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While Britain hedges its bets on a mass vaccination programme and battles a new variant of coronavirus, daily life in New Zealand and Taiwan has been slowly returning to normal. There are numerous reasons these countries fared better during the pandemic, but one of the main reasons the UK has done so badly by comparison is the government’s decision to outsource huge swaths of its pandemic response to the private sector.
Ministers’ decision to outsource both testing and tracing, awarding contracts worth millions of pounds to companies such as Deloitte and Serco, has been a fiasco. These failings aren’t unique to Britain; in the Italian region of Lombardy, for example, 40% of all healthcare providers are privately owned. Because primary and preventive care are less profitable, the region suffers from a chronic under-provision of both. As a result, hospitals have been overburdened during the pandemic, while many wealthy Italians have turned to private clinics to pay for Covid-related care.
The pandemic has refuted a myth sold to us since the reigns of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan: that private firms are more effective at delivering services than lumbering state bureaucracies. Over the past 40 years, governments have contracted out public services, from welfare benefits to prison management and public transport. Privatisation isn’t always wholesale; in the NHS, for example, the process has been slow and partial, with competitive tendering introduced in the 1980s, followed by the internal market in the 1990s.
Arguments against privatisation tend to focus on companies’ failure to deliver a good service. But there is a more insidious problem at stake. Even when governments fall short of completely selling off public assets, there is a fundamental conflict between democratic values and the privatisation of public services. In large societies, peoples’ ability to democratically govern themselves relies on a functioning system of representation. Governments are elected to represent citizens, who should in turn be able to influence elected governments.
In a democracy, we want those delivering public services to make decisions in our name. When public services are outsourced, decisions are made by private companies (whether for-profit, or non-profit), rather than elected representatives. It’s doubtful whether the private sector can ever act in a genuinely representative capacity – after all, we don’t elect companies. Private firms aren’t the same as civil servants; they have their own goals to pursue, as well as fiduciary obligations to shareholders. Indeed, acting out of private interest often just means not acting in the name of a democratic public.
Governments often turn to private companies and institutions because they lack the capacity to perform certain functions themselves. When it transpired that management consultants were charging the government up to £6,250 a day to work on the UK’s Covid testing system, the Department of Health and Social Care said these consultants had “the specialist skills and experience we need”. But outsourcing doesn’t help this matter. If a state isn’t able to deliver services, then it probably won’t be able to properly regulate private contractors, either. The more services a government turns over to companies, the more people and resources it must marshal to monitor these myriad agreements.
That doesn’t happen. After all, privatisation is often part of cost-cutting drives, and slashing public budgets only makes it more difficult for governments to regulate contractors. People often argue that the issue with privatisation is that governments fail to ensure their contractors deliver. Yet it’s not the delivery or detail that’s the problem, but the very logic of privatisation itself: the more a government turns over its functions to the market, the more it loses the capacity to do things itself and hold contractors accountable.
The result of this is often cronyism, as we’ve seen during the pandemic, with ministers awarding contracts for PPE and medical supplies to companies that had links to the Conservative party but no substantive experience in this field. Even when it doesn’t result in venal corruption, though, privatisation upsets the distribution of political power in a democracy. The more governments depend on private firms, the more those firms can urge politicians to enact policies that aren’t in citizens’ interests.
An equally important but less noticeable outcome is how this process makes the government invisible to its citizens. When Serco was awarded a contract to conduct Covid tracing in the UK, for example, it then subcontracted the service to 29 other companies, outsourcing 85% of jobs. Amid such complex webs of different providers, the role of government becomes obscured. The end result is what has been called the “submerged state”. As more government spending is filtered through private companies, citizens no longer see it as government spending, and the state becomes hidden from view. If government is invisible, how can we expect people to trust the state, or be willing to support it through their taxes?
This not only creates confusion about who is responsible for what – it also produces civic apathy. When people don’t see their own government as the main provider of the benefits they receive, they’re left with little reason to care about the point of government at all.
Democracy depends on elected representatives exercising political power in a transparent fashion. It depends on political influence being distributed between citizens, rather than concentrated among private companies. And it depends upon a vigilant, politically engaged public who can see and care about the point of government. But privatisation corrodes all of these things, and diminishes peoples’ ability to democratically govern themselves
The threat of outsourcing public services isn’t just that it’s frequently more costly, more inefficient and less effective. It’s that it undermines the very possibility of democracy. For societies whose healthcare systems are privatised, or who outsourced large functions of their responses to Covid-19, the pandemic should be a moral and political reckoning. No part of this will be more critical than the slow, difficult job of reimagining what a democratic state, capable of acting in the name of the public, should look like. Nothing less than the fate of democracy depends upon it.
• Chiara Cordelli is is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of The Privatized State (Princeton University Press)
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Covid crisis has shown how privatisation corrodes democracy | Privatisation