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Labouring under an illusion?

Martin Read is editor of Facilitate Magazine
Martin Read is editor of Facilitate Magazine

05 August 2019 Martin Read

So the UK has a new prime minister grappling with an unquestionably febrile political landscape.

Doubtless a ‘Boris Bounce’ will see us through to whatever horrors Halloween has in store, but it’s with this political fragility in mind that we should consider the Labour Party’s report, ‘Democratising Local Services – a Plan for Twenty-First Century Insourcing’. After all, a week in politics can be long indeed these days.

A Labour government would, it seems, introduce in its first term a Local Public Services Act obliging councils to make insourcing of currently outsourced services ’the default position’. Labour accepts the difficulties such a policy would bring, expecting its “insourcing revolution” to occur in phases, with some outsourcing remaining in the short term.

Labour sees structural weaknesses in the outsourcing model, not least outsourcers’ “narrow responsibility” to council bosses rather than communities directly. Outsourcers are distant; responsible to shareholders, not locals; unable to make use of an authority’s broader internal synergies. An insoluble disconnect between provider and client is inevitable, they suggest.

Yet Labour also uses eerily familiar language: outsourcing is a “scandal”, a “racket”, a “carve-up” for private profit. “The business model of outsourcing is broken.” It’s all reminiscent of the emotive language used to describe the failing state-worker relationships of the 1970s that led to calls for outsourcing in the first place.

A more nuanced approach is surely required. Strangling outsourced provision is not the answer, nor is allowing it unfettered. Is some form of middle ground really so unlikely?

We are – belatedly perhaps – seeing issues of wider community connection addressed via social value legislation. And while government may have stuttered in its implementation, it has at least tried to find ways to involve more SME outsourcers. The involvement of a thriving, dynamic middle market and clever SME players capitalising on technological change and niche specialisms could change the game in the years ahead - as could a well-managed, competitively assessed in-house alternative. Well coordinated, oversight-rich ‘rightsourcing’ is surely due its day in the sun.

Martin Read is editor of Facilitate Magazine