G4S is just the latest in a long line of outsourcing disasters

When will we learn?

The left has long understood many of the many problems of outsourcing: the fact that it typically replaces at least semi-decently paid, full-time staff, with career paths and a commitment to the service ethic, with a casualised, often minimum wage, rapidly-changing group of workers who are struggling to survive – often working two or three jobs. (Even in “professional” areas such as GP surgeries and IT, relatively low pay and casualisation is the norm.) The cash not going to the work force is redirected into shareholders' pockets, all too often through off-shore, tax haven companies that fail to contribute tax to the society in which they're based, from which they’re extracting profits.

But most of all, we’ve understood that it doesn’t work. We’ve seen it fail again and again. The outsourcing of hospital cleaners contributed to a rise in hospital-acquired infections and super-bugs. Multiple government IT projects have gone seriously and expensively off the rails. Then there’s the still unfolding scandal of the ruinously expensive PFI scheme for hospitals (and other public institutions such as schools) which has just claimed its first victim, with the South London Healthcare NHS Trust going into administration. And railways and the Tube, and call centres…. the list goes on and on.

And now we’re finding, with G4S unable to guarantee that it will provide the contracted staff for the Olympics, that we’re calling on the army to help. So visitors to London will see a militarised Olympics, with expensively trained soldiers doing work that they have no training, and possibly no inclination, for. It’s difficult to know which is worse soldiers doing jobs they aren’t suited for or for that work to be done by some of the many £2.60/hour security “apprentices” that we learnt about during the Jubilee security outsourcing scandal. These arrangements for Olympics security may not be a recipe for public safety or confidence.

The writing is on the wall, but a lot more still has to be done to highlight the basic flaw of outsourcing, the reason why it does not, cannot work: the supplier of outsourced services and the purchaser have different objectives. It's as though your service is balanced on a rubber band held by two people running in different directions. Sooner or later it is going to snap, or one side be dragged back.

One small example from my working life, details anonymised for contractual reasons. At one time a widget producer had staff security people, who understood their job to be assisting in the smooth production of widgets. They knew the company, they knew the staff, they understood at least a bit about making widgets, and they used their common sense, their knowledge and some flexibility in applying the security rules to assist in the making of widgets. Then they were outsourced. New staff came in, employed by the security firm, for the purposes of security. They applied the rules as laid down by their company rigidly and inflexibly (indeed they were at risk of losing their job if they didn’t).

They didn’t know or care about the production of widgets, or that they were actively hampering their production. One told me – while I was trying to get a freelance widget worker through the system: “We’re subject to penetration tests you know.” (And no this wasn’t MI5 or Scotland Yard.) Cue rampant frustration, many wasted hours of staff time and a considerably less pleasant working environment. And fewer widgets produced.

As with so many aspects of our neo-liberal, hypercapitalist economy, outsourcing doesn’t work even in its own terms. It is a disaster, on financial, service and social grounds. We've got a government now that's ideologically wedded to it, as part of the "market knows best" religion, despite the obvious collapse of the case for that creed in the past few years, and the main opposition party that finds itself too close to its past failures to publicly recant – even if it wanted to, which given the return of Tony Blair you’d have to conclude it doesn’t. On top of that, we've got a whole generation of people in senior public service and private sector management with crisp, expensive and intellectually mediocre-to-worthless MBAs in this outsourcing "religion", who lack the knowledge of any other approach or the ability to adapt to the obvious facts under their nose.

There's a long road ahead to reverse direction from this outsourcing dead end. But we can start by saying, loudly, clearly and often, that outsourcing is a disaster. It does not, cannot, work as well as forms of organisation based on shared goals, whether they be co-operatives or public ownership at local or national level, or at least a company in which permanent, decently paid staff are working together towards the same aim.

Natalie Bennett is chair of Green Party Women and the former editor of the Guardian Weekly

 

Soldiers have been drafted in to help with security at the 2012 Olympics after G4S failed to recruit enough staff. Photograph: Getty

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder