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

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.