Over half of all local authorities have considered bringing services outsourced to the private sector back in-house. That is the findings of research commissioned by Unison, Britain’s largest public sector union. The report claims that officers in 60 per cent of councils have been asked to consider bringing services back into local authorities as part of achieving budget savings.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis claimed the survey highlighted the risks of outsourcing services to the private sector and was evidence of the quality, efficiency and accountability of public sector services.

Well he would say that wouldn’t he? Outsourcing council services has led to job losses, pay cuts and reduced sickness pay for his union members. Before we dismiss this union-sponsored survey as propaganda, we should recognise that it brings out into the open that thinking at local government level has moved on even if hasn’t in central government.

Recent scandals concerning the care of people with learning disabilities in private hospitals and the finances of private sector companies caring for older people have brought into question whether the care of vulnerable people should be determined by the profit motive. Maybe health and social care just isn’t suitable to be run as a commercial business and should be a public service.

This survey may also allow officers to say what has to date been unsayable: that many local authorities got ripped off by big private sector companies whose aggressive sales tactics, slick marketing and smart legal teams took advantage of officers inexperience of entering into large scale long term contracts for services.

The promise of quick, big savings, the leap to cutting edge technology and the holy grail of doing more with less was just too much for many councillors to resist. The reality has been a mixture of systems that over promised and under delivered, where people were sold a Rolls Royce when all they needed was a Ford Mondeo and where the biggest saving came from employing less staff and paying them less.

Of course it is true that that in the past public sector services found it very difficult to move from traditional ways of doing things in response to changing customer needs and expectations. Local authority workers had a reputation for being inflexible and for running services to meet their own convenience rather than the needs of those they were providing a service to.

I remember when the Home Help service operated around the working day of mums with young children: the service was only on offer Monday to Friday once the mums had dropped off the kids at school and very little was available after 3.30pm or at weekends. But this was 30 years ago.

We now live in the 24-hour, seven day a week society. These days you don’t have to outsource to get flexibility. These days you outsource to get the service cheaper. This survey reveals that many local authorities are questioning whether this is such a good deal and whether it is even true.


Watching what you say (part 2)

No longer a senior manager, I don’t have to worry about upsetting social workers, nurses, auxiliary staff or their managers. This doesn’t mean I don’t care what they think. In fact my motivation to write is because I do care what people think. I am just less bothered about what they think of me.

As a senior manager I was always keen to stimulate debate believing that open discussion was the best way to challenge attitudes and change behaviour. I also believed that speaking out openly was the most effective way of supporting staff who felt the organisation had good sounding polices but failed to back them up. I am referring to bullying, harassment and equal opportunities particularly around race and sexuality. These were the areas where staff and managers tended to shy away from making comments for fear of saying the wrong thing or opening up a can of worms.

A detailed description of how we went about creating a safe environment in order for staff to challenge and be challenged can be found in An Elephant in the Room – an equality and diversity training manual - but real progress only came through incorporating this approach into an house management development programme. A case study is included in Equipping Managers for an Uncertain Future published by www.russellhouse.co.uk