The prime minister might have toned down the references to competition in launching the Open public services white paper but the direction of travel is clear
Ian Mulheirn is worried that the government’s open public services white paper has backed off from introducing full competition. That’s not the way it looks if you have experience of running a public service and have read the detail of the proposals.
If competition is to be the ‘default position’ for service delivery, that’s a fundamental change. Since the demise of Compulsory Competitive Tendering, the default position is that most services are provided by the authority responsible for them, and it is a local decision if they are contracted out.
As Mulheirn points out, in some service areas, like Supporting People, authorities have moved towards commissioning and a mixed economy of providers. Where, then, is the evaluation of this part of the sector showing that commissioning has worked?
Quite apart from the overall shift in the base position for public services, the white paper picks out very significant areas to be opened for competition: no fewer than eight major service areas, practically all of them (including housing management, customer contact and family support) being key interfaces between local authorities and the public.
A striking feature of this list is that all eight are services that private suppliers would be very interested in running.
And yet the odd thing about the paper is that it seems very confused about the expected outcomes. It seems to take as read that current provision by local authorities is unsatisfactory, disregarding the massive changes that have taken place in many services to bring customers into decision-making – housing management being the leading example.
What happens if customers simply want to retain the current provider and not risk the authority putting the service out to tender? Can they challenge the ‘default position’ or is competition to be imposed regardless?
Elsewhere, the paper gives the thumbs up to what it calls ‘autonomous providers’ such as the arm’s-length companies that run much of council housing. It wants these providers to become fully autonomous.
Does this mean cutting any ties with the local authority? If so, it will almost certainly invoke the European Union procurement rules and require an open tendering procedure. Yet the white paper only makes one brief mention of EU rules, as if they are an irrelevance. And again, what happens if service users object?
In yet another section, the paper makes the case for increasing the accountability of services. Invariably this seems to be to customers, not the council, thus ignoring local authorities’ client role. Yet arguably, when contracting out has gone wrong, an inadequate client role is as much to blame as poor performance by the contractor itself.
The paper doesn’t show how contracting out and service-user involvement will be reconciled. What it does say is that procurement procedures will be made less bureaucratic. Yet it is a golden rule of contracting out (under those barely mentioned EU rules) that if it ain’t in the contract, it ain’t enforceable.
Simplifying the rules sounds awfully like jettisoning the questions and requirements that could help ensure that service users have a proper say in how the contract is run.
Ian Mulheirn describes the white paper as a set of ‘wonkish principles’. On this at least, I think we can agree.
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