Bickering Delays Open Public Services White Paper … again

First published on the Civil Service Live Network, May 9th. Still relevant.

What’s going on with the Open Public Services White Paper? The bill, which is supposed to set out the government’s vision for the future delivery of public services, has been delayed once again. It was initially due in January but is now due in July, according to the latest Cabinet Office business plan. The trouble is, as one very senior source whispered to me recently, the politicians “just can’t agree on anything.”

As I understand it, there are three camps in the negotiations over how to reform the public sector. In the blue camp, we have David Cameron and Oliver Letwin. Their vision was set out in the Telegraph in February, in an article which called for as much outsourcing and private sector involvement in public services as possible. “Instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in some public services – as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS – the state will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly,” Cameron wrote.

In the yellow camp are Danny Alexander and Nick Hurd. They are in favour of reforming the public sector, but want to focus more on new models of delivery – rather than increased outsourcing. At present, public sector mutualisation is being pursued by the Cabinet Office, but the public services white paper is expected to set out more specific targets and support for groups of public sector workers who want to take over and run their own services.

And in the red camp is Nick Clegg. He’s cautious about any sort of reform, increasingly so as he takes body blow after body blow in the national press. A well-placed source tells me that Clegg is responsible for delays to the publication of the bill because he refused to look at it until after last Friday’s local elections. It’s likely that, alongside seeking concessions from the Health and Social Care Bill, he also plans to exert more influence on the public services white paper following his drubbing in the local elections.

It would appear that those ministers opposed to large-scale outsourcing have already won. Minutes of a meeting between Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and director-general of the CBI, John Cridland, said that “the minister’s messages were clear cut… the government is committed to transforming services, but this would not be a return to the 1990s with wholesale outsourcing to the private sector – this would be unpalatable to the present administration.”

The leaked minutes also noted that the government will heavily push for mutualised public services to set up “joint ventures” with the private sector, stating that “Government is very open to ideas for services currently provided within the public sector to be delivered under a private/government joint venture. Government is committed to new models of partnership, and private sector organisations need to offer joint ventures – joint ventures between a new mutualised public sector organisation and a ‘for profit’ organisation would be very attractive.”

These measures could mean that Cameron still gets the outsourced public services he desires.  The director of the Oxford University Centre for Mutual and Employee-Owned Business, Professor Jonathan Michie, recently told me that in the 1980s, bus companies were set up with employee ownership models – but quickly transferred into private hands when their owners were offered handsome sums. Perhaps David Cameron’s vision will win in the long run after all then.


Cease and Dysist: why the Dylan worship has to stop

I was on the Underground the other day, clutching yet another sycophantic Dylan puff piece in a daily newspaper, and I felt compelled to scribble something down to describe my own feelings. I don’t usually write about music and probably won’t again.

Read the rest of this entry »

The government’s special advisers

I led a small team of reporters writing profiles of every government special adviser (spad). It was not an easy task: very early on, a senior spad informed me that he would be telling others not to co-operate, and some believed (erroneously) that providing information about themselves would breach the government code of special advisers. Yet we persisted because it’s vital that people understand who these advisers are, where they come from, and what expertise they have.

Very little outside the Westminster bubble, it turns out. After profiling many of them, I read through all of our biographies and tallied up the various backgrounds and experiences they had. An astonishing 89% have built their careers in the Westminster bubble. I contrasted this with the backgrounds of Labour’s special advisers (which were profiled in 2009). Only 37% of that cohort had worked for their party HQ, for an MP, or as a spad for another minister. A marked difference.

While they lack experience, spads are becoming more and more valued. Indeed, David Cameron is likely to break his self-imposed cap on the number of spads, and this won’t necessarily lead to opposition from the civil service either. I wrote an analysis piece about the use of special advisers in a coalition, and certainly it seems they are handy at keeping to cogs of government moving.

The full special report is available here.

A blast from the past

As a reminder of how markedly different the tone of Obama’s presidency is to Bush’s, here’s the announcement when Saddam Hussein was captured:

What’s most alarming about this, though, is the obsequiousness of the press.

A new direction?

How will the death of Osama Bin Laden affect US foreign policy, and therefore us? After all, Bin Laden’s death could be used by the United States to end military operations in Afghanistan sooner than expected, or more comprehensively than was previously aimed for.

