By Sturgess, Gary
Review - Institute of Public Affairs , Vol. 55, No. 3
AROUND the same time as the Pitt administration in England decided that it would deal with its prison overcrowding by sending large numbers of convicts to Botany Bay, the political philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with an alternative solution.
Bentham proposed that a prison be constructed in London using the very latest technology. It would be commissioned by central government and managed by a private contractor. The father of Utilitarianism named his imagined prison 'Panopticon' and he recommended that Jeremy Bentham himself be appointed as its operator.
Bentham argued that well-written and well-enforced contracts could be used to align the self-interest of the private sector with the public interest-'to join interest with duty, and that by the strongest cement that can be found.'
Two hundred years later, contracting has made a strong return. Public-private partnerships are now being actively pursued in much of the English-speaking world and in a number of countries in Europe and Asia as well.
And, once again, the question is being asked: Are private companies capable of having a public service ethos?
TRUST IN PUBLIC SERVICES
What are the concerns with private sector involvement in the delivery of public services? By and large, the problem is not efficiency or effectiveness but public trust. This is an extraordinarily complicated subject, so let me simplify it massively by reducing it to three issues:
People versus systems
There is a natural tendency of human beings to recognize and identify with other human beings. People are inclined to trust other people in preference to institutions or systems. And they are more inclined to trust people who work with people (doctors and nurses) than people who work with systems (managers and bureaucrats).
As a result, individual public service workers are usually more trusted than the institutions for which they work-in the UK, doctors are trusted much more than the National Health Service, judges and police officers more than the criminal justice system.
This preference for people over systems is probably very old, but over the past 50 years, right throughout the Western world, there has been a marked deterioration of trust in large-scale institutions.
Performance versus motives
The public generally believes that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. By and large, they don't need to be convinced that-where performance can be measured-the private sector delivers better outcomes than government, particularly when it is exposed to competition.
But in many public services, judgements about performance are difficult for ordinary folk to make, since outcomes are complex, contingent or inherently conflictual.
In these circumstances, the public tends to rely more on the motives of people and organizations rather than measured performance. Monsanto may be highly effective in developing genetically-modified foods, but since it is virtually impossible for me to understand the long-term consequences, I am inclined to place much greater reliance upon their motives.
There is a very close association between accountability and trust. At the most basic level, the public sector is seen as being more transparent and more open to external scrutiny.
Public services arc also thought to be more accountable because they simplify an otherwise complex world and, in some cases, provide us with agents to negotiate with the system on our behalf. They arc also seen as part of a wider democratic system which increases the likelihood that service providers will reflect the values of the diverse range of citizen/ users.
THE PUBLIC SERVICE COMPANIES
The real question is whether it is possible to create conditions under which private sector providers will pursue the public good in the normal course of business. Public-private partnerships are such a recent phenomenon that one might conclude there are not enough case studies to undertake such an inquiry. …