Our outsourced, shadow state

The outsourcing of public services to private contractors has transformed the state. What has gone wrong, why and what can be done?  A review of "Shadow State" by Alan White.

Julian Sayarer
11 June 2016

Shadow State is the second book of journalist Alan White, and where the first – pseudonymously published – One Blood can be read as a starting point on understanding British gang culture, this latest offering gives the same treatment to the UK’s prolific but well-veiled industry for the outsourcing of public services.

 In writing it, White has performed a service the value of which it is hard to overstate, and testimonials on the rear cover from MPs Andy Slaughter and Margaret Hodge suggest that the book will be read by those who can hopefully learn its crucial lessons and interpret them in policy. Shadow State traces the lineage of outsourcing, its scope, scale, working methods and flaws; for such a hydra of an industry, the feat is considerable. Whether you are a journalist, campaigner or only a concerned member of society seeking to understand a model now responsible for a quarter of our public services, the book is to outsourcing what James Meek’s Private Island was to privatisation.

 The reader, naturally, is treated to those landmark cases that have briefly brought outsourcing to the fore over the years. The 2010 death by asphyxiation of Jimmy Mubenga, at the hands of G4S staff deporting him from London to Angola, is revisited and examined. The farce of the G4S security contract for the London 2012 Olympics, at which the army was called in to provide services the company could not deliver, serves as both the book’s prologue and a textbook case of how an industry can underperform and yet keep on winning contracts despite manifest failures and limitations. Much of the information in the book is both tragic and enraging for the disregard of human life, suffering and taxpayer’s money so consistently on-show at companies like G4S, Serco, Capita and Atos; White, however, presents it all so methodically and with such energy for change that the book comes miraculously to feel empowering, much like a handbook and a tool. Early reviews have suggested the tone leans to the political left, but – as is evident in rich sources that span the Daily Mail to trade unions including UNISON and the GMB – those who self-identify as being of the right would be leaving their politics all the poorer were they to disregard the information on offer. Even for those committed to private sector outsourcing as a model for quality public services, that model can only be improved with the sort of scrutiny White has given.

 The book prompts a broader questioning of outsourcing and where it fits with what we expect our societies and governments to be, starting with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, whereupon government priority became – with dubious consequences – managing currencies and hoping that that in turn translated to well-managed populations. As with our individual consumer psychology, purchasing something gives – by definition – a sense of value concomitant with what we spend, so that paying someone else to provide services is perhaps an easy way of reassuring ourselves as a society that we do in fact care. Our collective autism, with its mania for testing, the quantifiable and the standardised, has led to a situation in which outsourcing firms specialise in winning contracts and managing reports but have considerably less aptitude for providing human care. Moreover, we see the implicit mechanisation of the human body and head that resides in modern life; outsourcing has arrived in the handling of intimate, shifting social problems after initially being thought of only as a provider of relatively static entities such as civil infrastructure and utilities. The subtext of our securitisation of society – and who provides it – is also touched upon, evident in statistics that the UK now has 1 private security contractor to every 170 citizens, compared to 1:382 for police officers. As with the tendency for members of the public to both buy and install their own CCTV cameras, it is a simplification to assume that these patterns are only imposed from above and not also expected and even requested from below. Whatever the obvious and many failures of outsourcing, do we as a society now trust the market above the idea of the public, if so then why, and – putting the issue of profit aside – can even concepts like commercial confidentiality ever be compatible with a need for public service provision to be transparent and open?

Some final note must be made on Alan White himself, a searing example of the value of great journalism at a time when public confidence in the profession is so low. We live an age where we want everything, including our politics and triumphs, to be instant, yet it is generally the slow, painstaking and laborious work that moves us forward towards better outcomes. White’s research of its contracts was one of the factors that came together in January 2016 to sink the £5.9million UK Ministry of Justice (MoJ) training deal with the Saudi Arabian prisons services, serving to debunk claims that the MoJ could not back out of the deal over human rights concerns, as they eventually did. Having previously written extensively for the New Statesman, he started work at Buzzfeed at a time before it had moved from the lists and irreverent clickbait that established the site, to eventually begin the serious journalism at which White excels. That White works for Buzzfeed is an indication, for any still doubting it, how important its role has become in deep and serious reporting on UK society and politics. Himself a healthy source of GIFs, cat photos and internet humour, White and his writing offers a pleasant reassurance that the internet’s endless supply of lolz and cute might not just be stultifying us, but also helping soothe souls engaged with such weighty and often distressing work. Shadow State is great evidence that White is possessed of a brilliant mind and a beautiful heart. We are lucky to have him.

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