Anyone Who Thinks the Private Sector Is More Efficient Has Never Called a Call Centre

(This piece first appeared on the Huffington Post )

If Hell is personalised for the individual, like the Google ads that make a sinister appearance when you start typing an email (“Buy Dear Mum at discount prices!”) then the Brimstone Committee already has my bespoke afterlife earmarked.  I will be spending eternity attempting to accomplish a minor routine task, on the phone to a call centre.

In perpetuity I will spiral through menu options, bouncing miserably between one unhelpful wage-slave and another, each telling me blankly that my request “contravenes our corporate policy ma’am.”   I will shout bleakly into the voice-recognition software: “REPLACE PHONE” and a sprightly robot will reply:  “Now signing you up for a high-interest loan!” and I will hear an infinite number of pan-flute renditions of Another Day in Paradise, Beelzebub’s personal ironic flourish.

At least by then, I’ll be well practiced.   Like most people in the western world, in order to keep the basics of my life ticking over, I spend many hours a year dealing with various corporations- sorting out my mobile phone, my mortgage and my bank account; buying train tickets and insurance; and calling to complain about all these services when they inevitably go wrong.    In the many hours I spend on hold, in between assurances that ‘my call is important to them,’ I tend to mull over the amount of mind-bending inefficiency, bureaucracy and sheer corporate rubbish we all put up with from these organisations.

All of this would be of little consequence, except to my own sanity, if it wasn’t for the fact that this little slice of hell is what the government believes will be the saviour of our public services.  Namely, the Private Sector.

This week’s ugly revelations of plans to outsource key elements of police work to private companies is the latest stunt in a two year long privatisation binge by the Coalition Government.   Last year, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a new “presumption” that private companies would be able to run public services without the need for specific legislation, and now this imperative spans healthcare, education, children and adult services and is being drawn into the justice sector.

It would not be too much of a stretch to distil David Cameron’s collected speeches over the last couple of years down to just four words:  State Bad, Private Good (incidentally it’s hard to imagine the self loathing this must bring on for the PM.  Trying to combine a belief in the essential incompetence of governments while simultaneously trying to run one yourself must be like Morrissey finding out that he has been elected to head up Mmm-Mattesson’s Twisted Tails factory.)

We are told repeatedly that private companies deliver services which are modern, slick and efficient, in contrast to the public sector which is bureaucratic, wasteful and sluggish.  Even critics of privatisation tend to challenge it on the grounds of fairness and accountability rather than competence.    We as a nation have bought into the narrative of private sector efficiency almost without question.  But the problem with this version of events is that the public sector is held up to a level of scrutiny which the private sector is not.

When we have a long waiting time in A&E say, we see this not as an unfortunate one-off occurrence, but a reflection of wider public-sector incompetence.   But when we spend an hour on the phone to our mobile phone provider trying and failing to sort out our contract, we do not politicise the experience in our minds and extrapolate out to its being part of a wider private-sector malaise.

Research by the IMF has found that there is little difference in the record of efficiency between the private and public sectors and when it comes to public service provision, private sector superiority is far from a given.  In education policy, for example, the government’s flagship ‘academies,’ the schools taken out of Local Authority control and run in part by private companies or voluntary groups have performed consistently worse than other comparable schools.    In healthcare, although the evidence is somewhat complicated, the contracting out of hospital cleaning services led to a drop in standards, and coincided with a sharp increase in the rates of MRSA.   The privatisation of the railways led to a situation in which the government rail subsidy is greater than it was when the network was nationalised and yet a season ticket from London to Norwich still costs nearly 8000 pounds.

There are many reasons why the police should not be privatised, not least that an independent, publicly funded police force, free from the profit motive and accountable to the public it serves, is a fundamental plank of a civilised society.   Lets not subjugate this dignified ideal to the misguided notion that the private sector would do a better job.



  1. Is anyone listening to the Levenson inquiry and the temptations even a publicly accountable police force has succumbed to? When I first heard this proposal I thought I had fallen asleep with the radio news station on and had woken to some sort of muddled dream. Amazing to hear that it was seriously being proposed.

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