Friday, 1 July 2011

Maximum snoutage, minimum accountability

Of all the mantras peddled around the "outsourcing" and privatisation debates, the loudest and least defensible is the accountability and responsiveness.  With the fervency of doorstep evangelists, the apostles of private greed trot out the meretricious canard that their self-interest will in some way revolutionise the delivery of basic communal services and in some way generate efficiencies that will cancel out the skimmed-off snoutage.

In a parallel universe, where capitalists are benign, pigs fly and Nick Clegg is a hardened, radical leader, this might in theory be the case.  Yet everthing that has been inflicted upon the country since the 1980s tends to demonstrate that the real impact of washing government's hands of responsibility is to make it extremely difficult to work out who to blame when the inevitable disasters occur.  As it's outsourced, you can't blame your MP, councillor or even the bureaucracy.

The corpse of public service is a source of nourishment for parasites, be they regulators or lawyers.  Put together a contract to replace a simple proposition (for example that you are going to be providing the services of a local GP) and you end up with several hundred pages of legal language with service level agreements, penalty and performance regimes and a very large sum of money to be paid out both to the service concerned and to those responsible for drawing up the contracts, and supposedly monitoring and enforcing them.  However the complexity and the tedium tends to deter all but the most avid followers of regulatory footwork.

It's all designed to ensure that "not my fault" is the base option for government, and that you can't work out who the hell to complain to.  The one logic is that democratic processes should be in play, but the complexity of this defeats the party partisans who tend to dominate local government and the backbenches.  Listening to local government discussions these days the combination of the dominance by overpaid, unelected Chief Officers and the ovine tendencies of the lobby-fodder the Tories, in particular,seem to favour, the emasculation of elected representatives means that there is no challenge, and that any time someone threatens to rock the boat the politicians are advised that the "legal processes are expensive".

That the Tories hold the people in contempt is not difficult to recognise - after all the risible Eric Pickles is in charge of local government.  Labour and the Liberals have nothing to be proud of either - everything that has been done in outsourcing, be it PFI, PPP or any of the other accountant-feeding acronyms, has always been justified in terms of short-term cash savings and "protecting services", whereas in fact it has removed local control and created a long-term obligation that will dwarf the alleged economies, while tying in the extraction of profit from public service and services that are calcified into delivering a contracted output rather than responding to change as life develops.

Modern life is probably too complex to unwind all of this - but arrangements that are too complex and too greedy for politicians to understand, and where there is the suspicion of self-interest and sleaze are clearly not right.  The proposition should be that services are designed to be simple to explain, easy to find out who is responsible for their delivery, and where things go wrong they can be sorted out quickly, simple and without resort to legalese, contract-waving and compensation for missed snoutage.  If Pickles is serious about "localism",which is rather akin to suggesting that King Herod should take over child-care in Haringey, then there needs to be a simplicity and profit-minimising objective.

Turkeys don't vote for Christmas - we need to be able to vote for public services.

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