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What the Carillion collapse tells us about the unspoken truths governing public sector contracts

January 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Carillion

Carillion is the big news this week, and is likely to remain on the media radar for some time, given the impact that the collapse of a Company of this size is almost certain to have on commercial relationships that are now an integral part of the public sector.

Moments like this are important for reasons which go way beyond the impact that Monday’s announcement is already having on jobs and the potential closures of many small businesses.

It is providing one of those very rare opportunities to glance inside the incestuous workings of contract delivery on behalf of government and gain an invaluable insight into why private interests working at any level within the public sector is in clear conflict with very ideals of what public service delivery is fundamentally about.

Regrettably, the clear focus of the media and political classes has already fallen upon the question and avoidance of blame. Yet if they were to begin to look just a little further and be open with what have for too long been the unpalatable truths, there would be just the merest hope that questions such as whether there can be a future for the NHS when it remains in a perpetual state of financial crisis could perhaps be genuinely answered.

So why are contracts going to private companies outside the public sector?

The best place to begin thinking about the contracting or privatisation problem is to look at why private business is really even involved in the delivery of government services of any kind, when government exists to operate for, on behalf of and for the benefit of only the public.

Man can only ever have one true master after all, and if money is the true motivator, then public service will at best become an oversight – the unwelcome relative left trailing way behind.

Whilst it may feel counter-intuitive to believe or accept it for many of us, the ‘privatisation solution’ has been in the main part created by Conservative governments in response to the consequences of policies created typically by Labour in order to enhance the rights, working conditions and influence of public sector employees.

Positive discrimination and rights, enhanced working conditions, gold-plated pensions and union indulgence within public sector organisations all cost an ever evolving sum of money in an increasing number of different ways, which usually create even more roles and dilute responsibility further and further still.

The cost of employing people within the public sector on conditions which exceed those of the private sector outside – even when salaries appear to be less, has simply made the delivery of services too expensive for government itself to provide.

Against this backdrop, all areas of he public sector have had to go in search of more cost effective ways to deliver services, and have had to do so in ways which also meet the rigorous requirements of providing services and employing staff as a government based organisations.

This has made the ‘marketplace’ fertile for the entry of private contractors who don’t have the same considerations as these former public sector based service providers.

When you consider that private contractors are providing arguably the same level of service, just without the same levels of bureaucracy – whilst making what in some cases is an outrageous level of profit besides, you can soon begin to see that something is inherently wrong with the way that the government system is now designed.

So how does public sector contracting by private contractors become a problem?

Business loves a contract. Contracts give surety. Contracts themselves can be used as a solid-gold guarantee – and particularly so when they are agreed and signed with government. This gives business confidence which can be misplaced, misused, abused and is almost certain to breed a feeling of complacency.

After completing what should be a rigorous ‘tender process’ – the company will sign a contract with the government organisation which agrees what, when and how the ‘contractor’ will provide a service, whether that just be 1 person to sweep a street or 32 bin lorries to collect your rubbish every fortnight for 5 years. On signing this contract, the company will know exactly what it will be paid, know what it will in turn have to spend, will have worked out its costs and borrowing, should have kept back a little for a rainy day and then know what it will make in profit – from which it will pay bonuses to staff and dividends to shareholders after it has paid any tax requirement.

Good managers know that some things change during the lifetime of a contract – such as fuel prices going up, which would be a real concern for a bus service provider or a private ambulance services. But contractual devices or clauses that allow for some variation in charges are usually built in to any contract to allow for this.

As such, genuinely unforeseen events or those which could not have been predicted by anyone within the contracting company itself are very rare to find.

What government contracts don’t allow for however, are lack of knowledge or understanding of the service delivery area on the part of those designing and agreeing a contract. They don’t make allowance for unmitigated trust on the part of either party. They certainly don’t consider the potential greed or indeed malpractice of a contractor or its decision making staff, which cannot be planned for or predictably defined even within the scope of a government contract process.

When a contractor has only a single contract, transparency is bizarrely much clearer and for the management, much more important and kept clearly in mind.