A great piece in the New Yorker earlier this month highlighted that Obama does not want to expend resources and political capital on continuing US operations in Afghanistan in the long term, or indeed in the Middle East as a whole.

Instead, the President is much more concerned with refocusing US foreign policy towards the BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and perhaps most importantly, China. For example, Obama was reluctant to engage in efforts to remove Colonel Gadaffi in Libya and insisted on continuing a longstanding visit to Brazil while the decision was being made – highlighting to the world his foreign policy priorities.

Yet this was a symbolic display, and in practice Obama has become entangled in the Middle East: in part because of Afghanistan but also because of the Arab uprisings earlier this year. In the last year, Obama has committed significant military resources and political capital both to Afghanistan and also to the Libyan uprising.

Bin Laden’s death now provides Obama with an opportunity to remove troops from Afghanistan sooner than expected, and refocus his resources elsewhere. Perhaps it will also affect his willingness to commit troops to other parts of the region. American popular opinion was against committing troops to Libya, and also appears to be in favour of bringing forces home from Afghanistan.

What does this mean for the United Kingdom? British troops are committed in Afghanistan, indeed, numbers increased there when Obama pushed for a troop surge. The death of Bin Laden may mean the ending of American involvement in Afghanistan, and that would surely mean the end of British involvement there too.

Further, it may also affect British assistance for Arab uprisings: following the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the UK is heavily reliant on the United States. As Libya has shown, we can only lead when the Americans agree to follow, and it is more likely that we ask them to lead instead.

One final thought: with the US presidential election just beginning, we may not have to wait long before President Obama sets out what he intends to do next.

Update: Did the Guardian pay Wikileaks?

My previous post questioned whether The Guardian paid Wikileaks to access the data. This is important: they are setting the agenda and filtering this information, it’s important for us to know why they are doing it.

The Washington Post reported yesterday: “But [Wikileaks] pointedly snubbed the Times this time around, offering the State Department cables to two other American news outlets, CNN and the Wall Street Journal. Both turned WikiLeaks down, deciding that its terms – including a demand for financial compensation under certain circumstances – were unacceptable.”

It is likely that Wikileaks asked for payment from The Guardian. Did The Guardian agree to give funding to Wikileaks, or did it come to some other agreement with Assange? What were the terms of that agreement?

Did the Guardian, NYT, etc have to pay Wikileaks?

Wikileaks was set up to freely distribute information that was secret. However, it’s notable that its most recent leak of government files was only given to five newspapers (the New York Times, Le Monde, El País and De Speigel) each of which have had monopoly access in their own country to peruse the files, redact sensitive information, and then write exclusive stories about them.

This may have happened for two reasons. First, because Wikileaks identified a need to limit initial media access in order to ensure that the story had as big an impact as possible. The editorial of the Guardian mentions that the newspapers all agreed to publication dates set by Wikileaks, stating that “co-operation with WikiLeaks has been restricted to agreeing the dates on which we could cover specific regions.” Second, the limit may have been to ensure some control of information to prevent the loss of life – both the NYT and Guardian editorials stress they have shared redactions, such as the names of informers, with Wikileaks.

But why did Wikileaks decide to give the information to those five newspapers? In limiting early access to the Wikileaks documents, won’t they will be filtered through the perspective of those newspapers?

I can only speak with some knowledge about The Guardian and the New York Times but both are seen as liberal/left-wing newspapers in their countries. Did Assange give the five newspapers access because they are closest to his worldview, and in turn hopes they will put a spin on the information which he agrees with? I’ve just read a profile of the Wikileaks founder in the New Yorker, which had unprecedented access to him this summer. It indicates that Assange does take stances on the issues referenced in the information he leaks, stating that: “To be completely impartial is to be an idiot. This would mean that we would have to treat the dust in the street the same as the lives of people who have been killed.”

Or perhaps there is an alternative reason why the five newspapers gained access to the data. The New Yorker profile shows that Assange has been pursuing a number of business models in order to fund Wikileaks, such as auctioning early access to leaks. It says: “On the principle that people won’t regard something as valuable unless they pay for it, he has tried selling documents at auction to news organizations; in 2008, he attempted this with seven thousand internal e-mails from the account of a former speechwriter for Hugo Chávez. The auction failed. He is thinking about setting up a subscription service, where high-paying members would have early access to leaks.”

So was early access to the information purchased? Or was access given because Assange believed the newspapers would be the best at reporting on it?