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 Future of the Left: A new start requires a new economy

Creating a "sharing economy" can get the left out of its post-crunch malaise, says Stewart Lansley.

Despite the opportunity created by the 2008 crisis, British social democracy is today largely directionless. Post-2010 governments have filled this political void by imposing policies – from austerity to a shrinking state - that have been as economically damaging as they have been socially divisive.

Excessive freedom for markets has brought a society ever more divided between super-affluence and impoverishment, but also an increasingly fragile economy, and too often, as in housing, complete dysfunction.   Productivity is stagnating, undermined by a model of capitalism that can make big money for its owners and managers without the wealth creation essential for future economic health. The lessons of the meltdown have too often been ignored, with the balance of power – economic and political – even more entrenched in favour of a small, unaccountable and self-serving financial elite.

In response, the left should be building an alliance for a new political economy, with new goals and instruments that provide an alternative to austerity, that tackle the root causes of ever-growing inequality and poverty and strengthen a weakening productive base. Central to this strategy should be the idea of a “sharing economy”, one that disperses capital ownership, power and wealth, and ensures that the fruits of growth are more equally divided. This is not just a matter of fairness, it is an economic imperative. The evidence is clear: allowing the fruits of growth to be colonised by the few has weakened growth and made the economy much more prone to crisis.

To deliver a new sharing political economy, major shifts in direction are needed. First, with measures that tackle, directly, the over-dominance of private capital. This could best be achieved by the creation of one or more social wealth funds, collectively held financial funds, created from the pooling of existing resources and fully owned by the public. Such funds are a potentially powerful new tool in the progressive policy armoury and would ensure that a higher proportion of the national wealth is held in common and used for public benefit and not for the interests of the few.

Britain’s first social wealth fund should be created by pooling all publicly owned assets,  including land and property , estimated to be worth some £1.2 trillion, into a single ring-fenced fund to form a giant pool of commonly held wealth. This move - offering a compromise between nationalisation and privatization - would bring an end to today’s politically expedient sell-off of public assets, preserve what remains of the family silver and ensure that the revenue from the better management of such assets is used to boost essential economic and social investment.

A new book, A Sharing Economy, shows how such funds could reduce inequality, tackle austerity and, by strengthening the public asset base, rebalance the public finances.

Secondly, we need a new fail safe system of social security with a guaranteed income floor in an age of deepening economic and job insecurity. A universal basic income, a guaranteed weekly, unconditional income for all as a right of citizenship, would replace much of the existing and increasingly means-tested, punitive and authoritarian model of income support. . By restoring universality as a core principle, such a scheme would offer much greater security in what is set to become an increasingly fragile labour market. A basic income, buttressed by a social wealth fund, would be key instruments for ensuring that the potential productivity gains from the gathering automation revolution, with machines displacing jobs, are shared by all.  

Thirdly, a new political economy needs a radical shift in wider economic management. The mix of monetary expansion and fiscal contraction has proved a blunderbuss strategy that has missed its target while benefitting the rich and affluent at the expense of the poor. By failing to tackle the central problem  – a gaping deficit of demand (one inflamed by the long wage squeeze and sliding investment)  - the strategy has slowed recovery.  The mass printing of money (quantitative easing) may have helped prevent a second great depression, but has also  created new and unsustainable asset bubbles, while austerity has added to the drag on the economy. Meanwhile, record low interest rates have failed to boost private investment and productivity, but by hiking house prices, have handed a great bonanza to home owners at the expense of renters.

Building economic resilience will require a more central role for the state in boosting and steering investment programmes, in part through the creation of a state investment bank (which could be partially financed from the proposed new social wealth fund) aimed at steering more resources into the wealth creating activities private capital has failed to fund.

With too much private credit used for financial speculation and property, and too little to small companies and infrastructure, government needs to play a much more direct role in creating credit, while restricting the almost total freedom currently handed to private banks.  Tackling the next downturn, widely predicted to land within the next 2-3 years, will need a very different approach, including a more active fiscal policy. To ensure a speedier recovery from recessions, future rounds of quantitative easing should, within clear constraints, boost the economy directly by financing public investment programmes and cash handouts (‘helicopter money’).  Such a police mix – on investment, credit and stimulus - would be more effective in boosting the real economic base, and would be much less pro-rich and anti-poor in its consequences.

These core changes would greatly reform the existing Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and provide the foundations for building support for a new direction for progressive politics. They would pioneer new tools for building a fairer, more dynamic and more stable economy. They could draw on experience elsewhere such as the Alaskan annual citizen’s dividend (financed by a sovereign wealth fund) and the pilot basic income schemes launching in the Netherlands, Finland and France.  Even mainstream economists, including Adair Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, are now talking up the principle of ‘helicopter money’. For these reasons, parts of the package are likely to prove publicly popular and command support across the political divide. Together they would contribute to a more stable economy, less inequality, and a more even balance of power and opportunity.

 

Stewart Lansley is the author of A Sharing Economy, published in March by Policy Press and of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Impoverishment (with Joanna Mack).