The government is determined to open up public services to greater competition with an increasing role in their delivery for the business, social enterprise, co-operative and voluntary sectors. More health provision, education, local authority services and welfare programmes will be procured from outside the public sector.
There is a debate to be had about suitability of such policies for the range of services to which pluralism of supply will be applied. There are questions about the quality and capacity of the business and other sectors to respond to the government agenda. There will always be challenges to the assumption that such an approach consistently delivers value for money. Some people and their representative organisations will adopt ideological opposition to government policy and some will argue that only the public sector should be entrusted with some or possibly all public services.
Of course, the reality is that there has always been a diversity of supply of a range of public services for many decades. Threality is that it is almost certain - or as certain as anything can be in public policy - that the trend to more business, social enterprise, co-operative and voluntary sector providers will continue and probably accelerate whoever is in power in Westminster and Whitehall. Indeed, in town hall administrations controlled by all the political parties and none are opening more of their services to a many different suppliers. Staff are being encouraged to establish social enterprises and co-operatives to "spin out" of the public sector. There is a political consensus in support for a greater service delivery role for the third sector - voluntary and community sectors. The business sector is being contracted to run services and/or invest in public infrastructure.
In spite of the growth of contracting services from the business and other sector continues, little if any attention has been given to the assurance of accountability. This is a mistake and needs to be addressed with some urgency.
When a public body - be it a local authority, the NHS or central government - procures a public service from an external provider it cannot outsource its accountability. Rightly it remains responsible for the quality of service and the use of public money. However, in practice there have been too many examples of public bodies hiding behind a contract and their contracted supplier. This is wrong. There have also been examples of suppliers refusing to allow their public sector client from publishing performance and financial data about their contracts on the basis that this is "commercially confidential". Again this is unacceptable.
Many public sector contracts, especially central government contracts, require the business or voluntary sector provider to refuse to comment publicly about their contracts, the policy under which they have been let and the relationship with their client. Providers find that they cannot be open when asked for evidence by Parliamentary select committees, the media, staff and service users. Such "gagging" clauses should have no place in a democratic system.
For charities these clauses are particularly challenging for charitable trustees have a duty to be open, transparent and accountable. They can never be solely accountable to public sector procurers or funders.
Greater openness and transparency when public services are contracted is necessary for a number of reasons.
First it is just the right thing in a democratic society.
Second, the public as tax payers and users of public services has a right to know how their taxes are being used; how effective the public sector is at using public money; and in order to compare the performance of different agencies and hold their political leaders to account. Such information is essential if the government's concept of "arm chair auditors" is going to take off.
Third, if the trend to a greater plurality of supply is continue it is essential for all concerned - government, the wider public sector and suppliers from all sectors - that the public has confidence in the arrangements. Secrecy, "gagging" clauses in contracts and the veil of "commercial confidentiality" undermine rather than enhance public confidence. This is even more so the case today as general confidence in the business sector has been damaged by scandals and a sense of a loss of business morality.
There are other reasons why we need greater transparency and accountability for public service but these three should be enough for government to act to implement reform.
This reform should include a variety of measures but the core ones should be:
• publication of audited accounts for all public service contracts with a value over the EU procurement threshold
• publication of contracts with a value over the EU procurement threshold and any variation to them
• publication of the procurement arrangements
• publication of verified performance against specified targets - outcome and/or output targets - for all public service contracts with a value over the EU procurement threshold
• where there are "profit" share arrangements these should be independently audited
• all public service suppliers contracted to the public sector should be required to give evidence to parliamentary select and local government scrutiny committees - and protocols agreed for their ability and right to provide vies and facts on the performance of their public sector clients (vital information given that performance and value for money will be dependent as much on the client as the provider)
• disclosure of the ownership and governance arrangements (and reward systems ) in supplier organisations
• disclosure on relationships between the public sector organisation and the supplier
• the application of Freedom of Information legislation to business and third sector providers as well their public sector clients
• the right of external regulators, auditors and inspectors to have access to business and other providers as they would have to public sector providers
These ten suggestions may not answer all the questions but they would go some way towards to opening up the public sector landscape to greater transparency and accountability. Such arrangements would ideally be co-designed by the principal players involved though government ultimately must take responsibility - local authorities could make their own local arrangements and not wait for central government. There will need to be some sensitivity about some information especially when services are approaching the time for new contracts to be let so as to ensure fair competition; and the burden on providers should not be so great as to be a barrier for smaller companies and third sector organisations to feel able to bid. Providers and clients will often wish to maintain strongly partnership based relations so any new measures will need to be pursued in ways that foster rather than weaken such relationships. Where relations and performance is good this will not be difficult.
There can be no excuse for delay in introducing bold reform to ensure the accountability of all public service provision.