Serco's troubles spread to the US

The company is facing questioning over an Obamacare contract thanks to its problems in the UK.

The Government review into Serco and G4S is making waves in the US, where the former company has just been awarded a $1.2bn contract to manage key elements of Obamacare. The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff writes:

That contract, announced in late June, is among the largest Affordable Care Act grants made so far, expected to cover the hiring of 1,500 workers who will process a wave of health coverage applications…

Serco’s $1.2 billion contract with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services is the firm’s first health law award, Hill said. The company does, however, have experience handling large U.S. government jobs through contracts with the State Department to process visa applications and with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where it oversees patent requests.

I was surprised to hear that Serco was involved in Obamacare, since the British branch was – I thought – mainly involved in areas like transport and security. But no. Their Wikipedia page lists interests in home affairs, transport, science, detention, defence, aviation, health, education, drivers' licensing, leisure, web development, it infrastructure, and waste collection.

How can one company be so good at all of these varied functions to continually win contracts? It's a broad mix, but it's not one that's completely unheard of elsewhere. General Electric is probably the most famous example in the private sector, a corporate titan which spans jet turbines to finance, through healthcare, consumer electronics and energy. As Ben Thompson writes, "the competitive advantage of such companies is usually in their management acumen and capital reserves, and the preferred employee is a generalist, able to quickly master any job with a refined set of skills."

But that doesn't fully explain companies like Serco. If it's just equivalent to General Electic, and its advantage comes from management and capital, then why doesn't GE take more government contracts, and why doesn't Serco work outside the outsourcing sector more?

In case it's not clear – and if you've read Alan White's series on the shadow state, it should be – what companies like Serco do very well is deal with Governments. That's their comparative advantage, and it's a big one. There may be very little in common between the procedures for designing a website and a running a train service – but there's a lot in common between the procedures for obtaining the contracts. Once you know how to bid for a contract, which performance targets matter, and who to take out for dinner, the difficult part is done.

That's not to say that outsourcing companies are doomed to be bad at their job. For every major scandal, there's a contract which is quietly ticking along successfully. But it exposes the contradiction at the heart of the process: if it's more important for their success that outsourcing companies be good at winning contracts than it is that they be good at fulfilling the contracts, then the justification for offering the goods up in the first place gets confused.

And so Serco moves into Obamacare, and the march of the outsourcers continues.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.