A hell of a lot of waste goes on in public services

How do we stop the carpet-baggers running off with the silver?

It is fashionable, these days, to refer to the state as a commissioner of services rather than a provider. From health to education, maritime rescue to employment services, the state - in the form of local as well as central government - is commissioning the services it once provided.

Inevitably, the people once responsible for managing a service are stepping back from the frontline and learning how to navigate the tendering and procurement processes that are part and parcel of spending taxpayers' money.

But, according to the OECD, “the volume of transaction and the close interaction between public and private sectors create multiple opportunities for private gain and waste at the expense of taxpayers”. Minimising the risk of fraud, corruption and mismanagement of public funds requires “transparency throughout the entire public procurement cycle”: taxpayers and service users are better protected when the public can help public servants hold private providers to account.

So how does the hands-off approach that seems to be commonplace in the UK help make sure public money is delivering public gain?

A survey by the OECD shows the UK is the only country out of 34 major economies that does not allow the public to see information about the selection and evaluation criteria. This means it is difficult to know if the recipient of public money is spending it as agreed. Nor does the UK reveal tender documents and only sometimes will it justify its decisions. And, if contracts are modified after being awarded, there is no policy to reveal this to the public.

At a local level this has the effect of taking power away from the local commissioners who, when they can see money has been spent on failed promises and missed targets, should be demanding delivery or remedy.

Just look, for example, at the myriad organisations that have sprung up to provide employment related services to local authorities. The range of services and the variety of programmes is befuddling and with no possibility of public scrutiny, local authorities are on their own when it comes to trying to hold their private-sector providers to account.

This is not a case of big companies muscling-in. Small, so-called “social enterprises” are involved too. With colourful stories and fresh-faced bravado they sell their services with, it would seem, no hope of delivery.

For the Newhams, Tower Hamlets and Southwarks, for example, this must be deeply frustrating: knowing they have paid out, have received nothing in return and face months of arguing and unaffordable legal bills if they try to recover their money. This is nothing compared to the impact on taxpayers, let alone the people that should have received the support and help that was offered, paid for and never delivered.

Perhaps public services need public scrutiny to help our remaining public servants stop the carpet-baggers from grabbing the silver. At the moment they seem pretty ineffectual but I would argue that it’s not all their fault.

Photograph: Getty Images

Spencer Neal is a reformed publisher who now advises on media and stakeholder relations at Keeble Brown. He writes about the ironies and hypocrisies that crop up in other peoples' businesses. He is also an optimist.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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