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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.