Councils of all stripes have been outsourcing for decades, which is why your local traffic warden is usually tramping the streets on behalf of a private firm. But that isn’t enough for Tory-run Barnet – it is on a mission to make itself disappear. It has begun a programme to farm out so many of its services that the local trade union calculates staff will shrink from 3,200 in September 2012 to just 332.
Everything from registering births to mowing the local cemeteries has either already been outsourced or is about to about be. And most of the key tasks have been given to the FTSE giant Capita. Not just for a few months or a couple of years, mind you: Capita will run these services for at least 10 years.
So an arm of Britain’s local government has in effect agreed to a friendly takeover by a £7bn multinational. Whoever Barnet residents vote for in local elections, they will always get Capita. Whenever they phone or email or visit, they will speak to a Capita employee. The FTSE giant will face no competition for the next decade; nor will it endure the same scrutiny as democratic government, as previously public information is veiled under “commercial sensitivity”.
This scale of outsourcing is new to Barnet, but has already given rise to some monstrous cock-ups. I’ve mentioned one here before: the loss of legal expertise meant that Barnet councillors were given the wrong reports to vote on last summer, prompting an independent inquiry that concluded: “There is no one who understands local government law in depth at Barnet.” And while the council claims the point of outsourcing is to save money, evidence of that is thin. One local blogger, who writes under the pen name Mr Reasonable, makes it his habit to go through the accounts and can’t identify any of the much-touted savings. He has offered to donate £250 to charity if the council can prove its claims, but so far there’s been no reply. I asked the local authority the same question this afternoon, but staff couldn’t come back to me in time. Meanwhile, the cost of interim and agency staff is ballooning from £12.5m two years ago to £15.5m.
We believe that outsourcing is rarely a solution, if only because the management contract is so difficult to write. If you can’t operate the service you won’t be able to manage the outsourcing of it.