But when you have many more and perhaps and ever increasing number of contracts, the potential for complacency and overconfidence can lead to otherwise unrealistic opportunities, which in more focused circumstances would have been denied.

It may be as simple as paying senior executives massive, over-inflated salaries. But it has the potential to be much much more in terms of investment, questionable projects and big payouts for shareholders when little in terms of adequate checks and balances has allowed an adequate safety blanket to be retained from payouts and quietly put aside.

The overriding problem with a company which has grown to the size, reach and responsibility of Carillion is there is so much in terms of questionable financial activity that it has the ability to very easily hide.

The responsibility for contract design and management doesn’t just fall on contractors themselves however.

In the background to all this and within the protectionist culture in which contemporary public sector commissioning is currently enshrined, purchasing officers simply don’t have the motivation or willingness to do their jobs as effectively as they should. When the money you are allocating isn’t yours, public service and best value isn’t always the overriding priority. Sometimes it’s all about doing anything which proves to be easier, and who gets what doesn’t always work out exactly as it should.

Whether its building maintenance, bin collections, public transport, prison management, forensic services or interim and temporary staff services that contractors provide, contractors are all making unnecessary profit at the ultimate cost to us as taxpayers.

So what can be done to solve the problem and when will anything happen?

What has been outlined here provides little more than a simple snapshot of a very big and complex problem, which those in power are through their actions are continuing to deny.

For these problems to be addressed, it would first be necessary for politicians to accept that the whole system of government delivery is broken, riddled with management focused upon self interest, making decisions based on theoretical premise, and that there are simply too many people operating within the system who are ultimately being allowed to take us all for a ride.

The ‘too big to fail’ mindset has now permeated through political thinking to a level where contracts are being awarded despite very clear warning signals which would tell even very junior civil service staff that something is not right.

This is no longer a question of let’s bail them out so that they don’t fail like Labour did with the Banks in 2008; this is all about awarding contracts because there is a view that they never will.

Solving this problem is far from simple. It is not just about political thinking. It’s about getting the market’s to think differently. But just as much, it’s about getting employees to see their roles differently; to accept that they have a part to play too.

In simple terms, the free for all has to stop.

This bonanza based on self-interest is no longer sustainable.

The perpetuation of the lie that government genuinely works selflessly for everyone has got to be stopped.

No business can perform effectively on the basis that it prioritises the working conditions and needs of its staff before the priorities upon which it was created to deliver. Yet this is how liberalism and rights culture has manifested itself within all parts of government and the public sector.

Not only has the NHS become hamstrung by lack of staff and inefficiency, it is being cut up by the cost of the staff it hires through contracts – thereby being destroyed by the supposed solution itself; by the very respite that additional money is supposed to provide.

Meanwhile local government has its own substantive bogeyman too, finding itself tied up in knots by the cost of the local government pension scheme – the destination of the better part of our council tax, in many of the Boroughs, Cities and Districts where most of us reside.

Then there are the PFI contracts upon which the last Labour Government so heavily relied. A coarse, deceptive instrument designed to hide public spending, whilst fire hosing cash at private contractors over 30 year terms. Just another financial time bomb legacy like the raid on pension funds by Gordon Brown which we overlook daily on the basis that out of sight is very much out of our minds.

The power rests with government to change all of this, if only they would try.

Regrettably, the will doesn’t even exist to even begin doing so today, even if the Government could begin doing so – something that a hung parliament which could last until 2022 will simply deny.

With a good chance that the next Government will be based upon or built around a militant form of Labour, the chances are that politicians will only continue to try and hide the truth thereafter, because action which doesn’t just look responsible is not a pathway to which they are inclined.

