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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

Bankrupt Britain: Is the death of Local Public Service provision avoidable and will it lead communities to provide their own not-for-profit services?

November 26, 2014 Leave a comment

Whilst it may not be generating the media frenzy or sensationalist prose that usually grabs everyone’s attention, recent days have seen a number of different stories emerge that confirm much about the state of Local Government and the services we contribute towards with our Council Tax.

The common theme is of course money – or rather the lack of it.

Those of us taking the collapse of local public services seriously may already be well aware of the perilous state of funding and how bleak the outlook actually is.

However, despite the many cuts and reductions in services that people have witnessed across the UK already, it is the continuing reliance that today’s politicians have placed in using yesterday’s methods to solve tomorrows problems should perhaps give us even greater cause for concern.

This week alone, one Police & Crime Commissioner covering a Conservative area has suggested that he will seek a referendum on raising the local Police Precept element of Council Tax by no less than 25%, whilst the Leader of Newcastle City Council is now on the record as suggesting that the reduction of funding may soon lead to social unrest, with an expectation that an incoming Labour Government will simply change the ‘settlement’ – and thereby solve the problem after May.

Whilst both of these Politicians are in unenviable positions, neither plan would work in the best interests of the electorate, even if they were to be seen to solve the problems in the immediate term. And by immediate term, we are probably talking just 12 months before the very same problem is there to be solved all over again.

Adding yet more to the Tax burden of individuals and households may be an easy decision for politicians, but isn’t sustainable for the people who are paying.

Meanwhile, more money coming from central Government when the Country is already effectively bankrupt spells disaster of another kind, as the accumulation of National Debt simply cannot continue with each successive Government that comes along attempting to shelve today’s problems for tomorrow by printing money like it was all some kind of game without any real cost.

The system of local public service delivery is broken not just because of a lack of funding today, but because of decades of mismanagement focused on targets, working conditions and the development of the protectionist culture which serves everyone’s interests but those of the very people who the services were initially created to serve.

These cultural and institutional problems have not been created locally, but they are certainly propagated locally.

One of the most serious ‘injustices’ served upon every Council Tax Payer, is the seismic amount of our contributions that actually go into the Local Government Pension Scheme. It has increasingly done so since the then Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown raided Pension Funds in 1997 and left the general public to pick up the tab for the subsequent deficit which would otherwise have surely obliterated gold-plated Local Government Pensions.

It would certainly be advisable to have a look at your Local Council’s Annual Budget and see just how much of your money goes into this Scheme. A good guess would be that rather than being anywhere near the red, your local services would be well and truly in the black if you weren’t funding someone else’s retirement plan, just because of the last Labour Government’s fiscal free-for-all, which removed many of the regulations that actually helped a great many of the very people who supported them.

Solving the problem of how to afford what local public services cost us without losing services, reducing services or there being a need to dispose of assets which basically belong to us all, may have already reached a stage where it will seem impossible to do so without the measures already discussed.

But with such options not being real choices, we will all soon have to accept that the way local public services are delivered is going to change; and that the change that comes may not be in anyway better.

Service sharing between Authorities and even Police Forces is now well under way and is likely to accelerate significantly as the reality of the UK’s financial predicament continues to bite hard.

However, the distinct irony of this pathway is that sharing services does indeed take the management and handling of public services further away from the people themselves. And the point should not be lost on anyone that the real cause of much of today’s political disquiet – i.e. taking decisions further away from people will only be made worse by what is yet to come as a result of this.

The political and government infrastructure that could have solved problems like those raised by the Scottish Independence question has already existed for at least two generations in the forms of Parish & Town Councils, District Level Councils and County Councils.

The problem is that Westminster based politicians do not want to empower local representatives at any cost.

Whilst continually paying lip service through concepts such as ‘Localism’ – which has been such a big sound bite of the Coalition era, the reality has been that all changes within Local Government have simply been pushing more and more power back to London, rather than devolving local decisions to local people as any Government focused upon what is really best for the electorate surely would.

This reality may well give the lie to the ‘vow’ which we all awoke to on the morning after the Scottish Referendum. It almost certainly paints a picture which doesn’t look good for us all locally. But when local politics is itself arguably just as rotten and as focused on itself as Westminster is, what can we really expect?

The reality of what lies ahead should hit us hard, because much of what we today take for granted in terms of services supporting both communities and individuals may soon be simply unaffordable – even though we seem to be paying through the nose for it.

