Channel 4 News have got some interesting takes from people on private sector businesses running public services. If we put aside the occasional hysterical ‘outsourcing is bad… period’ argument there does seem to be a selection of genuine concerns that people are raising which could potentiallly be addressed by the private sector. The one particular area I feel could be resolved is around transparency, the subject of the C4 News piece. The example flagged up is that if government provides a service or does something I can FOI them but I can’t do that to a private provider.
On the other hand the National Outsourcing Association argues there is the danger that if too much info is released, say detailed price breakdowns, then price fixing might become an issue. A fair point, but one that I find ultimately unconvincing. Largely because the industry is mature, the people working in it have moved round a lot and they are experienced enough to know how much things cost and what sort of margin it is acceptable to make. There will of course be variations but by and large I think the competitiveness of the market place will take care of price fixing, especially as a number of councils are now either considering or actually bringing services back in house.
Could we see business voluntarily submitting to FOI requests? Or maybe a new FOI style code of practice for outsourcing businesses? However business responds it’s clear that a higher degree of scrutiny on outsourcing businesses will be the norm for the foreseeable future so getting ahead of the curve on this would be in their interests. Increasingly it feels like we are raising the values and ethics bar to entry.
Whilst I don’t think that extending FOI to private businesses is a good idea in the end I’m moved to ask the question, when a private business contracts with the state should they be held to a higher standard? This might put some people off wanting to play in the market but it might also ensure the companies we are left with are the genuine good guys.