As Jeremy Corbyn made clear in his questioning of Theresa May at Wednesday’s PMQ’s, the answer is just to do everything to return everyone to employment in government jobs. No doubt based upon further borrowing, which to those who don’t understand business or economics is a perceived as a policy which when sold looks bullet proof.

images thanks to independent.co.uk, bbc.co.uk, wiltshiretimes.co.uk

Change is what we need; not revolution. And it’s all about getting the basics right…

November 13, 2014 Leave a comment

images-13For all politicians, the opportunity genuinely exists to revise and create new polices which will work for the benefit of all. It’s not an option which is restricted to Ed Milliband and Nigel Farage who both hope to have very different roles in power from May; but one which even the Coalition Government could begin to embrace right now.

Sounds quite a stretch when you think about it though. Tribal politics and the media chasing political circus that Westminster has become, has, after all created a cynical and disenfranchised electorate; one which in the majority experiences little each day, to make it feel that the system actually relates to any of us in any way.

Perhaps without even knowing they do it much of the time, even the most modest members of the political classes somehow succeed in exploiting this very real perception to their benefit, using the media and disingenuous rhetoric they employ to leave individuals and families feeling as if they are themselves alone in going through what for many has become a very trying experience.

It wouldn’t be so bad. But being left feeling guilty because you cannot afford to buy food; to pay bills; to buy clothes; to pay for transport or because you are having some other form of negative experience of life which you really shouldn’t be have in 21st Century democratic Britain is certainly in no way fair.

It is certainly not what you would call right in an age when equality has for a long time been sold to us as a given.

Its not what you expect when successive political generations have told us all that they, and only they, possess the holy grail to putting everyone first.

When you have Government after Government run by people whose only true priority is to gain or retain power, it stands to reason that many people do not see or feel that the electoral system is working for them.

Ignoring elections, or throwing support in the direction of a new Party which is at the very least attempting to sound like it is in touch with the issues that people are facing, then for many becomes an attractive proposition indeed.

Regrettably, such a political environment like the one we are experiencing today provides a wholly fertile seedbed for popular voices advocating seismic change of a kind that would be more akin to opening the Pandora’s box which accompanies public unrest, rather than heralding the arrival of some new and golden age. However well intended, Russell Brand’s recent political outbursts and the publication of his book Revolution are in reality little more than an aspirational touch paper of anarchy – based on the views and interpretations of many other Writers – promoting the release of one terrible genie that any sensible person – however frustrated with the system they might be – really does not want to see let out of it’s bottle.

images-12Overnight change – which is essentially what revolution is, doesn’t usually end well. It is more likely to lead to a situation far worse than most will have experienced before, and one which will probably be a lot harder to change.

We have to work to make what we have better, rather than breaking up the workable framework that already exists; throwing it all in the air and then leaving it all to pure chance to see – and then experience where the unconnected pieces will then all fall.

It is top to bottom reform and change that are essential across public services and all areas of Government Policy, before people are in any way likely to feel they are being treated fairly.

This will not come about by continuing to base arguments and disquiet on wealth or demographic class, and whilst advocates of wealth redistribution may find an audience which is very receptive to the idea that either taxing or simply stripping wealth from the rich, and sharing it out equally amongst the poor may give them all a much better life; this idea is indeed as illusory as the money is itself.

Non-earned wealth will in most cases disappear just as quickly as it arrives – if not through private spending, then through the exponential and inflationary economic changes which would almost certainly accompany the instantaneous arrival of so much personal wealth.

The aim of solving the problems of breadline Britain or the cost of living crisis will no better be served by penalising the potential of high earnings, than it will be by enacting an unsustainable rate for the Minimum or Living Wage.

Such solutions may provide a temporary fix, and give a moment of perceived justice to many. But those with money will soon move away or lose the incentive to keep earning – whether they are companies or individuals; whilst those who have found themselves with more money in the bank at the end of one month, will soon lose it the next when employers and the suppliers of all the goods and services that they think they can now afford put their prices up to support the rises in wages that they have themselves had to pay.

No. Dealing with problems in isolation simply does not and will not work, because by attempting to solve one problem in this way, the process soon leads to the creation of many more – if it doesn’t just make the original one a whole lot worse for those who are experiencing it.

