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FEATURES - PRIVATE PRACTICE, PUBLIC SERVICE

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The private sector can bring diversity to public service, writes Rod Aldridge ...
The private sector can bring diversity to public service, writes Rod Aldridge

Last week, in his Fabian Society lecture, prime minister Tony Blair gave us a timely reminder that all too often those who most need decent public services actually receive some of the poorest. Low standards in education add to social division and exclusion and low standards in policing further reduce the quality of life for marginalised communities.

This is not the only reason why council and other services need improvement, but it is certainly one of the most compelling. Personal wealth should not be the only route to excellent services.

In case anyone wants to argue that all is well in our public services, MORI has found that only one in 10 people think public services are either efficient or provide good value for money. Fewer than one in five think people in the public services are keen to help them, and nearly 25% described public services as infuriating. A Guardian poll last week revealed over three-quarters of the public feel that public services have either not improved or got worse since 1997.

Some people seem to assume that when I and certain others call for better public services, our message can be condensed into the Orwellian-style mantra of ?public sector bad, private sector good?. That is not true ? there are very many excellent examples of superb public services managed and delivered wholly within the public sector, and only when it can truly add value should the private sector be brought in.

But there is no doubt that we can add real value. Capita?s 15-year partnership with Blackburn with Darwen Council led to 700 new white-collar jobs in the area within two years ? meeting a key contract objective five years early. And only this week we opened a brand new £3.5m Regional Business Centre in Carlisle as part of our partnership with Cumbria CC.

This will not only help us work with the council to improve the services received by citizens , but will allow us to build on the 140 jobs we have now created in Cumbria.

We need to recognise that society is changing. If the public wants different ways to interact with its service providers, whether banks, insurance companies or councils, then those services need to respond accordingly.

So what else can the private sector bring to the table? It can act as the partner to the public sector to make improvements in some circumstances, to inject investment and expertise and to provide an alternative to the monopoly public-sector supplier. It can improve

productivity through investment and process change.

It is essential that staff are well trained and well rewarded. We should not tolerate companies that seek to deliver public service badly or treat their staff unfairly any more than we should tolerate such behaviour in the public sector.

And, as many who have transferred to Capita from direct council employment have found, the private sector can give public-service workers opportunities for training and promotion they would never have had access to before. None of this means jettisoning the traditional values of the public sector ? as providers of public services we in the private sector must embrace a modern public-service ethos.

Let us be positive about the merits of diversity and look for the positives in all sectors. We all have important contributions to make. We can build first-class services by harnessing the best from all sectors working in genuine partnership ? partnerships delivering for the community and the economy.

Rod Aldridge

Executive chairman, Capita Group Plc and chairman, Confederation for British Industry public services strategy board

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