The failure of neo-liberalism continues to be exposed at an alarming rate in the two countries who championed the philosophy most ie the USA and the UK. They are also the two nations with the highest death rates from the Covid 19 virus in the world. This is not accidental.
Many senior managers in the public sector argued against the introduction of Outsourcing in the mid 1980’s, unless an intelligent customer was retained in-house to specify requirements and most of all, monitor contracts. Either the advice was not taken, or the role quickly disappeared along with the expertise. This led to the customer being led by those supplying the service. Which in turn led to the supplier virtually writing their own specifications and, more importantly, building in obsolescence which allowed for amendments to be required which only they could perform.
South Korea heard about the virus on the same day as the UK and US but that is where any comparison ends. Immediately into contact tracing, almost all of its 50 million inhabitants were instantly in tune with the battle. It is fair to say that they had had experience of the SARS virus in 2004, so had some idea of what to expect. The West, apart from Canada, was not affected at that time. But the whole mind set was tuned to the need to act quickly, competently and safely. Experience of SARs or not, that did not stop Germany, Denmark and Austria acting quickly and mitigating the worse effects. in the former’s case, they had the fortune of being led by Angela Merkel the most impressive leader of her generation. The US and UK sadly at a critical time when detail was crucial, were led by leaders who prefer their own rhetoric than reading a brief.
It is at this point that dependence on the neo-liberal model really comes into its own in reaching its bête noir. Apart from missing almost every deadline set, it is the process of delivery that needs examination. In the 1980’s, as computers made auditing less labour intensive, the large accounting firms like Deloitte’s, Cooper Lybrand’s, Ernst and Young etc endeavoured to find a substitute for their businesses in the form of Management Consultancy. Auditing is fundamentally a historical process in looking at the past. It is not designed for futuristic strategic planning. Secondly, the firms’ model was to endeavour to win contracts and then recruit the people to implement them. Recruits were often bright young graduates straight out of University. Very economical given that the client was even training them on their job. Added to these, came the outsourcing firms, like Serco, who made a bid to carry out a job using slightly less manpower than currently being used, pretending to be more efficient, when in practice they took over existing staff, paid them less and gave them less favourable working conditions. What could be better, win win for both types of supplier. The public sector in the meantime so called reduced staff on the books, whilst the private sector, or at least those at the top, became richer and richer.
What could be better? And it was this philosophy and practice that I wrote in my paper of December (Whither Labour?) about the huge election victory of the Conservative Party. As an aside at this point, it is not unfair to say on reflection that it was a good election to lose. Can you imagine what would have been said about a Labour government spending the types of public money that are now of necessity having to be spent.
What could be better indeed, especially when many of the contracts allocated to such firms to execute the job of managing the crisis have been carried out on a non-competitive basis.
The problem is of course that they are out of their depth attempting to implement tasks of which they have no expertise. It will be interesting to see in future what financial penalties they will incur for over-runs, or lack of adherence to specification. Just look at a few examples. Would you really employ Deloitte’s to set up centres for testing? Are Serco the best people to select contract tracers, many of whom have said they were not even interviewed for the posts. Added to which many on the training courses when asking about breaking bad news to a relative whose loved one had died, were told by the instructors to look it up on You Tube where there were some videos on what must be the most difficult of communications. And, why on earth is the government using a bespoke contact tracing application, when most other countries are using a tried and tested system developed by Apple and Google?
Another reason for the threat to neo-liberalism is the public change of attitude towards the public sector. As I said in a previous paper, it is all very well to be clapping the nurses, care and all vital workers on a Thursday evening, if it is not reflected in their pay packets after the main panic is over. And we found only yesterday the reluctance of the Prime Minister to abolish the iniquitous surcharge for nurses and care workers from abroad. It was of course in response to Keir Starmer’s performance the previous day. Boris must dread Wednesday PMQ’s when faced with one of the top QC’s of his generation. It really isn’t fair to do that to someone who cannot read a brief and prefers to operate off the cuff.
Which brings me to the handling of easing the lockdown. This is where I have some feeling for Boris. What in the current circumstances is difficult to understand about the term Stay Alert? Yet the public, egged on by the press, wants something more prescriptive and precise. In any situation it is imperative to have an Output measure feeding into the ultimate Objective. The R or Reproductive figure provides the essence of the objective. Put simply, if it is below 1 the spread of the disease can be contained, if above there will be an increase which, left unchecked, will multiply in numbers affected to a dangerous level. This will not only increase the death rate but also increase resources on the NHS.
Two supermarkets wished to improve the interaction between staff on the tills and the customer. The first provided a prescribed list of ten points eg smile at the customer etc finishing with have a nice day. The second said to the staff, what do you expect when you are a customer? In the first case the whole process was external to the staff member spending the time trying to remember the list in correct order. In the second, staff did not need to concentrate on the process since they did it automatically. This was because they had internalised the interaction and were thinking of the objective, not the process, Which of the two had the best results?
The success, or otherwise, of the current situation can be easily checked by monitoring the R figure. Every news bulletin needs to place the figure as its leading item and the press should have the number on the front page daily. And yet, newscasts go by day after day with barely a mention. We have seen how the public wish to be treated like children and be bound by rule after rule. This will not achieve the objective. Socialising people to see the R measure as sacrosanct will achieve the objective. Instead of treating the public as children they need to be treated as adults. If this is done however another can of worms could be opened up and that might be dangerous for a so-called free society.
22 MAY 2020
Roger Lovell is author of Managing Change in the New Public Sector and Managing in the New Millennium
©️ 2020 Roger J Lovell