The current outsourcing pattern is commercially unsustainable. It is time for a wider rebalancing of public and private provision of essential services
When the chief executive of a business declares its operations to be “far too complex”, investors are naturally alarmed and customers concerned. In the case of Capita, the ultimate customer is the taxpayer, since the group specialises in services outsourced from Whitehall, devolved administrations, local government, the NHS and other public sector bodies. Wednesday’s profit warning by Jonathan Lewis, Capita’s CEO, is all the more alarming since it comes so soon after the collapse of Carillion, whose over-complex business also relied heavily on public sector contracts. But Capita is not, yet, the new Carillion. Its share price has tanked, but it is still able to raise money. Mr Lewis is airing dirty financial laundry now because, being new to the job, he can signal change and blame troubles on the old management.
So business as usual? Not quite. Given the scale of public sector vulnerability, the Carillion case takes business as usual off the menu. This is a political matter more than a commercial one. Businesses operate under the conditions that are set for them by governments and, where outsourcing is concerned, the market only exists by virtue of public procurement. That brings special responsibilities and unique consequences for failure. Most voters do not dwell on ownership structures behind public services – until they go wrong. There is higher awareness of the private sector’s role in the NHS, providing buildings as well as clerical and clinical tasks. That is because the health service is a symbol of universal care bought with general taxation. Fear of its cannibalisation for profit animates great political passions.