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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

The ‘rent’ economy is enslaving us all, creating money for nothing for the ‘asset rich’ and progressively extending poverty to all the ‘paying poor’

December 28, 2017 Leave a comment

download (10)Every day we are hearing and reading stories about wage stagnation, price escalation, homelessness of the kind where young people can’t afford their own place, spiralling personal debt and a whole range of stories which relate to the cost of living. Stories that are repeatedly telling us that maintaining a basic life in the UK is very quickly becoming a luxury that many of us simply cannot or will not be able to afford.

Alone, each tale told can and often is attributed to a range of causes which are nonetheless real, but also overlook a common theme throughout all of these issues. The commonality between them all is the economic concept of ‘rent’. The impact of third parties taking ownership of all or part of a product, the delivery of a service, or some other form of purchase at some point in the process from where it originated to where we use or in consume it in some way.

Rent is of course a term we use in daily life to describe paying to use something which belongs to someone else. The most common usage is that of renting of a house, where instead of there being a simple relationship between an owner occupier and their house or property, the occupant rents the property from the owner, essentially increasing a basic two part relationship into three.

In just this example alone, we can take it one stage further and add a bank or mortgage owner of a buy-to-let property (1) which is rented by the occupant (2) from the owner (3) who borrows the money and pays interest to the bank (4), which may itself have borrowed that money from another bank (5).

Whilst we would normally think of just the transaction between the occupier and the property owner as being ‘rent’, in economic terms, any additional party taking something from an overall transaction or supply chain between its origin and use who isn’t essential to the core process is receiving rent of some kind. They in turn may split their role between themselves and others, each adding their own profit as they do every time it happens. Ultimately each additional participant in the chain raises the price of whatever we as users or consumers will be expected to pay.

Sometimes, a number of stages appear necessary. For instance the food we eat might have to be grown by a farmer (1), which is bought by a manufacturer (2) who pays a haulier (3) to transport it to where they will process it. The manufacturer then sells the prepared food to a wholesaler(4) and pays another haulier (5) to deliver it to their warehouse. The wholesaler then sells it to a supermarket (6) and pays another haulier (7) to take it to their distribution centre. The supermarket then pays another haulier (8) to deliver the product to its store, where it sells the finished product to us (9). Do believe me when I say that the chains are usually much more convoluted than that!

Of course, we are all guilty of falling into the trap of forgetting how complex the process is which brings us our food and most of the items that we consume or the services we buy, because for us the process seems to be so very easy. But look closer and we will soon see that even a supply chain of this size may involve unnecessary parts and people taking ‘rent’.

So what does this all this talk of rent really have to do with the cost of living?

The real problem with the provision of goods and services is that the UK operates within what is called a ‘free market’ environment, which it has been since at least the time of the Thatcher Government (1979-90). Within this free market, reduced levels of regulation and influence from the government – who we expect to guard and protect our best interests – provides the opportunity for additional 3rd parties and in fact many more of them to involve or add themselves to the chain of many of our daily transactions. By doing so, they can make significant profits from what in some cases will be as simple for them as a click to buy and another to sell.

Whether it is food, clothing, fuel and oil, transport, communications, borrowing money, or just about anything we can imagine that we can buy, there are now speculators buying and selling products and services, sub contracting responsibilities to others, all of them taking additional profit by taking ‘rent’ which there is no practical reason for anyone needing to pay. They indirectly inflate the prices we pay for the end product, increasingly making those things which should really be quite affordable, simply too expensive for us to buy.

These speculators do this because they can. There are no real rules to stop them, and they are making as much money as they can without any consideration for the impact of their actions on the end users – that’s us. And they have little concern that they will have to stop doing so, because the banks simply continue to lend money to the people who have been forced by this process to borrow – if indeed possible – in order to survive.

Think about what really caused the 2007-08 Financial Crisis, which was the sale, resale and resale again of financial products or debts which became so complex, even the financiers themselves didn’t really know what they were buying and selling on.

Bankers were making massive amounts of money – all because nobody was monitoring exactly what they were doing, whilst their own ‘success’ blinded them to how value was being created by lending to people at one end of this elaborate chain who simply didn’t have the ability to pay back what they had been lent.

The Bankers didn’t care before it happened and they don’t care now. They are still not regulated in the way that they should be, and were actually saved from going under in 2008 by the Labour Government at the time by giving them Billions of Pounds of money in bailouts and rescue funds that the Government itself borrowed, and which we are still paying for through the accumulation of public debt.

These are people, banks and companies who are quite literally making money for nothing, and its all at our expense.

The ‘rent’ economy has been evolving as the reality in which we live for many years now. But it is only as more and more products and services have come under the control of those with the money and unrestricted influence to speculate, whether it has been through privatisation, the development of near monopolies or money simply being placed within unscrupulous hands, that the real impact of ‘farming everything for profit’ has began to become fully clear.

 

 

 

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