With Government Organisations and structures maintained by a culture which nobody is willing to reform, Local Authorities are likely to lean ever more heavily in the future upon contractors and trading companies.

This is a considerable leap in the direction of privatisation and one which could very quickly lead to the token ability of Local Council’s to affect change and decision making on the part of the communities that they represent to be seen for what it really is.

It is a very real prospect that the only services that many people perceive as being what they receive for their money will be handled by private contractors. Companies who are delivering services to the public whilst making a profit at a lower price than what it would cost the public to deliver itself.

With even fortnightly bin collections now at risk, it is not in any way hard to imagine paying for your rubbish to be collected by a company you pay directly – as you would do with electricity, gas or your phone. Indeed it may be little accident that ‘utility’ companies already run such services on behalf of Councils and many of us will quickly wonder what we are paying Council Tax for if we don’t see any Police on the streets and have our rubbish collected by someone else.

Without immediate and meaningful reform, it is a good guess that social enterprise will be the only way that we will be able to have local public services delivered, which are seen to be free at point of delivery or kept at a cost which is both affordable for users and sustainable for the organisations delivering them.

This is unlikely to be restricted to just local service delivery, and whilst utilities, transport and communications are currently little more than the cash cows of the City and its Pension Funds, keeping it real dictates that sooner or later the political classes will have to accept that allowing our society to function at its most basic level requires nothing less than that all services provided for the benefit of the wider community and the individuals within it must be provided on a not-for-profit basis and with best value to the end user firmly in mind.

Regrettably, with much of the infrastructure already disposed of which will facilitate this at National Level, and the same process now progressively happening through the back door at local level, it is communities themselves that may well have to raise the funds to create the new trading companies that will do this.

With crowd funding a good example of the options now available, it is certainly possible to do so.

But as we also wonder why we are paying more tax on everything but receive even less for what we give…won’t we all be asking the question why?

 

image: dailymail.co.uk 

 

Labour Council Leaders say Government cuts will lead to public unrest. But the days of passing the buck for a free Pound have long gone and all politicians must now accept that responsibility has consequences

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Some Conservative Councillors will quietly sympathise with the difficult decisions being made within almost every local authority in the Country as the result of continuing budget cuts. But that’s precisely where any similarity in view will end with the content tabled in a joint letter to the Observer by the Labour Leaders of Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield Councils, suggesting that cuts in local government grants will break up society.

Look at our Country today and it is easy to see that we are already living within a divided society that is split by divisions which go way beyond simple demographics, political bias or the slashing of public services at just one level of Government.

These are problems that are far more serious than any senior politician on any side seems willing to address in any meaningful way. And the reality is that the demise of local authority structures and the seemingly endless range of services that they were once able to provide are only being accelerated by the ‘age of austerity’, and not caused by it as this document would apparently have us believe.

There is in fact significant irony that local authorities are also the victim of the philosophy and actions of the very movements and people who are so eloquently attempting to place blame on the Coalition Government today, for problems which have actually been a long time in the making within a system which has only been sustainable because of what must have seemed like a guaranteed bottom line to a generation of politicians who believe that idealism can be delivered without any thought for practicalities.

In just one respect alone, I found myself completely horrified when I first learned of the gargantuan percentages of Council Tax which go directly into the gold-plated Local Government Pension Scheme. Similar ideology has been rampant within local government decision making throughout living memory and any commercial business run with such an extraordinary emphasis on funding employees and their benefits would be as viable as its existence within in a competitive market.

I have little doubt that just these funds alone being made available for the purpose which the Taxpayer has the right to expect, coupled with the real reforms that every part of Government now requires, would deliver a significantly positive effect on what is today a very gloomy picture indeed for locally-funded public services.

Government and non-Government organisations of all types have for too long been insulated against the real world realities of profit and loss by protectionist culture; by the political correctness of socialist job creation; and by a guaranteed level of income which has now unceremoniously come to an end.

It’s time that everyone in positions of responsibility within all tiers of Government began being responsible, rather than looking elsewhere and expecting someone else to pick up the pieces or to pay the bills with a non-existent stream of infinite credit.

Political idealism is as ideal as it is practical. Politicians from all sides now have to accept and work with this reality. Otherwise, a new reality will continue to write itself which will go way beyond the fallout from wasting opportunities for change and from a failure to take full responsibility within local government.

The days of passing the buck and expecting a free Pound in return have long gone and all politicians must now accept that responsibility has consequences.

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