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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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