To privatise or not to privatise, that is the question

Yesterday Gordon Brown announced a “radical plan to put frontline services first by streamlining government. The headlines have focussed on his comments on the pay of senior civil service employees perhaps masking some inconsistency in the aspirations and the detail of the programme Putting the Frontline First.

“Putting the frontline first: smarter government sets out how Government will improve public service outcomes while achieving the fiscal consolidation that is vital to helping the economy grow. The plan has three central actions: to drive up standards by strengthening the role of citizens and civic society, to free up public services by recasting the relationship between the centre and the frontline, and to streamline the centre of government, saving money for sharper delivery.”

So what is wrong with that you may ask? Drive up standards, shift focus to frontline and save money – sounds good but is it realistic and deliverable?

Last month the PM announced that a range of data sets from OS were going to be made freely available garnering widespread praise from all who have argued that geographic information is key to opening up public information and allowing innnovators to create new services and activists to hold public services accountable for their decisions and performance. In yesterday’s announcement buried in the detail was

“We are publishing an OEP asset portfolio alongside today’s report. This portfolio sets out those state-owned assets which government might seek to commercialise over the medium term. The OEP asset portfolio includes a new framework to govern which government activities should be managed as a business and which should be sold. For those activities which are best managed as businesses in the public sector, we will separate the ownership role from the customer and policy role, with a presumption that they should be incorporated”

The OEP Asset Portfolio can be found here. The introduction explains that

“The Government has today established a new policy framework – summarised in Annex A to this document – to guide decisions on how government activities will be delivered. This will facilitate clearer decision making and faster progress in improving business performance and, where appropriate, pursuing transactions”

One might think that pursuing transactions is a euphemism for privatisation or sell off. The section on the Ordnance Survey has some choice but confusing nuggets (my italics below) including

“On 17 November 2009, the Prime Minister announced that Government proposes to make certain datasets from Ordnance Survey available for free, including information about administrative boundaries, postcode areas and mid-scale mapping. There will be a public consultation on these proposals from December 2009, with implementation of any change from April 2010.

The consultation will also cover other issues around the interaction of Ordnance Survey with the market – particularly the regulatory environment and the governance structure around the free offering.

Market studies have identified significant growth opportunities across the geographic information (GI) market, as data is made more available and new technologies are used to support innovation and greater use of GI data and services. The outcome of the consultation above may affect the opportunities available to Ordnance Survey in some of these growth areas and the alternative asset options outlined below. It may also open up new opportunities to work more closely with other parts of the public sector to realise efficiency savings, for example in local government resource planning and deployment, or working more closely with the Land Registry. Similarly there may be an opportunity to collaborate with local government and Royal Mail to provide a definitive addressing solution for Great Britain.”

But then at the end of the chapter under the heading of Private Sector we get

“There are a growing number of commercial market opportunities, particularly around value- added services using geospatial information, which Ordnance Survey is not currently well placed to exploit.
A private sector investor and/or partner might bring expertise, new market access or additional capital for innovation. This could accelerate the development and delivery of these opportunities more quickly and successfully than Ordnance Survey operating alone.”

So does this mean that privatisation is on or off? My hunch is off (no inside knowledge though).

I wonder how much of this section on Ordnance Survey had to be rewritten after Gordon Brown’s announcement on 17th November. Do the left and right hands know what the other is doing? Maybe that is why senior civil servants are getting those high salaries that Gordon is so concerned about!

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