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From the archive: The West Coast fiasco and the real problem with outsourcing

From the archive: The West Coast fiasco and the real problem with outsourcing

Michael Harris /   October 2, 2012 at 8:31 PM 1,279 views

Virgin-train

The West Coast mainline franchising fiasco shows that the current approach to outsourcing public services has serious flaws that need to be addressed – the much too complicated and secretive nature of outsourcing is the problem, rather than the people handling the process.

Last week Patrick McLoughlin, the new Transport Secretary, cancelled the West Coast Mainline franchise deal. The Department for Transport has been on a damage limitation exercise ever since, with McLoughlin blaming the fiasco on officials at the DfT “because of deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes made by my department in the way it managed the process”. Philip Rutnam, the Permanent Secretary at DfT, has also joined in telling staff that they must accept that the reversal was the fault of officials. Meanwhile, Kate Mingay, one of the three officials suspended by DfT (an ex-Goldman Sachs employee parachuted into the civil service because of her private sector expertise) has hit out at the way her role in the procurement has been portrayed by the Department.

Blaming officials is an easy way to distract from the substantive story: whether the current approach to franchising used by the DfT is fundamentally flawed. The Department argues that mistakes were made from the way the level of risk in the bids was evaluated due to human error – in particular the way in which inflation and passenger numbers were taken into account, and how much money bidders were then asked to guarantee as a result. But the assumptions about inflation and passenger numbers are dependent on the state of the UK and global economy and the ability of the future franchisee to bring in new customers. Colin Cram, writing for the Public Leaders Network, argues that: “…this enters the realms of guesswork and slight changes in assumptions can lead to different outcomes for contracts that may be for only three or four years, let alone 13.” If the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility continues to get its predictions on economic growth significantly wrong, how can we expect the assumptions made in the rail franchising process to be watertight?

This is not the first time that assumptions about economic growth and customer numbers has gone wrong, for example the previous experiences with the East Coast mainline or in the commissioning of welfare to work services. The Work Programme was designed for a far more positive economic climate than we now find ourselves in. DWP’s estimates of the number of customers in receipt of Employment Support Allowance have proven to be wholly unrealistic, with serious consequences for the business models of prime contractors and charities.

The risks associated with complex procurement processes such as the rail franchise are compounded by the secretive nature by which they are often conducted, behind a veil of ‘commercial in confidence’. As we’ve argued before, this ‘closed shop’ approach leads to poor decisions and a profound lack of public engagement – until something goes horribly wrong. The complexity involved also means a significant diversion of resources into the process of franchising rather than actual delivery of services. Franchising might work however if the process was more transparent and the assumptions about passenger numbers (and any other projections) were open to rigorous scrutiny by others outside of the process – so why isn’t it?

The West Coast fiasco has much wider implications that the policy establishment probably doesn’t want the public to consider. Cheryl Gillan, the former Conservative Welsh Secretary, has argued that a root and branch re-examination of the High Speed 2 rail project is needed if the public is to have trust in such a significant investment of public resources. Instead, plans for competition and outsourcing are being accelerated in prisons, probation services and health. In this context, the secretive, complex and bureaucratic nature of outsourcing needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. If the public is going to be on board, then a public debate is needed on the merits and risks of delivering services in this way – which surely is what the Government’s open policy should be all about.

Fundamentally, the political establishment doesn’t engage the public in a debate about the merits of rail franchising because the public doesn’t support the idea. This ‘outsourcing by stealth’ approach wins neither hearts nor minds. Various surveys continue to show a strong majority of public opinion in favour of re-nationalising the railways – one recent survey found that 70% of respondents supported such a move. Impossible? New Zealand provides an example of such a policy put into action. Its rail and ferry network was privatised in the 1990s and asset-stripped and run down by an Australian outfit. It re-nationalised both in 2009. Michael Cullen, the then Finance Minister said privatization had “been a painful lesson for New Zealand”.

Kiwi Rail in public hands has been able to invest in its long-term future whilst also generating significant financial and economic benefits for taxpayers in New Zealand. Here, despite the strong public preference for a nationalised rail network, none of the three main political parties are committed to such a policy. At last week’s Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband and Maria Eagle made positive noises in this direction but no firm commitments. So we are left with an unpopular, risk-laden, fragmented rail network – and the policy establishment searching around for scapegoats when they should be looking somewhat closer to home.

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