This week, on the day of George Osborne’s emergency budget and Brighton Trades Council’s anti-cuts protest, Greens announced our opposition to a council restructure process known as ‘Intelligent Commissioning’. We will also not participate in the recruitment process to find new ‘Strategic Directors’ to push this process forward.
As I spoke about this to the gathered protestors there were strong cheers of agreement. The unions understand that, as has happened in the NHS and the education system, commissioning tends to result in privatisation, poorer working conditions and reduced democratic control of public services.
However the other opposition parties, while they have been critical of the £125k + benefits packages for these new directors, were quick to criticise our position. They felt we should be ‘inside the process’ of recruiting these people and so on.
I don’t agree. When the council’s new Chief Executive John Barradell was recruited, Greens participated in the process. Barradell spoke then, I’m told, of his desire to improve the council’s reputation amongst residents, make it more customer service orientated and more efficient. Who could disagree with that? After starting work he continued to expand on his ambition to improve the council. We share that desire.
However it wasn’t until recently that he explained that he wanted to do this through a process of ‘intelligent commissioning’ led by a set of new directors, a series of delivery units and so abolishing the existing council directorates. As I’ll explain below, we oppose commissioning in the way proposed. We won’t get to vote on these proposals as the Tory cabinet supports them and Chief Exec Barradell doesn’t need council approval to re-organise his staff. So to show our opposition to this process, to make our stand clear, we have refused to participate in the recruitment process.
I have no strong desire the retain the directorates as they are. However the thinking behind commissioning is flawed. As I understand it from the reports I’ve read and how it works in our local NHS, this is the proposal: A service is defined, such as waste collection, day care, tourism promotion or licensing enforcement. What the council wants delivered for that service is specified and then put out to tender. Council teams can bid to run this service (alone or in partnership with other groups), private firms can also bid as well as the ‘third sector’ such as charities and co-operatives.
What’s ‘intelligent’ about this process is the way the service is specified with ‘customers’ in mind, that it will be results orientated, that charities and other groups can get involved and we could jointly tender for services (so pooling budgets and saving money) with other local public sector organisations such as NHS Trusts.
What could be wrong with that? Well as the Health Overview & Scrutiny Committee found with local NHS commissioning, these processes tend to favour large corporations who can afford to participate in these complex bidding processes. The staff used to provide the services are usually on less secure, less well paid contracts with worse pensions. Quality can also be an issue.
Additionally, the evidence so far with NHS contracting, is that the costs are often higher. This is because the tender process is not that competitive (the same big players are the only ones pitching around the country for the same types of contracts), the tender process itself is time-cosnuming and costly plus for some services private companies demand premiums for the risks involved which the public sector would have otherwise regularly borne.
Of course there are cases when partnership working makes sense, and using the expertise of private companies and the third sector can absolutely be the right thing to do. But government, the public sector, is about providing those services for all sectors of society which a market has failed to do, need to be managed in the general public interest or that individuals alone could not possibly afford, such as expert social care or careful management of our seafront.
Furthermore, as we’ve seen time and again in the NHS, once the services are contracted out it’s much harder for democratically elected representatives to hold them to account. We get told basic information is ‘commercially sensitive’ or that we’ll only find out more once a formal target review is held. We can’t hold managers employed by private firms to account. If things go wrong there is little option other than trying to terminate the contract – which can prove very costly. We’ve been here before locally, our waste collection contract went to two private firms before being returned in-house for a much improved service.
I believe that we should be focussing on running a council that is proud of its staff: A group of people expert in what they do, striving for excellence and delivering public services at decent value for the tax payer.
By keeping services in-house we can give staff the job security they need to do their best work, develop their skills and also train new generations to serve their city. Sometimes it will make sense to go for private help, such as for expert restoration of specific historic artefact or construction of a major project. However, as I saw when a private consultant was used to negotiate rents for seafront traders, once an in-house surveyor was hired a much more reasonable and long term approach was taken.
It’s my view that we can take this city from good to superb only with a strong commitment to council staff. They do many wonderful things already. But I believe they can deliver even more. To get there it would help if they were removed from being under the constant threat of tendering that ‘intelligent commissioning’ would bring.