The twitterati are out in force again this week, this time angry at G4S and their failure to secure enough staff for the Olympics. You’ll no doubt be familiar with the scandal. You don’t have to look far to find someone putting forward the argument that this is a textbook example of why we shouldn’t outsource state services.
Certainly G4S has made mistakes, yet I’m not convinced by the public outcry against outsourcing. Think of Bastiat’s That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen. We see the G4S failure, but we don’t see what would have happened had the state been tasked with Olympic security.
Clearly, neither the state nor the private sector are perfect. Tasking either with Olympic security had risks that something would go wrong. The state seems to have a nasty habit of making mistakes – data is constantly leaked or goes missing, the Home Office seems incapable of running an immigration desk, not to mention the quality of state healthcare and education provision lagging far behind their private counterparts. The list goes on. To me it seems that the rational thing to do when deciding who should provide services is to go with the least risky option. To say that I’m not convinced that this option is the state would be an understatement.
Yet the popular narrative emerging from the G4S scandal is that we should trust more service provision to the state. I can’t help but think had we done that with Olympic security, the state would have had as just a difficult time securing staff, if not more.
And what would have happened had the state been in charge, and yet the troops still had to be called in? A public outcry against state provision? A wave of commentary saying how this is a textbook example of why we should outsource?
No. Of course not. It would have been a minor scandal at best. Probably not even serious enough to warrant the loss of a ministerial job, yet there are calls for Nick Buckles, head of G4S, to stand down. We would shrug off state failure as though it were the norm.
We hold the private sector to a far higher standard than we do the state. Holding those who provide public services to account is hardly a bad thing, but if we don’t demand the same high quality from the state as we do from the private sector, our public services will be doomed to mediocrity.