Friday 20 November 2020

Bye-bye, mein lieber Kier (and G4S, Serco and the others)

Outsourcing and privatisation died at 1518 on Wednesday 4 November 2020. Or thereabouts.

That was of course a misquotation of the great architectural critic Charles Jencks. It was also when the Guardian published the news that Randox, the company involved in a testing failure during the summer had just been handed another government contract worth £347m. Though it could perfectly well refer to the bankruptcy of Carillion on 15 January 2018.

It is strange when you think about it, but the more they have held on to life, the more that privatised utilities and outsourcers have become a byword for incompetence – rather as, once upon a time, it used to be with nationalised industries.

Ironically, this is both for similar reasons – both were far too big to be responsive.

In my new pamphlet for the New Weather thinktank, The End of Privatisation, I tell the strange story of privatisation, from its beginnings with Peter Drucker and Keith Joseph in the 1970s and the triumphant sell-off of British Telecom in 1984 – and the ideas at the heart of it: more entrepreneurial efficiency, less cost.

Nearly four decades have passed since then and those promises have turned to dust, and for similar reasons: most of the outsourcers are too big to operate effectively.

As Drucker wrote himself: “The most entrepreneurial, innovative people behave like the worst time-serving bureaucrat or power-hungry politician six months after they have taken over the management of a public service institution." And so it proved.

Even the outsourcers add another layer of costs during an unaffordable austerity years and their only expertise turns out to be provide the KPI and target data that ministers crave, and which only they believe.

They represent rule by tickbox – which, as we know – tends to spray costs elsewhere in the system by narrowing the definitions of success to what they can easily achieve.

That explains why this final hurrah of outsourcing to government friends during covid has put the final nail in the coffin of what was once a big idea.

So why does the body of privatised outsourcing still twitch? There is no practical or intellectual justification left for it. The only explanation is that this is all that ministers and officials in the Johnson administration – never the most thoughtful of people – know about. And possibly the only people they know remain the only remaining advocates of tickbox in the whole wide world.

So farewell then Serco, G4S and all the others, as E. J. Thribb used to say in the days when privatisation seemed like a pretty neat idea. It was a fine affair, but now it’s over – or it soon will be.

This first appeared on the New Weather blog

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Sunday 1 November 2020

What do they know of science who only science know?

What do they know of the England who only England know,” wrote the much-derided poet Rudyard Kipling more than a century ago. After listening to the excellent debate on science and politics last night, which Radix organised, I wondered whether we should say the same of scientists.

Or indeed anyone whose narrow field of expertise gets in the way of understanding the world. Should we also for example say: What do they know of epidemiology who only epidemiology know? I don’t know.

Some of the debate goes back to C. P. Snow’s famous paper on the Two Cultures. The critic F. R. Leavis condemned it without reading it - “To read it would be to condone it,” he said. And I have some sympathy with that on the grounds that Leavis was objecting, I think, to the idea that arts and science were somehow equal, with the same complexity and moral validity. Which they are not.

Still, everyone – however little they may think about molecules – has something to learn from scientific method, as mediated through the two great 20th century philosophers of science, Popper and Kuhn. Mere knowledge of human or bureaucratic processes is not expertise, for example. Nor is it science.

What seems to me to be, in the long run, unfair to scientists and their reputations is the way that the media use them to fight what are essentially political battles.

Take the Great Barrington declaration, for example, which has barely been reported at all in the UK, where the three top epidemiologists in the world denied that lockdowns were the most effective way forward - on the grounds that they killed as many people as they saved. They were immediately condemned in the American press for "advocating mass murder”.

The day Radix published their declaration in the UK – on the grounds that somebody should – they were the subjects of a hatchet job in the Guardian, in the grounds that one of them had been interviewed on a dodgy US radio programme and that some of the people who had signed their declaration turned out to be (shock horror!) homeopaths.

Now let us leave aside the fraught issue of homeopathy. It seems to that when nobody reports the three top epidemiologists, and when a former law lord like Jonathan Sumption can say (thank you Charlotte!): “This is how freedom dies. When societies lose their liberty, it is not usually because some despot has crushed it under his boot. It is because people voluntarily surrendered their liberty out of fear of some external threat” – then we have a problem.

We have not yet had the lockdown riots that are beginning to emerge in continental Europe. But if most of those who dare step forward and doubt the establishment consensus are right-wing nutcases, then we will be at their mercy for some time to come.

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