Project Management (and why Privatisation of Public Services is Appealing)

by kubular

I want to begin by saying that I have always been a firm believer in a a core set of public services. I believe transport, communication, health and energy should all be managed and owned by the state. By this I do not mean that they should be free – I mean that we should all pay for them communally through appropriate tax channels. These are all services that are necessary to each and every one of us. Even those of us that don’t travel require others to be able to – even if it’s simply to bring us company or supplies. We all need to communicate, and we all like to have a doctor or hospital we can use when we’re ill. Wether it be gas or electrical power, energy drives all of these services.

As a teenager I found it disappointing that the bulk of all these services were more or less privatised. Energy is, transport is, telecommunications is.. and yes, aspects of the NHS have been for a long time. It seems that the most important services we have were the first to be sold off by the state. People complain that the younger generation is ‘politically illiterate’ or disinterested in politics. Is it such a surprise when the services that most matter are run by private companies? What can your MP really achieve for you when your primary concern is paying your gas and water bills?

Yet, even with all this privatisation – our government is still falling short of cash to fund the remainder of the public sector. One of the key services that the government still runs is Housing. I know this because I’m resident in a council block. And before anyone tries to correct me – no it’s not run by the city council directly, it’s run by a not for profit organisation that just happens to be a subsidiary of (can you guess who?) the city council.

Those readers who spend their time in the UK may be aware of the current ‘cutbacks’ and language used to describe state benefits – what is being referred to as the ‘welfare’ bill. And yet we constantly reminded about figures that illustrate just how small a part of state expenditure this ‘welfare’ actually is. If I remember correctly (and honestly, I don’t feel this will be read by enough people to warrant me looking it up) the figure is around (or less than) 7%. of the total budget. Quite frankly, that’s miniscule. Especially when you consider that this pays rent, council tax and JSA for people. Where does the other 93% go?

After all, telecoms, energy, transport and police services are all (or significant proportions of them are) privatised. Now, there will be readers here who will no doubt be shouting (perhaps mentally) “well, THAT’S where all the money goes!” But is it? Is it really?

I’m going to take a small detour here and mention that I’m registered at a private dental clinic. This costs me more in terms of the fee I pay for a checkup or an appointment with the hygienist but I get a much better service from it. I get more regular checkups – something that, until a few years ago, was standard under the NHS. This means that problems with my teeth can be spotted and corrected much earlier and avoid much more complicated (and to be honest, expensive) remedial work later on.

Those of us that are old enough to have watched (even repeats) of the BBC’s Yes, Minister, will no doubt have noticed how our government still seems to live up the jokes. You’ll have also no doubt heard many derisory comments about the civil service from your peers or the older generation. Perhaps the phrase “gifted amateur” in particular. Incase you haven’t, this refers to the fact that people in the civil service are continually moved around from one job to another – particularly decision makers and particularly when they’re competent at their role. This is also true of councillors – a friend of mine (who takes his position very seriously) is continually moved about from one places to another, meaning many of the changes he tries to make for his area never really get through or are ‘reassessed’ by whoever replaces him.

Four paragraphs ago I mentioned that I reside in a block managed by a public sector company. And it bears all the clichéd hallmarks of one – nonsensical bureaucracy and ‘red tape’. Serious, the forms I have to fill in! The vague (and rather last minute) communications when they charge you a vast sum to be rendered within 14 days. Also the strikes. But there’s one key attribute or theme that seems to permeate all stories about public sector organisations – Bad Project Management and ‘decision’ making.

The management company that manages my block is currently running a pilot in the southern end of the city in preparation for an ‘upgrade’ to the concierge service they provide. Just for emphasis I’ll repeat three words: “pilot”, “currently” and “running”. It’s important these words are emphasised, oh hell, I’ll add two more “recently” and “started” because the concierge upgrades have already been set underway at least 2 years ago. Several of my services (such as the intercom) have already been replaced. The camera systems are already being replaced. The concierge team themselves have already been put at risk of redundancy. Also, I’ve also been given notice that my concierge charge is going to increase.

The intercom upgrades that were performed (supposedly in preparation for the new concierge service) have already been made redundant and rendered incompatible with the new service. It’s also worth noting that I will be paying (approximately) £14 extra per month for the new service. On top of the ~£800pa charge I already pay. That’s nearly £200 extra per year. And the new service won’t actually be as good. My block currently has a concierge 24/7, they provide a ‘good neighbour’ role, which includes accepting parcels for residents, keeping a spare door key for residents, checking on flats when people are away and supporting residents with odd jobs that they aren’t able to do themselves (with prior organisation). The new service looks to be 9-5 and primarily run from a call centre (hence why the intercoms are now incompatible). They’ll have to be contacted by phone.

It’s also worth mentioned the most important (but often overlooked) function of the 24/7 concierge service – security. The whole point of having a concierge around is so that, hopefully, he doesn’t have to do anything. He can sit quietly and just be there. Especially during the dark, inner city nights. That’s not saying the concierge service is perfect, but at least people feel safer.

Now, bearing in mind that I’ll have a concierge service for less than half the time I currently do – and potentially on less days of the week, why is it my fees are going up? Because of constant changes to the project. This is a management company that opened a call centre just to have to lay off all it’s staff because it implemented an alternative service which made them redundant by the time it was opened. Constantly changing the goals and implementation of a project (once it’s already started) is extremely expensive, not only because you have to pay the cost of making the changes you started but you’re also lumbered with the cost of having to change/replace them.

This is not unusual in stories about the civil service/public sector. Only last week was a comment made on Question Time regarding labour’s management of the DWP. The constant need for retraining and new systems to handle changes to benefits and taxation and so on – systems that couldn’t work together so would have to replaced… and replaced… This is not just a labour problem, it’s a public sector problem.

It’s for these reasons ministers end up looking to the private sector for management of our services. Because a private sector company has to manage it’s projects well, otherwise it goes bankrupt. Good management is necessary in the private sector, as opposed to the necessity for continual reinvention and upgrading of services just to prove one’s usefulness – or rather, to make sure there are jobs for the boys.

I’d still much rather my services were state run – but I want those services to be run well and unfortunately, these two things seem to be mutually exclusive.