Does Privatisation Threaten Democracy?

31/12/2012 09:27 | Updated 27 February 2013

In the past month or so the privatised Belgian Postal Service (Bpost) has lost two items of mine. One was a registered letter containing important documents, the other was a Christmas gift for my daughter. Let's just say, I am not exactly a believer in Bpost's new snappy motto: 'ready for tomorrow'. In fairness, their customer service (both by phone and twitter) have been responsive. What they have not done is offer any apologies or regrets, nor have they been able to find any of my stuff! For the record, they have denied that Amazon ever shipped the gift for my daughter and just sort of shrugged about the lost registered letter.

This got me thinking about the perils of moving important public services into the domain of the private sector (the Belgian government does still control 50% + 1 share of the public limited liability company Bpost). With the privatisation of the postal service there are no longer any (fully) publicly controlled means of communication between individuals, groups and public institutions. I think it is safe to say that nearly all of our communication, not done face to face, is mediated by private corporations. In a democratic society this seems highly problematic for a very simple reason. The very essence of democratic conduct is public communication in and on the interests of the common good. When this is to a very large extent mediated if not fully controlled by private companies whose primary directive is to generate profit for shareholders and thus in potential conflict with the common good, there is good reason to believe that these private interests might not always be the neutral and transparent mechanisms of communication that we have come to see them as. In short, there is a risk that the capacity for public communication, one of the foundational aspects of a democratic society, is being eroded by privatisation. The telecoms are the most obvious example of this - to control an internet connection is more or less these days to control the flow of information and communication between citizens and institutional bodies. But the accelerating privatisation of European postal services is also a relevant example. If I wish to contact even my local government (other than by spending a day waiting around at city hall) I must pass through a private telecoms company or postal service.

On a more mundane level, when responsibility for services like the post is passed into private hands it is seemingly always accompanied by drop in quality. To give a local example, according to the Dernier Heure (a Belgian Newspaper) "En 2010, quelque 237.475 demandes de recherche d'envois postaux ont été adressées à bpost. C'est une hausse de... 70,5 % par rapport aux 139.246 demandes recensées en 2009 !" Truncated translation: that's a 70.5% increase in requests to find out where the heck my mail has gone in one year! Bpost contests accusations that the quality of their service has diminished, adding that according to their internal investigations 93% of domestic letters arrived within two days. But ask nearly anyone in Belgium what they think of the new privatised postal service and they'll tell to to avoid it to whatever extent possible.

The basic questions surrounding the privatisation of the postal service are the same as those surrounding the privatisation of any essential public service. Can a private enterprise whose primary goal is to draw profit be expected to offer the same level of service as a public service whose only goal is to provide that service even if it is a detriment to their bottom line? In certain cases - privatisation of telecoms being an example - a liberalised market with sufficient competition may drive innovation leading to improvements in service and drop in price. But even in such cases major infrastructure investment is most often done by governments. In other sectors - rail in the UK, postal service in Belgium - a near monopoly is maintained by a sole provider with no discernable benefit to the service user. When it comes to provision of basics like energy and water, it is hard to see any rational for privatisation beyond an ideological attachement to the market. These are concrete and tangible day-to-day issues and they should certainly give us some pause.

It's worth noting here that the European Commission is deliberately promoting privatization of water services as one of the conditions being imposed as part of bailouts, it acknowledged in a letter to civil society groups on 26 September 2012. A European Citizens Initiative has been formed to ensure public control of drinking water provision (please sign their petition). Again, the EC seems to be on the wrong side of its citizens' interests.

But beyond the frustration of wondering where the heck my mail has gone, or if I have set the privacy settings correctly for my gmail or facebook account, or who the EC has demanded my national government sell the water supply to, it is the political question that worries me most. (Actually the water question worries me quite bit also!) What is the risk of privatising the mechanisms of communication in a diminished public sphere, where contact between citizens is ever more reliant on internet and phone connections. Do we trust companies whose sole function is to generate a profit to be in effect the mediators and even arbitrators of the fundamentals of democratic society?