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Timing of Serco Institute relaunch shows bravery


Michael Cross Correspondent

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The Serco Institute thinktank chose an interesting time to relaunch itself - and its mission of “Re-imagining public services for citizens” - last week.

Its relaunch conference coincided with a damning series of headlines concerning public services outsourcing. 

The mood of the sector was summed up by Rupert Soames, chief executive of outsourcing company Serco which is behind the institute.  He said it had been “turned into a blasted heath, with destruction similar to that of the financial services sector in 2008”.

He blamed this on poor behaviour by both sides: “Suppliers’ hubristic belief that ‘anything you can do, we can do better’ and, on the part of government, the belief that ‘the more risk we transfer, the better’.”

In language that might have come from the lips of his renowned grandfather, Soames added: “Both parties perched their bottoms on the petards and pulled the lanyards.”

Dormant since 2012

All this is a far cry from 2002, when the Serco Institute was set up in the heyday of outsourcing and the theory of “new public management”. It has been dormant since 2012, when in the era of the Government Digital Service and Francis Maude’s civil service reforms, advice from outsourcer-funded thinktanks was not especially welcome. 

Attendees at the relaunch event, organised with the Reform thinktank, were invited to believe that the time is right for some innovative thinking. The emphasis was very much on bottom-up initiatives from new types of businesses. 

Devika Wood, founder of home care agency Vida, emphasised the use of data to identify pain points in the existing system. Professor Jo Pritchard of Social Enterprise UK spoke of the experience of setting up the first social enterprise to come out of the NHS in England. 

Rob Owen, chief executive of charity St Giles Trust, enthused about the potential of social impact bonds to achieve better outcomes by transferring the risk to the investor. He was passionate about making use of “lived experiences” in providing services for disadvantaged people. 

“Most of my staff have been in prison and we give them trust,” he said. “Empower them and give them the tools - they won't let you down, that's my experience.”

Leadership is key

Is the public sector ready for new thinking? Back at the NHS, George Freeman MP recalled some of his experiences as minister of life sciences with a brief of coordinating the life science and innovation, health and wealth strategies. He concluded that local leadership was the key.

“Unless we give them an opportunity to lead this re-imagining, the police, NHS, teachers will just give up in three years,” he said.

However, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, brought the proceedings back to outsourcing. “After 20-25 years of contracting out,” he observed, “isn't it extraordinary that most of the problems we face about public service delivery remain the same?”

Backing for new models of public service delivery will have to await next spring’s Spending Review, he said. Given the political crisis, Jenkin steered clear of any speculation about who might deliver that review, but whoever does may be badly in need of new ideas about public services. 

Image by Nikk, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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