This article was written by Andrew Hamilton, consulting editor of Eureka Street, and first published here
It was brought to our attention as it resonated with our whole case for small NFPs, vs large NFP, vs Privately run organisations, vs Government outsourcing services.
Please take some time to read it, and leave your comments below.
Around election times much is spoken about the future directions of society. But the decisions that make the most significant changes to society often seem purely administrative, are tacitly approved by all parties, and so receive little attention. One of the most significant of these has been to the provision of community services, especially to disadvantaged groups, like prisoners, asylum seekers, and recipients of public health care and welfare.
Over the last 30 years governments have reduced their role in the provision of services, contracting them mainly to community and for-profit organisations. Most recently they have sought single contractors that can tender for all the services. Some of these have been large charitable organisations, particularly in health care. But many have been multinational corporations which tender for a wide variety of services. So, a visitor to immigration detention centres may be surprised to find people in Serco uniforms mowing their nature strips and also staffing the centre.
One result of this change is that in order to continue to serve the disadvantaged, smaller community agencies, which once tendered for relatively small projects, will be forced to combine with one another or to enter partnerships with for-profit groups.
The preference for large service providers is attractive to governments which choose to acquiesce in a narrowing revenue base and also face the higher costs of an ageing population. Large corporations can promise economy of scale and so save costs. The government public service has only to establish and monitor the regulatory framework within which the service is provided.
Outsourcing also offers political advantages. Governments can sheet home to corporations failures in delivering public services in prisons, mental health, and even public transport. Ministers can divert public anger against the service providers from whom they then demand answers and improvements. Contracts signed by the governments with corporations, too, can be kept secret for commercial reasons, so hindering public scrutiny. The employment contracts of the providers can also include confidentiality provisions.
What is at issue for society in these developments? Services provided by large corporations are certainly not necessarily worse than those provided directly by the state. In my experience in detention centres the quality of service depends on the attention given to detail in the rules of operation and to the culture of the organisation and its local leadership. The decisive test lies in how those who use the service experience it.
The risk to society and to the quality of service is longer term and more subtle. It lies in the managerial culture that these changes encourage. The interest of government will focus almost exclusively on financial efficiency, and the regulatory framework generally measures the delivery of services by only quantitative criteria.
The quality of the relationships on which effective service rests and other intangible factors that are central to human growth are easily ignored. As a result the care of the most vulnerable and needy will increasingly be neglected by the large providers. They will be blamed for not meeting benchmarks, and responsibility for their care abandoned to charities.
Within this culture the health of community organisations will be vital. But it will also be under threat. Community organisations are generally inspired by a vision of the human dignity of the less fortunate in society, and a commitment to them as persons. They represent community groups such as churches. Generally, too, they privilege the building of relationships as the path to growth in those they work with, and so insist on the quality of the relationship between worker and client.
This emphasis on the personal quality of service is important in making services effective. It emphasises the fact, otherwise forgotten in the focus on what is economically effective, that service to people cannot be commodified.
Although community organisations are often a burr in the saddle of a managerially minded government, they are important because they represent a humane vision and because they can reflect back to government an intimate experience of what is happening to the people whom they serve. Their advocacy, even when unwanted, keeps governments in touch with human needs.
But small organisations are also at risk, first of the loss of funding to support their work. They will be victims of the preference for larger organisations, whether community based or for-profit.
Even if they find partners in larger organisations, they will constantly need to assert their spirit and values in the face of the purely managerial and financial criteria of the prevailing culture. Their capacity to innovate and to go the extra mile for their clients will inevitably come under pressure.
Their ability to advocate for their clients and to protest against misguided practice will also be put at risk. That will be to the detriment of society.
The health of society is dependent on a real and hands-on responsibility of government for the good of all citizens. It cannot shuffle off that responsibility to corporate bodies. But governments need also to encourage a lively civil society in which community organisations offer a personal service and present a critical and evidence based critique of current practice, both their own and others’.