Public services: Quality and Accountability

Accountability Privatisation

Stephen Struthers calls for an end to the exploitation of service users and taxpayers by privatised public sector organisations.  This article was first published by the Society of Labour Lawyers

We Own It is a new campaigning group calling for high quality services owned by and accountable to the public. We are promoting the idea of a Public Services Bill to take this forward.

In modern societies most people accept that, for practical reasons, some services and assets should be shared and accessible to everybody. Directly or indirectly, everybody does or may use them. We believe this implies that the government has a special duty to ensure that they are operated in the interests of the whole community, and not just shareholders and executives.

For too long, governments have had an easy ride in their headlong rush to sell-off public assets and services, often justified, despite any evidence, by a simplistic mantra that privately owned means efficient and “good”, whereas anything public is inefficient and “bad”. We believe there are better ways of organising public services and owning assets.

We Own It is campaigning to ensure that there is proper consent for the activities of organisations running public services and to prevent the users of these services and taxpayers being exploited by avaricious corporations. The public has a legitimate interest in overseeing the activities of “natural” or state-guaranteed monopolies, both because they are conducted in a common space in their name and interests, and also because nine times out of ten they are paying.

While there is still much work to do on the details of a Public Service Users Bill, we believe the main parameters are already pretty clear. There are two groups of demands – first, in connection with decision making about how a public service should be run; and secondly, about accountability for the way in which public services are run or assets held.

On decision making:

  • Priority should be given to not-for-profit organisations with an “asset lock” to safeguard the public interest. Indeed this should be the default option for services supplied on behalf of any public agency. Local and national government would be expected to explore appropriate best practice models before any prospective contracting out to a private company. Independent polling by Survation, commissioned by We Own It in the summer, shows that this is supported by 60% of the public, and 73% of Labour voters.
  • Wherever possible, there should be a realistic and thorough in-house bid whenever a public service – local or national – is put out to tender. However, we have to recognise that there may be occasions when the public sector does not have the capacity to carry out a service. This proposal is supported by 80% of the public.
  • There needs to be transparency and a proper public consultation and debate about a proposal to sell off or outsource a public asset or service. Imperfect though they may be, there are guidelines as well as case law about how consultations should be handled. As we know, there was no public consultation about selling Royal Mail and the Conservatives conveniently forgot to mention it in their general election literature. A demand for consultation is supported by 79% of the public and 90% of Labour voters.

And on accountability:

  • The public must be properly consulted about the content and parameters of contracted services so that they can influence and shape them.
  • The public must have a ‘right to recall’ to end contracts which are not being properly fulfilled. This will address an issue that has been brushed under the carpet too often. We are repeatedly told that it is not possible to even amend, let alone cut short, long-running contracts where performance standards are clearly not being met. Unsurprisingly, this proposal is supported by fully 88% of the public in our polling.
  • Organisations running public services must be open and transparent about their performance and financial data – as we quite rightly expect from the public sector. Indeed, we would expect them to be fully subject to Freedom of Information legislation: it goes with the territory. It is no surprise to us that 48% of the public mistakenly believe that companies running public services already are subject to Freedom of Information because it is absurd that those working in a privileged position on behalf of the public can do so in secrecy. It seems only right that, in return for this privilege, there should be proper transparency about how these services are delivered and assets used. Recent misinformation about pricing by the energy utilities makes this argument for us.

High quality, accountable public services are good for everybody. Our survey evidence shows that the public as a whole recognise this, and the importance of safeguarding them. We now have to turn these good intentions into a concrete Public Service Users Bill. Readers who would like to help, to be part of this campaign to create a better policy environment, should contact We Own It ( or visit

Stephen Struthers is a team member of We Own It, and a former research manager