From education to employment

Is the Public Sector Ready for Private Involvement?

The private sector, it sometimes appears,writes Jethro Marsh for FE News, is a stick used to wave in the face of the public sector.

The course of recent history would seem to indicate that there will only be one course that this interaction will take. There will be more involvement of the private sector with the delivery and development of public services. Of course, just as certainly as there will be greater private sector involvement in the public sector, there will be resistance to this move. Such resistance has manifested itself in recent weeks in the form of a rally held by the Public Services Not Private Profit campaign at Westminster, which received support from Prospect, the public and private sector union with more than 102,000 members.


The picture according to Prospect is one that portrays a shattering of manifesto pledges. The cynical amongst us might question how surprising it is to find exaggeration in an election manifesto, but Paul Noon, the General Secretary, points to specific instances of words not matching the deeds. He cites the air traffic controllers” experiences of the public private partnership, the privatisation of naval bases, and the closure of a number of research centres as symbols of the Labour Government’s reneging on pledges from 1997 to halt privatisation and end contracting out and market testing.

As a union within both the public and private sector, Mr. Noon was not simply campaigning against the private sector; rather, stating that it is not a valuable component for the future of the public service delivery strategy. He said: “We are not standing in the way of change, but what we oppose is change that harms public services, denudes the government of specialist skills and increases costs to taxpayers. It has even investigated organisations for privatisation not even thought about under a Conservative government, such as the Forensic Science Service.”


It would appear that there are areas that do not welcome private involvement; perhaps they fear private invasion and not involvement, a sublimation of the core tasks and purposes of their sector within the swathe of profit. The example of the air traffic controllers is a case in point, as is the privatisation of the nuclear power station network. These are areas of the public sector where the safety of the public is at immediate risk should the drive for profits cause services to be affected.

Therefore, either public services should be protected from private practices ““ and the involvement of the private sector can be good for improving efficiency and the quality of the service provided ““ or there must be some assurance offered regarding the limits of the profit motive. There would need to be a certain level of assurance that the drive for money would not be done at the expense of cutting corners. In other words, some sort of system of governance or a charter; and an inspection of some kind to guarantee quality of delivery.

Adding a Burden

But surely, this would lead to too much bureaucracy? The very thing that Governments are constantly criticised for ““ witness the claims that the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) is adding too much to the administrative burden of FE ““ would be demanded by the public sector to manage the involvement of the private sector. It would have to be largely the Government’s responsibility as well, as it hardly seems likely that the public sector would trust the regulation of private by private.

So it boils down to this. The public sector, even in order to deliver relatively stable services, needs ever expanding funding. The public is definitely unwilling to pay for this through higher taxation. Therefore it must come from elsewhere; and elsewhere would be the private sector. But in order for this to be accepted by the public sector, the private sector must be regulated by an independent body, one with separate funding that bears no relation to the private profit motive.

The fundamental difference between the two is a dividing line based on their reasons for existing. Profit, or no profit. Adding administrative layers to a cake made of two layers of liquid will not make it keep its shape more effectively.

Jethro Marsh

Stay here for the Tiger’s roar in Trisha the Tiger Talks Back!

Related Articles