Time to Bury Public Services?

Time to Bury Public Services?

The Big Theme in the 80s and 90s was privatization of industries which had been taken into public ownership, or which had evolved as ‘public services.’ The task was achieved without much political difficulty because many industries which it was assumed retained a strategic significance such as manufacturing, coal, and steel were making a loss and were now perceived to be a burden on the hard-pressed state. In other cases industries such as oil, gas, telecoms, electricity and water had evolved to make a safe profit and had become highly valued assets that could easily be (un)bundled for sale.

The Post Office (once attached to Telecoms) is the last vestige of the entrepreneurial state, where a commercial public service is retained for the common good, is perhaps the final remainder of a commercial service in public hands. There was a sense that state ownership and asset sales had reached the end of the line. No politician would dare to touch social care, public health and education. But with the inexorable force of progress and modernity, Public 1.0 had morphed into Public 2.0

A second wave of privatization - thirty years in the making and less remarked on by activists and commentators - was occurring through the process of compulsory competitive tendering for the delivery of public services. The main impact was on local services (rather than the big state departments), where the public provider of cleaning services or refuse collection, for example, now competed with private suppliers who seemed able to do the same work with lower wages, fewer holidays and fewer opportunities for sickness, and unencumbered by quaint trade union arrangements.

Regional and local democratic power and participation, which had always been the weak in relation to a highly centralized top-down state, was reduced to a round of tendering and contracting meetings with private services. The notion that the political colour of your local councillors made any difference was exploded by the reality of a privatized, technologized and accountable delivery of public services by private companies. Local councils were reduced to rhetoric machines for community cohesion.

A trickle of traditional funding persisted as a consequence of the European community’s regeneration initiatives. Regeneration projects were further supplemented by a variety of fashionable initiatives launched by the centralised state eager to appear to engage and harness the untapped energies of the decaying localities and unequal regions.

The monstrous combination of multiple, competing and overlapping bureaucracies, poor local knowledge from the top-down, or excessive monitoring and evaluation, and weak existing capacity, doomed many such projects to weak outcomes and poor effectiveness.

The money spent, consultants enriched, and budgets examined, someone somewhere noticed that free capitalism had collapsed and the public purse was empty. At least we had some shining new schools and hospitals as a legacy of Labour’s rule, shorter waiting lists in health and rising standards in education.

The failure and collapse of the capitalist system was one lesson that might be expected to militate against a grander role for Capitalism. But the perceived burden of public services set against weak income generation from taxes means that there is constant pressure for improved value in public services. Again there is a perception that value for money means Privatization. Where the p- word is as unpalatable as the c-word there is an opening for new Policy formation and a Communications exercises. The rhetoric and propaganda machine went to work and came up with an ideologically coherent big baggy monster and called it the Big Society.

Big Society is delightful and repulsive at all levels. As a former student of language and literature I try to be sensitive to the nuances and shifts of language, in literary and political discourse. The way, for instance, that the word ‘silly’ shifted from ‘innocent’ to ‘stupid’. I’m impressed and disturbed by the way that in street language ‘sick’ has become the epitome of hip commodification and fashionable risk, rather than a call for medical attention. Gloriously slippery and Satanic let’s concede that language cheats us of sense and renews our spirits.

Big Society is delightfully contorted because it verges on paradox. For critics it’s more moron than oxymoron; more or less demonic than Satan’s ‘darkness visible’; more or less hackneyed than ‘bitter sweet’. Politically it surpasses the Age of  New Labour’s ‘social enterprise’ as the happy mix of public and private profit, individual and community. The recuperation of Big against the demonisation of 70s Liberalism’s ‘Big Business and Corporate Giants’ is noteworthy.

Forget fascism’s Big State, and communism’s too. The Big State is the local busy body, the parochial council, five-a-side charity matches and beetle drives. It’s wiping your neighbours’ bums rather than paying for professional bum care. In the Age of Obesity, Big has become the new small. (Thinking back, it’s linguistic history in reverse: the revolution of silly from stupid back to a State of Innocence.)

The Big Society, in the Age of Disbelief, is the newly-identified Promised Land. And Society - it's not quite the community category of utopian socialists and latter day anarchist communes; nay, think more the spectre, maybe the rebirth of building Societies.

To be fair, the British Prime Minister David Cameron and the ‘new’ conservatives did not invent the Big Society, although they did package it and promote it as omni-competent public conscience and all-embracing solution to society’s ills. Big Society bravely names and shames the dominant, residual and emergent social and cultural forces; it bundles them together without fear of system and coherence, and with ‘gay’ abandon.

Where does that leave the future of what we still think of as our public services? The seeds of present actions were, in my view sown by New Labour. Their emphasis shifted from a privatization agenda to a creeping commercialization of services: parent and patient choice; technologized and depoliticized monitoring and evaluation of outputs; outcomes and league tables.

Before the present crisis of capitalism we had a renewed enthusiasm for community trusts, social enterprise mutuals and co-ops; establishing an improved ‘infrastructure support’ system for charities and voluntary services to better enable them to deliver public services.

As the rhetoric machines bulged and poverty beckoned,  Public 2.0 experienced the birth pangs of a New Labour. Hybrid government paved the way for a more monstrous birth still.

