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 deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.