Why Covid-19 should finally end the UK’s outsourcing craze


Correlation is not causality, but all of these things are true: Dido Harding graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics; Dido Harding is a Tory peer married to a Tory MP. Under the leadership of Dido Harding, Test and Trace was a complete disaster. One could argue that most of Dido Harding’s attempts to explain this failure have also been an utter disaster – earlier this week she managed to create the impression that this is certainly wrong Little did she know viruses did something as crazy as mutate. But this latter view is more subjective and only closely related to today’s topic, so I’ll leave it sniffed as a bit and move on.

There are many things that could plausibly explain why the government didn’t spend the first lockdown on building a testing and traceability system that worked well enough to prevent the need for a second lockout. The reluctance to close the borders. Rishi Sunak’s insistence on subsidizing evenings and ruining his reputation for not funding people enough to self-isolate. (Harding, too, seemed bafflingly to suggest that giving people money to self-isolate could be worse than not doing so and letting them wander into the community and coughing all the time.) Then again, maybe it was just plain unadulterated incompetence.

But a big reason for the government’s failure are certainly the people it hired to implement the program. Harding’s Harvard MBA was followed by positions at the management consultancy McKinsey, the vacation company Thomas Cook, the service company Manpower and a number of retailers. She later became CEO of TalkTalk in 2010, where a cyber attack took place on her watch cost the company £ 60 million and 95,000 customers. Her excellent leadership in this crisis earned her the great headline “The total ignorance of TalkTalk boss Dido Harding is a lesson for us all” in Campaign magazine.

How well she performed in these roles, however, is not the problem. The point is that there was nothing on their resume to indicate any interest or expertise in healthcare until the government in October 2017 appointed their chairman for NHS improvement who oversees NHS trusts and other healthcare providers in England. Her skills and experience lie in business and administration. She is a generalist.

In it, she reflects some of the companies to which NHS Test and Trace has outsourced its work. Parts of the program were carried out by Public Health England, Randox Laboratories, the pharmacist Boots and companies with specific logistics expertise. However, many went to a litany of more general service companies, the names of which will be familiar to anyone who has watched the UK government attempt to outsource itself over the past 20 years: Serco, Mitie, G4S, Deloitte. Sodexo, one of the companies in charge of running community test centers, started life as a French catering company.

These companies have taken on hundreds of government roles over the years and, if only by law in large numbers, have performed reasonably well in some of them. The reason they have been successful is less because of the quality of their services than because of their world-class skills in negotiating profitable contracts. They too are generalists whose success relies less on their industry expertise than on their general business and administrative skills.

However, the ability to successfully manage a contract and deliver the services the public actually wants is not always the same. In normal times, this misalignment is annoying. These are not normal times.

There is another way. The vaccine research program was led by the Jenner Institute at Oxford University. a partnership between government, academia and the private sector. The roll-out was led by medical professionals and NHS managers. These are institutions that understand the sector in which they work and measure their success using measures other than contractual objectives or shareholder value.

Again, correlation is not a causality, but it is still noticeable that this programWoman was one of the most successful in the world. It certainly went a lot better than Test and Trace.

For decades there has been a consensus on both the left and the right that a smaller government is a better one: if something can be outsourced, it should be. But that has often meant giving preference to privatist generalists – – who respond primarily to their shareholders – – through publicly employed specialists who have different, publicly minded motivations.

The events of the past year are a reminder that a contractual relationship is often a poor substitute for real expertise. Smaller is not always better. We don’t have enough experts.

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