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The public service going private

The current debate on the General Workers’ Union jobless scheme – the union will manage a community work scheme through a government concession – has raised numerous questions, not only on the scheme itself but also on the wider scope and mission of the public service.

The agreement between the government and the GWU sheds light on the symptoms of a much bigger issue that is plaguing the public service.

Over the last decades, there has been a slow but steady erosion of the exclusive remit of the public service to design and deliver services, through various consultancy services. During the previous administration, consultancy fees reached unprecedented levels. In just the first three months of the previous government’s last full year in power – January to March, 2012 – the Office of the Prime Minister paid over €169,000 in consultancy fees.

These fees were exorbitant not only because they were incurred by just one ministry in a mere three months, but especially because government had, back in 1997, set up the Management Efficiency Unit with the specific aim of providing consultancy services to it.

Nowadays, other critical public services – including health and customer care – are being shared with entities that fall outside of the public service. This so-called ‘quango’ culture – a semi-public administrative body outside public service but receiving financial support from the government – has become mainstream, despite international best practices advising a rational approach to such a model.

The aim of such outsourcing could be to improve the delivery of public services. However, what has been the improved return to the taxpayer’s investment?

Another reason could be that the government is trying to downsize the public service. Previous administrations have tried this and failed and today, the public sector still carries the weight of around 30 per cent of total full-time employment. This means that the numbers are there to deliver public services.

Such outsourcing could also be necessary because the public service does not have the necessary competence and expertise to deliver certain services. However, if this were the case, is there truly the need to sub-contract services such as cleaning, security and clerical work, for which there are numerous human resources already in public employment to execute them?

Administering a jobless scheme should fall within the remit of Jobs Plus, rather than outsourced. The same applies to training public service employees. A portion of this training function is being outsourced, yet the government has the Institute for Public Services, an offshoot of the Centre for Development, Research and Training, previously the Staff Development Organisation, which is tasked with providing training to public service employees at all levels. The customer care function – in the form of one-stop shops and servizz.gov – is also being managed by the private sector.

Such devolution is not wrong in and of itself – other governments have maintained policy functions and outsourced service delivery and regulation. However, we must question the appropriateness of outsourcing services that are traditionally considered as the exclusive responsibility of the public service. Why the need to resort to these models?

The big question is whether Malta has lost its trust in the capacity and capability of the public service to deliver, despite successive administrations committing energy to public service reform. If the answer is in the affirmative, then the future of the public service needs to be given serious thought and consensus, at a policy and legal level, in order to have a public service that is ready for today’s realities and tomorrow’s challenges.

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