The time has come to welcome Public 3.0. A brazen world of virtual services and user-driven interactivity;  a transpublic community of transmedia storytelling. In Public 2.0 we had a signifier deprived of a referent. In Public 3.0, finally free, let’s celebrate the quantum public – the signifier deprived of a signified. Deconstruction has done its works and a terrible beauty is born.

The narrative of progressive postmodernity stalks the public sphere. The last vestiges of public delivery must be occupied by the contracted, by the private, by the voluntary and the charitable. Thatcherism and New Labour must finish their work. Division of Sense replaces Division of Labour and Cognitive Dissonance has uprooted the promise of Clay Sharky's Cognitive Surplus.

As metaphor replaces reality it is pleasing to note the final solution adopted by the aptly named Bury Council. And it comes to my aid in concluding my thoughts on this topic.

In Bury, Lancashire, the Metropolitan District Council has approved a ‘transformation strategy.’ As though embarking on a business trip in a holiday spirit, they have announced their ‘direction of travel over the next four years.’

Note in particular the enhanced role for voluntary and community services. As envisaged by New Labour we are likely to see a stronger role for arms-length social enterprises, trusts, co-operative buy outs and mutualisation as the way forward in territory where brazen capitalism and responsible privateers fear to tread. Third Sector leaders, as they were once known, are cautiously welcoming the opportunity to have increased opportunities to be contracted to deliver services, or to tender to provide them.

There was a time when ‘tender’ and ‘contract’ had another meaning.

*          *           *

If you want to know how to Bury public services here is their plan:

“The strategy aims to reshape the council’s central role as a “community champion” within a rapidly changing financial and community-centred environment.

Much of what the council does will be significantly reviewed through an objective process, which will place the needs of communities at the forefront.

At its core, the strategy aims to meet a set of community principles that promote the need for quality services, but also services that can demonstrate best value for money.

Among the strategy’s details are a series of community commitments which aim to broaden the way services are provided and reassure the public that their needs will be paramount in the process. These include options for the council keeping services in-house, ceasing to directly provide services, collaboration with neighbouring authorities and partners, self management, volunteering, and increased use of the private sector.

Mike Kelly, chief executive of Bury Council, said: “We cannot keep everything as it is; that is simply unrealistic. This is not an option, given the huge financial challenges we face and the needs of our residents.

This strategy is a positive attempt to set out Bury’s direction of travel to meet these needs.”

Mr Kelly added: “The council is rightly proud of its record in providing value for money services with its own employees who have extensive experience and a wide appreciation of public service. All models of delivery will be assessed, including actively considering the continuation of in-house delivery, alongside other options."
The strategy was agreed by members at last night’s (Wednesday 30 March [2011]) council meeting.”

Is it time to Bury Public Services ?


  1. The neoliberal transformation of British society in particular and the Anglo-Saxon societies (Canada, USA) across the pond in general --whose seeds were sown during 'The Winter of Discontent' in Britain-- is complete; the narrative is always within the framework of free market fundamentalism and any opposing view is considered heretical. There is no value given to the notion of a public good. At this rate we are hurtling toward a neo-feudal future where the Power Elites will reside in their gated communities while the rest of us scrape our way on The Road to Serfdom. Hayek's views paved the way for the Thatcher revolution and it is the title of his most noted popular work that will be our future unless we do something to change the narrative.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks, Arijit, that's a helpful summary and it's good to have an international perspective.

    I sense that millions of people are organising for a different world - on and offline.

    I don't know whether there are enough of them to make a real difference - a tipping point / or global economic crisis may be needed?

    It's astonishing that the last 30 years of 'progress' and technology which we hear so much about have only resulted in increased global inequality - shocking ...

  4. Ian, democracy --as most people perceive it-- through the ballot box is dead; it is meaningless and the voter base is apathetic. The politics of today is not built upon the vision of a better society (not "Big Society") but on promises that are no better than the meaningless nostrums of tax cuts as a panacea for everything.
    The idea of democracy as it is practicsed in the centre of the imperium, Washington DC, is open to the selectively filtered few; it is not about ideas and policy.
    When the money required to wage an effective Presidential campaign is a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars then it is an affront to democracy.
    I do have hope that the coalescing of the millions (as you described) is a start but am fearful that the so-called progress of the last 30 years will give way to something worse: the return of violent business cycles--the working and middle classes (or what is left of them) in the countries where we live are not at all prepared for this-- as corporate globalization holds sway.
    One does not have to be a neo-Malthusian to realize that climate change, water, food, and commodity shortages are going to make the world unlivable for the Bottom Billion and increasingly helpless for the working and middle classes in the West.
    The traditional media is loathe to mention the idea of class struggle even though the only individuals in the west who have truly benefitted materially have been those in the C-suite.

  5. "The government is scaling back plans to use the private sector to deliver public services, the BBC has learned.

    Leaked documents suggest ministers have decided the "wholesale outsourcing" of public services to the private sector would be politically "unpalatable".

    Ministers instead want to use more charities, social enterprises and employee-owned "mutual" organisations.

    SEE http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13273932


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