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Community sector sickened by managerial mindset

  • 15 August 2013

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