Blog by Kevin Craven, Chief Executive, UK Central Government Division, Serco
As an ex-employee of Sodexo, I was pleased but not surprised to see the launch of their Transparency Charter recently. I applaud their leadership and congratulations to them. As the CEO of Serco’s Central Government division, I am of course frustrated that they got there before us. But I suspect we will look back in a more transparent future and not worry about who got there first, because consensus is building around the need for greater transparency in the delivery of public services and the momentum seems unstoppable. There are of course those that oppose it vehemently but they are now firmly in the minority.
So why the rush to transparency? Although this is an important question (spotting a bandwagon is a vital leadership skill…), more important is why many of us in the industry are supporters of transparency at a deeply personal level.
When you deliver services in politically controversial areas such as prisons, schools, healthcare and the military, you will always find critics. Even before the events of 2013, the general perception of the outsourced public services industry in the UK was poor, though not particularly high profile.
Bankers and politicians have all felt the wrath of public opinion, and some may say that it was simply the turn of the public services industry to face the fire. But I don’t believe that. In the early days of outsourcing, when the sector began to grow rapidly with many first generation deals, the truth is that we were all learning as the market developed. Cost savings were the primary objective of both the customer and the provider. At times, the only things preventing a ‘race to the bottom’ were the unions and legislation like TUPE; and even with them, I am sure that some of the actions taken were ill advised.
But the message from the self-evident growth and success of the sector is clear – we have all learned much from our mistakes. Not just in the UK; the models and knowledge developed during this time have been exported and have gained traction around the globe. That success has not, however, changed public perception. So it is down to us to help governments show how public service delivery is better for the involvement of the private sector; how competition brings innovation; how accessing a deep supply market brings with it global expertise and scale; and how a contract protects service delivery from the vagaries of politics. If we cannot, governments could conclude that they are better off delivering public services themselves.
And so to transparency. The public demands and deserves to know how well their money is being spent and what quality is being delivered. I believe that in a world where citizens are becoming more demanding of how taxpayers’ money is spent, where “just Google it” is the default, where good quality data becomes the norm rather than the exception, then transparency will fast become a right. As an industry I believe that we should accept this with open arms – we are being offered an opportunity to showcase what we do, so we should lead the argument.
Just look at what we have to offer. It makes me sad that one group of people very often gets overlooked in this debate; those delivering public services on the front line, whether employed by the private, public or voluntary sector. Many of our people are doing fantastic things in public services every day and are rightly proud of what they do. Many of them transferred from the public sector and might be expected to have a public service ethos but many are from the private sector. I cannot tell the difference – all I see are dedicated people working exceptionally hard to change lives. If we were to make more transparent the work that they do, I truly believe that our reputation as an industry would improve by being associated with such care, commitment, dedication and expertise. It is only by doing more to demonstrate what our people do day in, day out to provide excellent public services that we can gradually change public perceptions, and earn the right to understanding on those occasions when we get it wrong.
So why do I support transparency at a personal, visceral level? Because transparency provides an opportunity to showcase what we do, it drives up standards and efficiency through better data and proof of performance; and used properly it could spark a genuine and informed debate around competition and the delivery of vital public services. Transparency shifts the focus from the ‘who’ to the ‘how’, and surely that can only be welcomed.