Clearance Sale Now On!

For Sale! One set of well cared for public services – any offer considered.

David Cameron intends to break the state’s monopoly on service provision by opening it up to the commercial and voluntary sectors.

As a science fiction geek, I can’t help but find parallels from the world of film in real life and what is being proposed by David Cameron, especially when it comes to big business taking over some of ‘the states’ functions, is one of them.

Even is you’re not in to sci-fi, I’m sure most of us can think of at least one film where the story revolves around big business pulling the strings of government and government appearing to be unable (or unwilling) to do anything about it.  One of my all time favourites is Harrison Ford’s Blade Runner, where the big corporation is run by a shadowy genius, who never leaves his penthouse, whilst wielding power over almost everything and everyone (including the police).

Today’s reality is not so stark.  However, spare a thought for all those services that used to be, but are no longer, controlled by government.  Gas, electricity, water, telephones, the post office, and the railways – I’m sure readers could think of a few more.  Most people would immediately say that things are far better now, as these private companies bring the much needed investment to industries starved of it by government.  I would agree with the last point, whilst questioning the first.  Apart from the pathetic telephone services that existed in this country prior to privatisation, just about everything else seemed to work pretty much as advertised and just needed leadership and investment.  Even more worrying and call me xenophobic if you must, many of the companies with their fingers on the light switch are now owned by foreign interests.

Government now wishes to farm out all the remaining services, whilst at the same time believing it can keep some level of control over the quality and cost to the end user.  Standby by for more Ofwats, Ofgems, Ofcoms, etc, etc.  Anybody think these regulators are doing a very good job for us?

Even more alarming is the government’s record on doing deals with the commercial world. The private finance initiatives used to build hundreds of public buildings, such as schools and hospitals, would be worthy of the world’s greatest conman, Bernie Madoff and his $50billion Ponzi scheme.  Likewise, the MOD was a cash cow for the defence industry, that is only now being culled.   This government bailed out the banks, continues to own large chucks of them (on behalf of taxpayers remember) yet remains unable to control their behaviour effectively.  When it comes to dealing with the commercial world, time and time again, government seems to take a tiger by the tail, without having a clue how to get to the business end to put on the collar.

A bit like the Royal Air Force, this latest proposal means that local government has probably had its day.  Of course central government will still need a local mechanism to deliver its agenda, but this will be no more than a contract monitoring office, staffed mainly by lawyers, bean counters and clerks.

Elected members can then be dispensed with, as an unnecessary encumbrance to what, without their interference, would be a straightforward set of business transactions.  After all, if localism is about giving local people control, why would you need elected members to be advocates on behalf of the people who now have control?

The public service ethos will be maintained by exploiting the willingness of local voluntary groups to deliver those services the commercial world finds unattractive, because they don’t make the right level of profit.

Finally, any political representation required, to give the few people that actually bother to vote something to do, would be provided by the directly elected mayors, that will be imposed on us at some point in the future.  This role will involve glad-handing, pretending to listen to the community and keeping an eye on the lawyers as they churn out all the contracts.

Just to finish on the sci-fi theme.  David Cameron has said that the judiciary and security are not up for grabs.   Robocop is all about an outsourced police force, where the dedicated cops on the street spend all their time being dropped in it because the greedy corporation that employs them, starves them of resources in order to increase profits.  Never say never Dave!

Big Society – if the price is right

David Cameron is refusing to give up on his Big Society idea, with a speech tomorrow (Monday) to remind people of what it’s about.  One TV commentator was cruel enough to inform viewer that, if this were a film launch, it would be billed as Big Society 4.

I can’t help but wonder if David Cameron hasn’t already missed the boat on this in terms of public attitude?  How many volunteer led activities have folded in recent years, because of a lack of people willing to give up their time?  Scout, Guide and Brownie groups, along with numerous social clubs and community run halls, to name but a few.

Surly, if there were so many willing people out there, wouldn’t they already be doing it?  What is it about Big Society that’s going to bring all these potential volunteers out of the closet?

Even if it does succeed, this drive to turn us in to a nation of volunteers, (now that we’ve pretty much killed off all the shop keepers) has its fair share of negatives.  Just like his ministers, David Cameron seems hell bent on subjecting this country to a local government bypass operation.  It’s as though councils are being blamed for all the ills in our communities and that bypassing them to recruit a new set of volunteers, will somehow bring these communities back to back to health.

I say new set of volunteers because central government seems to have forgotten that local government already has a large number of volunteers.  They’re called elected members and they were put there by their communities.

Until the last government started interfering with the process, local government was very much something you got involved in because you wished to make a contribution to your community and were willing to make some financial sacrifices in order to do so.  Now, with the advent of members’ allowance and special responsibility payments that often run in to the tens of thousands, the clarity of this aspect of being an elected has become decidedly blurred.  Given the Pickles drive to cull local government senior and middle management and give the job to the members, this blurring can only get worse.

My second gripe about the Big Society idea, is that many of the charities that are apparently going to become the saviours of everything the public values, are often run like full blown businesses.  Many have chief executives and senior managers employed on a purely commercial basis, with pay packets to match.  I doubt if these people agree to take a reduced salary just because it’s a charity that’s employing them.

So, as with elected members, the public service ethos of volunteering to provide a service to communities, will become more and more blurred over time, as the big charities and their army of well meaning volunteers burrow their way in to the various local government service delivery areas.  As we see more and more services transferred from the stewardship of one set of elected volunteers and into the hands of those who are unelected and therefore far less accountable, a major question comes to mind.

Unlike those employed in local government, the senior management of the big charities bring none of the public service ethos that is currently present in local government, but do display much of the commercialism of the private sector.  How long will it be before it is impossible to tell the difference between a service delivered by a ‘charity’ and that delivered by an outsourcing company?

Not a major problem in itself you might think – who cares who delivers the service, as long as it’s delivered?  The problem is, once you’ve killed off the competition, in the form of the current local government structures and the only providers in the market are the privateers, it becomes a sellers market.  The defence industry has already done this via the MOD, now it would seem that it’s the turn of local government.  Come on Down The Price Is Right (for those old enough to remember the TV show).