It is fashionable, these days, to refer to the state as a commissioner of services rather than a provider. From health to education, maritime rescue to employment services, the state – in the form of local as well as central government – is commissioning the services it once provided.
Inevitably, the people once responsible for managing a service are stepping back from the frontline and learning how to navigate the tendering and procurement processes that are part and parcel of spending taxpayers’ money.
But, according to the OECD, “the volume of transaction and the close interaction between public and private sectors create multiple opportunities for private gain and waste at the expense of taxpayers”. Minimising the risk of fraud, corruption and mismanagement of public funds requires “transparency throughout the entire public procurement cycle”: taxpayers and service users are better protected when the public can help public servants hold private providers to account.
So how does the hands-off approach that seems to be commonplace in the UK help make sure public money is delivering public gain?
A survey by the OECD shows the UK is the only country out of 34 major economies that does not allow the public to see information about the selection and evaluation criteria. This means it is difficult to know if the recipient of public money is spending it as agreed. Nor does the UK reveal tender documents and only sometimes will it justify its decisions. And, if contracts are modified after being awarded, there is no policy to reveal this to the public.
At a local level this has the effect of taking power away from the local commissioners who, when they can see money has been spent on failed promises and missed targets, should be demanding delivery or remedy.
Just look, for example, at the myriad organisations that have sprung up to provide employment related services to local authorities. The range of services and the variety of programmes is befuddling and with no possibility of public scrutiny, local authorities are on their own when it comes to trying to hold their private-sector providers to account.
This is not a case of big companies muscling-in. Small, so-called “social enterprises” are involved too. With colourful stories and fresh-faced bravado they sell their services with, it would seem, no hope of delivery.
For the Newhams, Tower Hamlets and Southwarks, for example, this must be deeply frustrating: knowing they have paid out, have received nothing in return and face months of arguing and unaffordable legal bills if they try to recover their money. This is nothing compared to the impact on taxpayers, let alone the people that should have received the support and help that was offered, paid for and never delivered.
Perhaps public services need public scrutiny to help our remaining public servants stop the carpet-baggers from grabbing the silver. At the moment they seem pretty ineffectual but I would argue that it’s not all their fault.