To build a better life for all, getting the basics right is the very first step. It is about reviving, living and promoting a sense of ethical balance and consideration for all.

This will most likely be achieved by ensuring that at the most fundamental level, adults can afford to feed, clothe, and house themselves – and any dependents that they may have – to a minimum and workable standard. A benchmark level which cannot be subjected to the influence of any third party.

Working to address the many issues that require policy changes will not be simple. But Politicians are elected with the expectation that they can deal with complexities on behalf of the people they represent, and if they have taken their election that seriously, this is exactly what they should now do.

The possibilities for solutions are probably endless. But solutions are indeed possible if the needs, benefits and consequences for everyone are considered properly.

If politicians genuinely want to help and provide a level-playing field where there is opportunity for all, why are they not looking at policy areas that have the potential to make an immediate difference. Examples might be:

Releasing the restrictions placed on employers AND employees through Legislation such as the European Working Time Directive: The days when legitimate business thrived on the unbridled exploitation of the working classes have long since passed and we today have some of the most restrictive working practices on the planet. If everyone in the workplace was completely happy, furthering and maintaining the cause of such horrific levels of bureaucracy would make sense. But many people want the opportunity to work beyond the requirements of their contracts of employment, whilst employers would benefit greatly from increased input and flexibility from existing – and often more experienced staff. The real key to ensuring fairness is simply allow workers to do additional work when THEY want to, or just as they have formally agreed. Employers have to be trusted not to embrace unsafe working practices and the nanny state has gone too far in basing industry-wide restrictions on the behaviour of the unscrupulous few, or upon idealistic views of bureaucrats of how business actually works. Imposing business-breaking fines – and being seen to do so, would be a far more effective way of encouraging good working practices and management, rather than allowing officials with no business experience to attempt to direct industry professionals on how they can staff their business.

Stopping the escalation of property prices:The UK is culturally obsessed with property and its financial value in a way that few other Countries are. Prices have continued to inflate at dangerous levels which keeps borrowing artificially high, and makes rental prices equally excessive for entrants to the markets who have to rent, but desperately want the opportunity to own. Government could and arguably should step in to regulate the property industry and introduce policies which keep prices as they realistically can. The potential need for a resetting of property values is very real, and whilst Government behaves as if the answer to all problems is to build, build, build, while prices keep on going up (When do you ever see new developments come on to the market with prices that are lower than the local comparative market?), Politicians are never going to solve the housing problem or the massive drain that property prices has become for young people entering the market. Putting this problem off until tomorrow has long been the way; but tomorrow may already be here!

Working with Utility companies to keep prices manageable: The term ‘utility company’ has been a misnomer since privatisation, when the priority switched from the supply of services that are essentially supposed to be for the public good, to shareholders who will almost always be looking for a profit. No man can serve two masters, and the monopolistic strength of these companies has equipped them with the ability to write their own ticket, whilst ensuring their profits are secure. In the absence of Government regaining ownership, it should nonetheless step in to cap profits, or at the very least buy supplies direct for those who qualify at rates which reflect the wholesale purchasing power that the Government could and arguably should have on our behalf.

Buying services and goods direct from suppliers for those on benefits and low incomes or using smart card technology to deliver just the same: A massive opportunity exists for Government to step in and buy products and services on behalf of those on low-incomes and on benefits. Without the need to provide subsidies, Government could easily realise all the benefits of procuring food, fuel and essential goods as a significant bulk-buyer, just as big companies like supermarkets already do. The immediate concern that would be raised by the implementation processes such as administration, distribution and monitoring could be easily overcome through the use of IT, and whilst we hear horror stories about the stupendous cost of government-wide software implementation projects, the technology already exists to provide such a system through the use of personal smart cards, without big business profiteering, or the end user having to collect goods from anywhere other than the stores that they already use.

Creating a ‘retail’ arm to the Bank of England: Provide full current account services and not-for-profit based lending for pay-day-loans and to support small business – just seeking to return the operating costs for the benefit of everyone.

