemployment pouring in. If this carries on, by 2015 inequality will have worsened and public services could be in tatters. Against such a backdrop, it is tempting to imagine the pendulum swinging back, returning Labour to office to pick up the pieces. Yet in such circumstances, people stick rather than twist. They may know Conservatives are more interested in the bottom line than the front line, but have little faith in any alternative. In this age of austerity, Labour has to rebuild confidence in our economic approach, so that we can redefine the case for progressive politics.

We should acknowledge our past as we plan for our future. Many have chewed over Labour’s fiscal policy – but this is only half the story. As a member of the public accounts committee, it is a privilege and a provocation to analyse how the previous government changed lives. There will be more pupils learning maths and sciences. We built a series of children’s centres of which earlier generations of progressives could only dream. The youth justice board reformed Britain’s capacity to tackle youth offending.

We must also be willing to learn from the difficulties we faced – whether within healthcare, defence contracting or transport infrastructure management. Our opposition is quick to argue that these reflect poor policy. But, as they are discovering, ideas are not the same as implementation. Already our committee has highlighted that their proposals for healthcare, PFI and the future jobs fund do not stand the test of value for money.


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This government couldn’t outsource a booze-up in a brewery

15/03/2011, 10:00:14 AM

by Dan Cooke

If the Tory-Lib Dem administration has one big, transformative vision, it is that government should do less itself – and enable others to do more. Even in accepting that public goods cannot be delivered by the unfettered market, the government contends that they will only ever be delivered shoddily by the unmediated state. So it proposes a more modest role for itself as funder, procurer and regulator of services, with delivery transferred as far as possible to the private or charitable sectors.

Apparently unafraid of taking this vision to its extreme, David Cameron argued last month that there should be a:

“presumption – backed up by new rights for public service users and a new system of independent adjudication – that public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service”.

Acknowledging a couple of caveats about the judiciary and the security services – an encouraging sign of at least a few seconds brainstorming before opening his mouth – the prime minister promised that a full white paper setting out more detail would follow within a fortnight. However, four weeks later it is yet to materialise.

Leaving aside the fundamental questions about whether profit-making businesses should be running core public services, it is clear that any material shift in the direction proposed by Cameron would require an enormous practical change in the operation and required skills of government. Much of a civil service built on a tradition of management and direction would need to convert into procurement and contracting functions.

The procurement of high value, long-term and complex services is a difficult and risky business. It requires the buyer to engage with contractual counterparties in a way that adequately weighs – among other things – value, incentives, risk transfer, compensation rights and change management. Achieving successful outcomes by these metrics is a task that regularly defeats the teams of specialised and well-paid analysts and lawyers who run big-ticket procurement in our major private companies. And this is hardly surprising. Contracting is a zero sum game where one party’s protection from risk is the other’s assumption of risk – whether in relation to time slippage or cost overruns, change in demand, adjustments in scope or any of the other infinite uncertainties the future may bring.

In the past, under all parties, the record of government in navigating these shark- infested waters has been woeful. PFI was sold as a way of transferring long-term operating risk to contractors in a way that outweighed the additional costs of private sector borrowing compared to public debt. And, yes, it also took liabilities off the government’s balance sheet. However, the reality was public lock-in to exorbitant rental payments and the transfer of exclusive rights to provide lucrative services from car-parking to Christmas trees. The story with government purchasing of IT services has been no more encouraging and the procurement travails of the ministry of defence require no repeating.

If we add to the mix the challenges of maintaining transparency and accountability if the scope of contracting out of core services is increased, then it is clear that the risks of failure are even greater. The government’s first significant effort, with the expansion of private involvement in health planned under the NHS bill, is far from encouraging. Identifying conflicts of interest among bidders would be high on the list of concerns for a private sector procurement manager, but Andrew Lansley and his team simply forgot to think about the issue until others pointed it out.

So are ministers now thinking deep thoughts about how to manage the necessary transformation in contracting capacity? Is the civil service being primed to become expert in sophisticated procurement?

Well, they did fly in Philip Green from Switzerland to review the government buying process. He generated headlines with examples of inconsistent pricing for paper and phones. And some more with the dubious advice that government should save cash by paying its suppliers late: “there is no reason why the thinking in the public sector needs to be any different from the private sector”.

But this is no more commercial wisdom than could be gleaned from watching half a series of Only Fools and Horses. Great if the government wants to organise a car boot sale. But a pitiful start to recalibrating the public sector to achieve acceptable outcomes from the mass outsourcing of services so glibly proposed.

