Getting the private sector to deliver social value to the taxpayer

‘I have been a magistrate for over 30 years and feel like I haven’t made any difference’ said a woman in her 70s to whom I was talking on Sunday.


She described the context for her despair. A likable youngster sucked into hard drugs; uncontrollable behaviour problems on a rehabilitation project; the predictable hardening of criminality once offenders entered prison.


Conversation turned inevitably to the failed privatisation of the probation service under former Justice Minister Chris Grayling and the announcement by his successor David Gauke that he was dropping Grayling’s plans. My neighbour felt that probation had been losing its way for some time.


I know little about it, but the idea that you can manage the journey back to responsible citizenship through payment by results strikes me as absurd.


All I do know is that it is relationships that are key to success; that if it takes a whole village to educate a child, it will take more than a culture of contracts and targets to lower offending.


Along with the voluntary, third sector, the private sector may well have a contribution to make to the rehabilitation of offenders. After all GP practices are essentially private sector organisations. But they operate in a context of a governing professional ethos, and a wider shared purpose that at its best can bind different organisations together in a shared quest for health.


That is miles away from the crude thinking of Ministers from left and right who imagine that contracts and key performance indicators are, in the absence of shared values, the route to achieving complex goals.


Together with the British Standards Institution, Tomorrows Company has for some months been developing and trialing the idea of the Trust Test, a way of assessing the effectiveness, character and intent of private sector providers.


We seem to be having an influence on government. In a speech on 25 June, David Lidington, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said,


‘we want to see public services delivered with values at their heart, where the wider social benefits matter and are recognised. And that means government doing more to create and nurture vibrant, healthy, innovative, competitive and diverse marketplaces of suppliers.


A marketplace that includes and encourages small businesses, mutuals, charities, co-operatives and social enterprises. And therefore harnesses the finest talent from across the public, private and voluntary sectors.’


And, as argued for by Tomorrow’s Company for the last five years, he promised to strengthen the application of the Social Value Act, already on the statute book, so that would-be providers of public services demonstrate their track record and provide evidence for their commitment to public service objectives.


All of that may come too late to alleviate the sense of frustration for my magistrate neighbour. Yet it is the start of the journey towards a public service ethos of which private contractors are the servants rather than the exploiters.