After the G4S debacle, it's time to re-think the role of the private sector

We should be much clearer about where outsourcing is not in the national interest.

The failure of G4S to deliver sufficient security staff to cover Olympic venues has reignited the debate about the role of the private sector in delivering public services.  Coming soon after the controversy surrounding A4E, this latest scandal should lead us to ask big questions about how these contracts are designed and monitored, but also about the wider role of the private sector in delivering public services.

There have traditionally been three positions on this.  First, there are those who say "private good, public bad": the public sector is slow and inefficient because it is not exposed to competition, whereas private companies are inherently better at getting value for money.  Second, there are those who say "public good, private bad": the private sector will always put profits first, whereas those who work in the public sector will always put the public first.  Third, there are those who say "what matters is what works": let’s put ideology to one side, it doesn’t matter who provides the service, the contract should go to those who deliver the best outcomes at the lowest cost.

I occupy a fourth position, one that retains an important dose of pragmatism, but which is attentive to the wider consequences of the privatisation of the public realm.  Clearly there is a case for contracting a private company to deliver a service where this can add capacity quickly, where a public provider has catastrophically failed or where a private provider can bring innovation and demonstrably improve outcomes as a result. 

However, those of us on the left should want to see boundaries put around the extent of private sector provision of public services. Social democrats believe in a strong public realm, constituted by institutions that embody the shared values of public service and promoting the common good. Those institutions send out important signals about the kind of society we are and help to inculcate values of public spiritedness and reciprocity.  Few of us want to live in a society where almost every relationship involves the extraction of profit.

So this should give us a wider concern not to allow the role of the private sector to go too far.  But more specifically there are services that are generally unsuitable for private sector delivery.  First, there are services where the outcomes we want are far too complex to be easily contracted for.  We don’t just want schools to deliver a target for the number of children getting 5 A*-C GCSEs, we also want them to help young people become good citizens and to broaden their imaginations. It is hard to contract for this.

Second, there are relational services which engage the public very intensively and where the introduction of the profit motive may undermine the trust upon which good quality relationships depend.   This is why the public are less concerned about back office functions being outsourced but are more concerned about the privatisation of relational front line services such as schools and hospitals. 

Third, there are services which are there to uphold the rule of law, such as the police and the judiciary, where it is particularly important that private interests are excluded and that there is direct public accountability.

Finally, there are services that are particularly important for the inculcation of values.  This is one reason why we should oppose the introduction of profit-seeking "free schools": if we want young people to believe in the value of public service it sends entirely the wrong signal if the very schools we provide to educate them are run in part in for profit.

Now clearly there are some services that are currently delivered by the private sector that would count as complex and relational, including most care homes and many nurseries, for example.  However we shouldn’t let the current mix of provision lead us to take the view that almost anything is appropriately delivered by the private sector.  The way services are provided is due to a series of historical political decisions and compromises.  Adopting these principles does not mean unpicking all of that: we have to look at the current mix of provision and, while being attentive to the considerations I have set out, make pragmatic judgements about the future.

Where private providers are in principle appropriate, the G4S debacle should lead us to ask some hard questions about how contracts are designed and monitored.  Does a public sector that has pulled out of direct provision have the skills and expertise to design good contracts and properly monitor compliance?  Are there sufficient competitors in the market place to prevent ‘too big to fail’ providers posing significant risk?

There are many private providers delivering excellent services all around the country, often in collaboration with public and third sector organisations.  And there are many examples of public organisations failing to deliver and providing terrible customer service.  We should remain pragmatic about this – but we should be much smarter at commissioning, much tougher on compliance and much clearer about where outsourcing is not in the national interest.

Members of the armed forces are shown around the site of the London 2012 Olympics in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.