Once again, it is clear that our current leaders – in their own eyes, born to rule but, in reality, not trained to run a whelk-stall – simply do not grasp the complexity of governing. Private companies which contract out a fraction of their own activities have a “chief procurement officer” on the board. But this government, which boasts of an open door to competition in services, just has a “cheap promises officer” in No.10.

So here’s a prediction: when they do publish the delayed white paper it will be followed by at least one more on the same topic for every year of the government’s term. But none of them will describe how the presumption of competition promised by Cameron will actually work. In short, none of them will be worth the paper they are written on. And the government will probably still be paying over the odds for the paper.

Dan Cooke is a Labour activist and lawyer.

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We must plan to do more for less, says Jonathan Todd

29/09/2010, 02:30:48 PM

“Facing a new world with new challenges, we need to think again about how we can best serve the people we seek to represent”.

So argues an email which Ed Miliband sent to Labour party members last night. As Ed acknowledged in his conference speech yesterday, one of this new world’s realities, even if we were to now have a Labour government, is the necessity of cuts; and one of the challenges, therefore, is to deliver more for less.

Deficit reduction, however, has simply brought into sharper focus an inescapable trend. An ageing society makes ever less viable established means of financing and delivering pensions, health and social care. Innovation will remain a precondition of improved public services beyond the correction of the structural deficit, which all major parties are committed to achieving over this parliament. Successful adaptation to our cold fiscal climate isn’t simply about muddling through coming years but of making sustainable for the long-term, given profound demographic shifts, vital public services. (more…)

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We must be the party of radical public service reform, says John Woodcock

09/08/2010, 11:26:13 AM

The immediate aftermath of a very bad election result is not the ideal time for Labour to produce radical, worked up plans to transform our public services. So we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that none of our leadership candidates has come up with anything to set the contest alight. One or two decent ideas have been floated. The proposal by my favoured candidate David Miliband to mutualise the BBC is pretty good, but it is not the humdinger to win us back the south of England.


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Tuesday News Review – The Budget

22/06/2010, 08:03:24 AM

Now is the time to fight

George Osborne to unveil his emergency budget

“So tomorrow, when George Osborne puts the fragile recovery at risk with his ideological onslaught on public services, by pretending the economy is worse than it is, and using the quisling Lib Dems as political cover, it will be up to acting leader Harriet Harman and shadow chancellor Alistair Darling to lead the Labour response. But it is also important that the David and Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott pile in, and do so with real impact. Not just as a way of highlighting the risk Osborne and Co pose, but as a way of showing party and country what they have by way of argument, strategy and fight.” Alastair Campbell Blog

“Labour leadership candidate Ed Balls warned: “A VAT increase would hit the poorest hardest – pensioners, the unemployed, those on lower incomes.” – The Mirror

“Leaderless they may be, but Labour MPs are able to agree on a common line to use against the Government’s deficit-reduction plans. They argue that the public expenditure cuts to be announced later today by the Chancellor George Osborne reflect not necessity but desire bordering on the sadistic.” – The Independent

“Yesterday Labour leadership contender Ed Miliband called on Lib Dem MPs to vote against the Budget. “I say to the Lib Dems very clearly that they should exercise their consciences and be willing to oppose this Budget, on issues such as VAT and fairness,” he said.” – City AM

“Alistair Darling, free at last of Mr Brown’s budgetary meddling, is almost a lone defender of his party’s economic legacy (which is not as grim as Mr Osborne pretends). While the leadership contenders have done some Osborne-bashing, none offers a coherent vision of how capitalism can be reconnected to the public good.” – The Telegraph

“Labour’s reply to the Budget in the Commons will come from the party’s stand-in leader, Harriet Harman. But Labour’s big hitters are already predicting tax rises and claiming they will hit the poor hardest. The shadow chancellor Alistair Darling told Sky News he would be “absolutely astonished” if VAT does not go up, probably up to 20%. “If you need money, income tax and VAT are the cash cows,” he said.” – Sky News

Darling defends his legacy

“Former chancellor Alistair Darling said a move from the RPI Index to the CPI Index, which he believed Mr Osborne would announce and which would save the exchequer £1 billion if he did, had been discussed when he was still in the treasury […] Unlike other senior Labour figures, Mr Darling, who is not a leadership candidate, sought to adopt a reasonable approach: accepting the need for some cuts, but disapproving of others.” – Irish Times

Alistair Darling, not a man given to hyperbole, is on top form defending his economic legacy and attacking what he sees as ideological cuts from the Tory-led coalition. He has been a regular on the air-waves at a time when Labour lacks leadership, and this passionate piece in the Observer was a model Keynesian take-down of the Government’s fiscal plans.” – The New Statesman


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