The recent report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, ‘Lifting the lid on bin complaints’, has reignited the debate around outsourced services and whether local government gets value for money from such contracts.
To my mind what the report highlights is the disconnect that can sometimes take place between the council, the contractor and the service user, when a contract is outsourced. Just because a service is outsourced it doesn’t mean that the public don’t think that the council isn’t responsible for it or should have democratic oversight of the service and when they complain they expect their issues to be addressed by the council and blame them if there is a slow response, rather than the contractor.
‘Outsourcing at the root of too many upheld bin collection complaints’ was the headline on the press release which accompanied the Ombudsman’s report launch. I thought it would be worthwhile placing this on social media without any comment of my own to see what the response was. It didn’t take long for the protectors of the contractors to start spinning like out of control addicts to the public purse, fearful of withdrawal of their monetary fix.
Unfortunately it was rather a predictable defensive reaction. The report is erroneous, it’s local government’s inability to procure and manage contracts effectively, it’s because austerity has focused too much on price rather than quality and pointing to an authority which has some current industrial relations problems as a diversion rather than facing up to the problems that exist. Stop! Take some ownership for failures and start thinking about how to work with clients to resolve any underlying issues.
In 2014 APSE launched a report into partnership working, ‘Ensuring collaboration: one way ahead for public-private partnerships’, undertaken by De Montfort and Essex Universities and funded by Amey. In that report we called for a ‘safe space’ to be created in contracts which would allow local government clients and contractors to meet when problems arose to have discussions without resorting to arming themselves with teams of surveyors and lawyers. The report called this approach ‘pragmatic adversarialism’.
My expectation is that after the resentment about the report has died down smarter contractors will think about how they can address the issues it raises and comeback with a more measured response. If they don’t then we will continue to see a growth in the significant trend in authority’s insourcing services.