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

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war