Lining up what are just a handful of suggestions makes it sound simple. But nobody would have unrealistic expectations for delivery from a Government that communicates with the public using openness, honesty and respect.

People do know that they deserve something better than what they currently have, and the time has come for a kind of Government which actually gets the basics right, rather than just talking about it before the usual grandstanding begins.

Whether income for those on low incomes comes from earnings or in-kind from benefits, there exists a cultural expectation for British Government to ensure a Basic Standard of Living.

Whatever the Political Party in Government might be, it is time for the philosophies, protectionist policies and ideas which benefit only the few to be binned and replaced with delivering something better as the priority for all.

When Government has these basics right, the many dominoes which stand beyond will very quickly begin to fall.

 

 top image – imgarcade.com

Press Regulation: Another exercise in smoke and mirrors as the underlying issue of the growing ethical drought in this Country goes untackled by thirsty Government yet again

Rupert Murdoch at LevesonI will not be alone in wondering just how wasteful the whole Leveson Inquiry and the blustering about press regulation will turn out to be when the dust has finally settled.

With news coverage alerting us to the invitation for Rupert Murdoch to return to face MP’s over the phone hacking scandal and Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson still months from their Trial, it’s a fair bet that this will all roll on for some time yet.

But with the cost at great risk of extending itself well beyond money and into the realms of press freedom and the free flow of information itself, it seems rather strange that nobody is talking about anything other than placing restrictions upon the media, when the issues at the heart of all this are far more universal and basically touch us all.

Phone hacking, listening to private messages or conversation, bribery and any other form of intrusive behaviour are not essential journalistic skills in either a professional or academic sense and it’s fairly certain that such behaviour is not restricted to the activities of a few over-eager hacks wishing to make their mark in the National press.

Like most industries today, newspaper companies exist with one purpose in mind and that is ultimately to make money. Whether that is through increased circulation of existing titles or through expansion, the purchase or launch of others, or the diversification into other income streams, it basically doesn’t matter.

Whether this makes comfortable reading or not, few businesses actually exist today to be the best at doing what they do. They don’t look at the long term benefit of best service, or consider the smiles on the faces of customers who feel they have been well looked after; they look at the bottom line and how to make it that much bigger.

Making money for any business relies on motivating staff and in a world which worships money as its master, financial incentives can very quickly push employees to blur the edges between what most would consider to be wrong and right if the end result is worth it. So the hacking scandal is unlikely to be anything other than consequence or the result of cause and effect in basic terms.

Love him or hate him, its extremely unlikely that Rupert Murdock would have ever consciously encouraged or even condoned the questionable behaviour of his staff and what they have allegedly done, however much some would like to imagine so.

However, a company culture that might be considered to indirectly, unintentionally or inadvertently encourage illegal behaviour on the part of individuals in the pursuit of bigger headlines or pay would however be a different thing. But even then, that would not in itself be a matter for Legal intervention or regulation, as it has nothing to do with journalism itself. It might however have everything to do with people and the decisions that they make when they have no respect for barriers.

The bigger picture here is that British society today is on a slippery slope when it comes to basic politeness, manners, doing the right thing or what some of us would agree as having ethics.

People of all kinds are now regularly failing to consider the simple consequences for others as a result of their actions, or in extreme cases ceasing to even register that consequences other than a big pay day might even exist. This is a problem which is beginning to affect us all.

Sadly, we are in the position where leadership at National level is woefully lacking when it comes to dealing with the question of ethics for us as members of the wider community which makes up our Nation. Whereas Rupert Murdoch has already demonstrated his propensity to be ruthlessly efficient in the application of change where it is needed in closing the News of the World, the people with the real ability to influence change in the way that we all think and look at the world we live in appear to have no such gumption.

Those guilty of phone hacking should receive their just deserts, much as we are right to expect with any breach of Criminal Law. But press regulation is little more than another exercise of smoke and mirrors covering the incompetence and inaction of Government in addressing the underlying issue of ethics which runs through so many of our problems and gagging the media will never be an answer.

image thanks to http://www.bbc.co.uk

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