It's hard to be fluffy and efficient

The government has to decide whether it outsources for ruthless efficiency or its fluffy "big societ

Ben Phillips writes for Left Foot Forward:

One of the big ideas behind the government’s welfare reforms is that local charities would be better at getting the unemployed into work than government.

It just so happened that there would be a middleman – often a big contractor like A4e that. . . carries £200 million of public sector contracts.

Once the contractor takes on the case, they then find a subcontractor – the small local organisation – who will actually help secure employment for the jobseeker.

Except that specialist trade magazine Third Sector have reported the majority of welfare-to-work subcontractors in one survey have had precisely no client referrals.

This seems to be a pattern in initiatives aimed at harnessing the power of the "big society". It's fundamentally a mismatch between two competing – and contradictory – aims of outsourcing. Normally, the state outsources because it thinks the private sector can do a better job; if there's an element of publicity in it, its that governments sometimes like to be seen to be reducing the burden of the public sector.

Under the Conservatives, a second aim has been grafted on to that: make the government look fluffy. The rhetoric of the big society isn't just about removing the government, but also about putting power back in the hands of the people. Unfortunately, transferring control of, in this instance, the welfare-to-work schemes from a government to a massive outsourcing firm doesn't achieve that goal particularly well.

Hence this strange split-level structure. The government can't afford to deal with charities directly (literally can't afford – the administrative overheads for dealing with the hundreds of local operations would be prohibitive), so it contracts out the role to middlemen.

Unfortunately, it appears from Third Sector's report that the middlemen aren't particularly interested in boosting the big society agenda.

David Cameron launches Big Society Capital in April. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.