Tory-run Essex County Council becomes Cameron’s sandbox

IBM takes on services in Essex as part of £5bn privatisation deal

It is one of those headlines that makes you wonder where on earth it will lead. I’ve spent the past hour wondering if my immediate Tweet in response was over the top and a misinterpretation of what is going on:

Essex Tories begin revolutionary dismantling of public services – with Cameron’s full support

It wasn’t.

This is a deal that has the potential to fundamentally alter the nature of local government in England. A Cameron win in 2010 could see a revolution in the provision of local services that strangles political differentiation, subjugates community priorities to an ideology of technocratic efficiency – and all whilst reassuring voters that these changes are merely efficient and (of course) apolitical.

Superficially, the attraction is obvious.

Politicians are held in contempt on a national and local level. (Ironically, Lord Hanningfield bridges the gap between the national expenses scandal and the crisis in local service provision in extraordinary fashion, with reports that detectives have sent files to the Crown Prosecution Service alleging fraud, just at the point that Essex County Council, which he leads, is condemned for its appalling record on children’s services.) What better way to score a political victory than to tacitly acknowledge that distrust by placing the delivery of services in the hands of a non-political and widely-respected industry leader such as IBM?

IBM has considerable experience of public service delivery in Canada, as the Times article linked in the headline shows. There is an impressively detailed exposition of its objectives and relationship with Canadian public services in IBM’s paper Service Canada – A New Paradigm in Public Service Delivery. Even a cursory reading demonstrates that IBM’s engagement in Canada is very, very different to what is being reported has been agreed with Hanningfield. Prioritising 21st Century public service delivery in a mountainous, multi-lingual country, that is the second largest in the world, yet the ninth least densely populated, is rather different from the Essex experience (Langdon Hills may boast “one of the most astonishing prospects to be beheld“, but. let’s face it, we’re not exactly talking the Rockies here). Yet even with these laudable objectives, the project has attracted criticism on a variety of levels, for its effect on women, its impact on health care and even concerns for national security. (A google search consisting of “public services” “wholesale privatization” and “canada” is revealing.)

I have no ideological objection to the delivery of public services through the private sector. I believe that the well-considered and appropriate out-sourcing of services and the importation of industry best practice have led to genuine improvements in service. The key to its success is the accountability that comes from having contracts that are carefully scrutinised, regularly reviewed and competitively tendered for.

At the same time, I am very conscious that public services are exactly that: services provided to the public by authorities that should be transparent, prepared for detailed scrutiny and, ultimately, held to account. There is a balance to be struck and the job of local politicians is to strike that balance, serving the needs of those they represent as best they can. Those in opposition draw attention to deficiencies in current services and offer an alternative programme for local priorities.

Ultimately, the people who pay for and use those services decide who they want in charge.

Hanningfield’s wheeling and dealing should send a chill through anyone who still places a value on choice, transparency, accountability, competition and social justice. Companies like IBM don’t invest in technological infrastructure to run services for a couple of years. They expect to be the partner of choice for many. The contract we are told is for eight – well beyond the date of the next County Council elections. And as many will have noticed,  it is measurably harder to extract detailed information from private sector partners, council officers nervously explaining that such information is restricted due to the need to observe commercial confidentiality (actually it isn’t, a lot of the time, but that’s another story).

Couple the Essex example with Tory-run Barnet’s attempts to experiment with ‘no-frills’ local government services – two-tier services that lead to extra charges or rebates depending on how much you need them – and everyone involved in the political conversation of the country should take note:

The Cameron revolution is under way before a single vote has been cast and it shows every sign so far of being as ideological, divisive and destructive as Thatcher’s.

We in Essex and Barnet may be living in Cameron’s sandbox today, but the results of these experiments could inform the local services of everyone tomorrow – for years and year to come.

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