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BSA Column No. 19 - Concentrate on the service – not the service provider

Author : by Mark Fox

30 September 2012

Recent events have helped crystallise the debate around the role of the private and voluntary sectors in delivering public services. We can see in the media and in the political discussion that the divide has become further entrenched between supporters and opponents of external service provision. This is against the background of the growing use of the private and voluntary sectors to deliver services under Conservative, Labour and now Coalition governments.

In the UK, research shows that 3 million people are employed in the industry, delivering services across the private and public sectors. BSA members are in partnership with over 250,000 SMEs. This sector is also an important export and an engine of growth, at a time when the economy needs all the help it can get.

Research also shows that 60% of the sector’s work is between businesses, but understandably the public sector’s use of the private and voluntary sectors is the bit which attracts attention. Businesses operating in the public domain are subject to appraisal not only by the client, but by service users and taxpayers too. Questions of transparency and accountability are reasonable. Only that which is genuinely commercially sensitive should remain between the provider and the people whose job it is to manage the contract on behalf of the taxpayer. We need to have confidence in public sector managers to be able to do their job. Public sector managers are employed to oversee contracts and have full access to information and data contained within.

We want to see as much transparency and accountability as is reasonable. That means the public sector needs gather the same sort of information as the private sector and publish it in the same way. There must be a level playing field for all, and the same standards of scrutiny for all.

Every day of the week services are delivered successfully and efficiently across the private and public sectors by all forms of provider. Take for example the recent HM Inspector of Prisons report which highlighted that privately run prisons frequently score higher for ‘purposeful activity’ than public sector prisons. Or the recent praise by the Department for Health for the running of a waste management contract. Unfortunately, things that go well seldom attract positive attention. The complex nature of public service delivery, which is after all a human activity, means that sometimes mistakes will be made. Things will go wrong as well as right. This is not unique to private or voluntary sector organisations – as the inquiry into treatment of patients by Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust proves. Regardless of sector, where mistakes are made, they must be acknowledged swiftly and corrected efficiently.

The overarching objective for the delivery of public services must be that the chosen provider, from whichever sector, is able to deliver the best value for money and the best quality of service. A Populus survey in July this year, commissioned by Insight, found that 75 per cent of people agree that ‘the most important thing is to have high quality, free public services - not who is involved in running them’. Furthermore, 66 per cent of people surveyed believe that ‘if a private or voluntary organisation can deliver a public service more effectively than the state, they should be allowed to do so’.

It is clear that a great deal of cold-headed reality needs to be employed when drawing up procurements by the public sector. The problems that have beset recent IT contracts show that procurement officials need to be realistic about the size and scope of what they are asking. Private and voluntary sector providers must be hard headed and realistic about what they contract to provide.

We need to go on working hard to find new and productive ways for the private, public and voluntary sectors to work together to provide services across national and local government. There is not one size fits all approach that will be right for every occasion. No group has a monopoly on wisdom. Together what we need to do is find ways that harness the best of what is on offer, wherever it comes from, for the benefit of all, customer and taxpayer (who are often the same people) alike.

Mark Fox Is Chief Executive of the BSA

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