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G4S - Private sector v Public?

The current ‘debacle’ or ‘hitch’ (depending on your willingness to spin or not) with the security guarding of the 2012 London Olympics and Para Olympics Games raises, apart from the obvious concern of how secure the Games may be, questions over the Private v Public Sector debate. Does the failure of the third largest private sector employer in the world from honouring its contractual requirements bring into question the ability of the private sector to carry out a number of critical outsourcing roles?

‘Contracting out’, ‘Outsourcing, ‘ Public/Private Partnership’, ‘PFI’ are all terms where the pulic sector passes out provision of services previously carried out by a Government department or a local authority in one form or another. In the past, these tended to be ‘back office’ support services such as office cleaning, photocopying, building maintenance etc where quite often it would be cheaper to engage a company to carry out a service rather than pay people from within the public sector workforce. And althought quite often controversial, in a number of respects, it has worked reasonably well. We are all probably now well used to having our refuse and materials collected by a range of outsourced companies. The services have now been expanded to include a range of services from the transportation of prisoners, the collection of council taxes to payment of pay and pensions.

But the failure of G4S to provide the number of security guards needed for the Olympics has raised the suggestion that whilst providing back office functions can be done well by the private sector, for more front line services, any failure can be critical. In the case of the Olympics critics of outsourcing have not been slow to say that it is the public sector (in the form of the armed forces) who have had to ride to save the day.

The pressure to increase outsourcing has been brought into sharp focus with the kind of changes that the new austerity measures are being expected to bring. For example a number of police forces such as Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, West Midlands and Surrey, in order to save money, have been building plans to outsource services such as security of crime scenes, providing fire arms training and the patrolling of neighbourhoods- with G4S as a major player in the field being part of a number of bidders keen on the work.

In a number of respects this kind of thing should not be unexpected- budgets are tight and most public sector organisations have by now out sourced most support services and with minimal flexibility over pay and terms/ conditions of service of their own staff, they are having to turn to the private sector providing some core services. There are some obvious benefits to this approach but the challenge will be to ensure that companies fully provide the services they commit themselves to- they are in it to make money but they are also required to honour their contract. If the G4S Olympics saga teaches us anything it is that you cannot just rely on a provider to deliver what is necessary – you need to have some pro-active oversight to ensure that they are compliant with the tasks they are set and that you don’t take things on trust- especially the greatest show on earth.