Outsourcing scandals show why we need a new model of public service reform

To deal with complex problems, we need a complete reconfiguration of public services, with a shift from the 'delivery state' to the 'relational state'.

Today’s 'offer' by G4S to reimburse the public purse by £24.1m following revelations of overcharging is merely the latest turn in a series of outsourcing controversies that have shaken public confidence in the government’s public service reform agenda. This comes on top of the widely catalogued failures of the Work Programme and growing concern about the rushed privatisation of the probation service.  While each of these problems has its own independent sources, they are in fact signs of a whole public service reform paradigm in retreat.

In part the problem is a lack of openness and it is right, as Sadiq Khan has argued, that all those providing public services should be subject to the same transparency requirements. But the problem goes much deeper than this.

For 30 years, governments have deployed so-called 'new public management' methods to try to improve public services. These methods have taken two forms: bureaucratic targets imposed from the centre and external competition to incentivise improvement. The Work Programme and the probation reforms involve a combination of these 'delivery state' approaches. In both cases a silo of state provision is contracted out to (mainly) private providers who are paid if they achieve certain outcomes. My argument in a forthcoming IPPR paper is that such approaches are ill suited to tackling the kind of problems they aim to address.

Long term unemployment and reoffending are examples of ‘complex problems’. The causes of such problems are not like billiard balls, which if hit at the right angle will with certainty go into the right pocket. Nor can such problems be tackled within departmental or contractural silos: their causes are multiple and interconnected across different domains.  So, for example, supporting those who are sick or disabled into work following long periods of unemployment requires a holistic and personalised approach that attends to all of the barriers to work, including physical and mental health problems, a lack of confidence, poor interpersonal skills and a lack of qualifications.  

The Work Programme is by contrast a narrow job-focused programme and those providing it do not control most of the factors that prevent many people from accessing work.  This is why the private companies running the programme tend to 'cream' the easy candidates and 'park' the difficult cases: just 6.9 per cent of those referred in receipt of Employment Support Allowance were found work in the latest period against a 17 per cent target.  The probation reforms, based on the same model and dealing with similarly complex problems, are likely to suffer the same fate. 

The challenge of complexity extends beyond reoffending and long term unemployment: there is a growing range of complex problems taking up a rising level of public expenditure.  These include the epidemic of mental illness, the army of young people not in education employment and training and the rise of chronic health conditions. Bureaucratic and market reforms have been effective at dealing with problems that have a small number of linear relationships and that can be dealt with within the bounds of a particular service. So, for example, contracting out refuse services has often improved efficiency and outcomes, and targets have been very successful at reducing hospital waits.  But these 'new public management' tools are ill suited to tackling complex problems.

To deal with complexity we need a complete reconfiguration of public services, which means shifting from the ‘delivery state’ to the 'relational state'. This shift can be summarized in two words: connect and deepen.  First, services which are aimed at tackling complex problems need to be integrated much more at the local level so that they can develop coordinated approaches across different services. This means devolving pooled budgets in areas like welfare to work and probation to local authorities and city regions and holding them to account for the overall outcomes achieved. Rather than looking to the Work Programme for a model of how to reform the probation service the government would have been better advised to look at the successful experience of Youth Offending Teams.  These are based in local authorities and bring together mixed teams of professionals to take a holistic approach to reducing youth offending.

Second, tackling these problems requires deep relationships in place of shallow transactions: deep relationships between citizens and professionals who can work together and get to know one another over time, and deep relationships between citizens who together can be empowered to solve problems for themselves.

The coalition’s reform agenda is derivative of the kind of thinking that has dominated public service debates since the 1980s.  A more complex world demands a new approach.

Rick Muir is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at IPPR.  His new paper Many to Many. How the relational state will transform public services will be published in January.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling speaks during the Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.