Mind your public services language

11 Jun 15

Lazy and inaccurate use of the terminology around commissioning and outsourcing undermines efforts to have a mature dialogue with the public on service reform. This needs to change.

All too often, I find politicians are increasingly lazy with their use of language, and sometimes seemingly deliberately choose to use the wrong words. This is unhelpful: it confuses the public, service users and staff; it obscures accountability; and it is inconsistent with open government.

Interestingly, politicians of all political persuasions are guilty of this charge – as well as often using the same false definition for opposite goals.

And sadly, the charge sheet is not levied at politicians alone, for it also includes far too many public sector leaders and executives from all sectors, consultants, journalists and commentators.

Those responsible for this should be ashamed.

There are many examples of words, policies and practices being confused, conflated and used incorrectly. Some of the more common of these are not new, though I detect that misapplication of some of the key ones is on the rise.  

Let me give five examples that I hear most:

‘commissioning’, being used to describe procurement or even outsourcing

Commissioning should be about: identifying need and the wishes of communities and service users; determining the outcomes necessary to address these needs and wishes; and identifying the options for securing these outcomes in ways that are both affordable and consistent with the commissioning bodies values and wider policy agenda.

Procurement is about using competitive tendering to secure both service providers and specified outcomes on a contractual basis.

Commissioning ‘outcomes’ can be secured in a variety of ways including: “in-house” public sector provision; public sector collaboration; grants and collaboration with the voluntary and community sector; behavioural change; regulation; and charging, as well as procurement and much more.

‘outsourcing’ being used synonymously with privatisation

Outsourcing involves contracting public services to the business, social or voluntary and communities sectors with providers being rewarded based on outputs (and sometimes outcomes) but where policy, charges and access criteria usually remain with the public sector client. Contracts are time limited and can be cancelled.

Privatisation is when public assets and business activities/entities are transferred/sold to non-public sector ownership (usually to businesses) and the public sector relinquishes most (if not all) decisions on access, charges and even policy to the new owner/provider, whilst possibly retaining a regulatory influence or control over the provision of service. Privatisation ‘tends’, in the main, to be irreversible.

public service reform and outsourcing

It is still too common to hear public service reform being conflated with a greater role for markets and the business sector. This has been the case under successive governments over the last three decades. It is perfectly possible for public services to be reformed for the better through a large raft of actions that do not involve the business or even the voluntary and community sectors.

If there is a desire to outsource or to open services to either competitive supply or greater user choice, it is important to say that this is the aim and to explain why; and to not confuse by lazily speaking about “public service reform”.

‘flexible’ labour and employment conditions

This is usually code for poorer terms and conditions for staff. These can include: lower remuneration; longer hours; “zero hours” contracts; reduced entitlements (if any) to pension (prior to the new auto-enrolment scheme); holiday; and even sick pay or professional development.

This invariably means a reduced (or no) role or recognition for trade unions and/or employee engagement.

In respect of public services, it also tends to ignore the correlation between decent working conditions, employment terms and employee involvement and service outcomes.

‘efficiency savings’, when in truth, the cuts being imposed require services to be stopped or seriously curtailed and/altered

Given that the public sector and public services face more years of austerity and cuts, it is very important for politicians and public sector leaders to be honest with the public, service users and staff about the consequences of further cuts.

I could cite many other examples but the flavour of my concern, which I know is shared by many, should be clear from these five serious and frequently used (and abused) examples. Unless these are avoided and direct, accurate language becomes the norm across political, public service and media discourse, then public confidence and accountability will be still further diminished, and that it is very much not desirable.

Do we need to buy everyone a shared dictionary? Or do we simply need to expect a more mature and honest dialogue with the public? We certainly need the latter, especially in a period of uncertainty, cuts and change. It is time for that to happen.

  • John Tizard
    John Tizard

    John Tizard is an independent strategic adviser and commentator on public policy and public services. He works with a range of public, private, third and academic organisations. He was the founder director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships and before then a senior executive at Capita and at Scope.

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