Time for More Public Value, Fewer Markets

09/09/2013 12:44 BST | Updated 08/11/2013 10:12 GMT

This week the TUC has an opportunity to set out a new agenda for public services. It can and should challenge the Coalition Government's obsession with market based approaches. It also has to be ready to challenge some of the trade union movement's own prejudices. It must champion communities and service users - collective and individual. It has to be ready to criticise public services that fail the people or which have lost their relevance.

Public services are not the same as retail services. They have a wider public value. They must be delivered in accordance with a public service ethos. These are not proper markets, the relationship between provider and user is usually asymmetric and market conditions cannot be artificially created. Service users are citizens not merely consumers. However, wherever possible users should be entitled to personalised and responsive services, and where appropriate personal or collective choice.

The TUC will rightly argue for a macro-economic policy which supports growth and employment. It will, as Frances O'Grady has already signalled, make the case for the benefits of any economic growth to be fairly shared in what is becoming an increasingly unequal and divided society. It should demonstrate that effective and efficient public services are both vital for economic growth but also fundamental to a fairer and more just society. The TUC and trade unions can articulate these principles making a reality of 'being in this together' for the common good.

Businesses require excellent public services and public infrastructure to survive and thrive. The majority of families and communities require excellent public services to enable them to have decent lives and opportunity. The social case and economic case for excellent public services go together. Trade unions and progressive political leaders should articulate this.

Public services require investment and adequate revenue. The cuts - in the last few years and those forecast for the next few years - are damaging to many public services and to society. Although there is unlikely to be much more, if any, additional money for most public services, progressives should make the case for tax funded services.

Trade unions and their members often are best placed to know how to improve productivity and reduce inefficiency. Often their knowledge is greater and more practical than their managers and certainly than politicians. They should not be silent on these matters. Employers and government have to listen to and act on their suggestions.

Trade unions also know where the greatest need for expenditure is and should be ready and willing to co-operate with public sector leaders to develop sustainable financial strategies.

Public sector employees have been particularly hard hit by government and wider public sector pay and employment policies. Trade unions have been right to oppose these policies and practices such as 'zero hours' contracts. Unions should make the case that there is a positive correlation between good terms and conditions, pay, professional development and employee involvement and service quality.

In particular I would have expected the TUC strongly to argue for an end of to 'zero hours' contracts in the public sector and contracted services as they are doing. They should demand the living wage is paid by all public bodies and those contracted to them. They should robustly argue against any dilution of TUPE rights.

And there is a case to argue for a future government to reinstate many of the employment protection rights especially those relating to contracted services that have been removed since 2010.

The TUC could adopt a very positive position on the need to develop public service talent and in particular to offer young people employment and careers in public services.

Public sector trade unions have always argued that public services should be delivered within the public sector and not outsourced especially to the business sector. As I have recently written in other articles, the traditional outsourcing model for public services is becoming increasingly irrelevant to contemporary conditions, challenges and needs.

The union argument on retaining public services within the public sector will intensify but it should be promoted in terms of what is best for service users. And what is the most effective use of public money rather than solely in terms of the interests of employees. Of course the rights, pay and conditions of employees are very important and should never be ignored.

Principled opposition to outsourcing is legitimate. The case is stronger when based on evidence and experience. There is enough evidence to raise serious questions and certainly to challenge the Government's 'Open Public Services' policy. The TUC and unions should consider commissioning research or establishing a commission to examine the evidence of the long term impact of public services outsourcing - good and bad. And there will be both.

Trade unions have to argue and produce the evidence for alternatives means to reform and improve public services - and there are many which often more effective. I know that the TUC, Unison and other unions are doing this. In reality though whatever the evidence and however well argued the case for less outsourcing there is still likely to be more. Therefore, trade unions also have a responsibility to contribute ideas for reforming aspects of outsourcing.

Such reform could include

• requiring all public bodies to publish their 'business cases' and rationale for pursuing outsourcing with a period of time between publication and enactment to allow for stakeholder including trade union consultation, challenge and representations

• requiring public bodies to address employment (and trade union) rights, conditions and professional development during procurement processes and then contractually - including the living wage, pensions, consultative arrangements, TUPE protection for the entirety of the contract period, etc.

• making involvement of employees and their trade unions mandatory in public service procurements

• requiring all contracts, contractors and client functions and processes to be open to political scrutiny by Parliamentary Select Committees and local authority scrutiny

• introducing a system of performance - both operational and financial - management for all significant contracts with transparency and easily accessible information and independent audit

• extending the Freedom of Information Act to all public service contracts, contractors and procurement / client functions (with minimum safeguards to protect competitive processes around tendering periods)

• giving individual service users the right to challenge performance and require the public sector client to respond publicly to issues and complaints after having ,where necessary, undertaken objective investigations

• ensuring that employees in all sectors have 'whistle-blowing' rights and protection

• extending the statutory "right to challenge supply" for staff and voluntary/social sector organisations to offer to take over managing outsourced services and not only to those provided by the public sector

• setting tests for bidders and contractors to demonstrate ethical standards and behaviours, and a public service ethos

• requiring all contractors to publish details of ownership, governance, senior remuneration, any corporate criminal convictions and all external inspection reports on their contracted public services - and for this to apply across their the company or group not just subsidiaries involved in the bid

• creating a national register of all public service contracts and contractors with contracts above an agreed threshold so that data on their performance, etc. can be monitored across all their contracts and available to all procuring bodies

• strengthening the Best Value Social Value Act and implementing it comprehensively

Trade unions should consider how they can work with and organise in the business, social and voluntary sector providers of public services. Staff working in these sectors have the same - and sometimes greater - reasons for needing trade union advocacy and protection than their colleagues in the public sector.

Trade unions might consider how they could support and facilitate any of their members who wish to create employee led co-operatives and mutuals. These models have a long tradition in the Labour movement. They are being usurped or misused or misrepresented by others. Trade unions can be the champions of genuine socially owned and controlled public services.

This article started with the social and economic case for decent well-resourced tax funded user focused public services that add public value. Trade unions are not alone in their commitment to excellent public services and resisting harsh and harmful cuts; and to the view that public value is preferable to market based services. It is to be hoped that they can find common cause with the voluntary and community sector, faith groups and others to create a 'popular coalition' for effective, efficient, accountable and ethical public services.