Heather Wakefield 26 March 2007

Why on earth offshore?

The vision of local government posed by Rod Aldridge, Business Process Offshoring (Plugged In, The MJ, 15 March) is hard to reconcile with the softer notions of ‘double devolution’, user choice and active local citizenship at the heart of the Government’s plans for councils of the future. And how does BPO fit with ‘place shaping’, joined-up service delivery, sustainable local communities and community cohesion?
Offshoring, unsurprisingly, challenges Unison’s vision for effective councils. It is hard to reconcile the latest Internet promotions of BPO with councils which provide the sustainable core of local economies, create neighbourhood jobs and deliver efficient, high-quality local services.
Being community leaders should mean harnessing the skills and aspirations of nearby citizens.
I am told that the benefits of BPO are ‘a dramatic wage cost differential between Western “onshore” economies and the economies of South and South East Asia and Eastern Europe’, with ‘labour savings in the 40-70% range’.
‘Offshore BPO workers are invariably college educated’ and can ‘afford to throw more brainpower at the problem’, while so-called ‘shop floor’ profit centres are more likely to strive for continuous improvement in order to grow their market share than local councils.
Fine. Offshoring may do some things more cheaply – though at what cost to offshore workers? Fine, too, that the UK supports employment growth in once-colonialised and exploited nations. Nothing wrong with doing things efficiently either. But what about the disbenefits of chopping up council functions to make a small saving in ‘business process’ areas and send the work offshore?
It’s not difficult to name them. Splitting up ‘core’ and ‘non core’ services is no big or new idea. It started in the 1980s and 1990s, with so-called ‘non-core’ public functions finding their way to the lowest private bidder. Only now are we seeing the results: MRSA in our hospitals, unhealthy school diets and ongoing delays in processing of benefits, passports and child maintenance payments.
Meanwhile, Unison members on the frontline have to face angry parents, tenants and service users without being able to explain the cause of their problems. The recently centralised and outsourced student loan service is beset with them.
‘Non-standard’ students with complex problems and those with disabilities find it hard to get the support they need from remote delivery agents.
More importantly, there is little that our members on the frontline can do to rectify service delivery shortcomings, especially if the problem emanates from a far off ‘shop floor’ and a contract fixed for the next 20 years. Team working suffers too, with less flexibility to adapt to user demands and therefore, less overall effectiveness.
Recent efficiency savings in local government have not been ploughed back into frontline services, so there is no reason to believe that savings from offshoring will find their way to providing more home carers, filling vacant posts or moving back to weekly refuse collection either.
And let’s not forget that councils are the largest employers in most localities, providing local work for women in particular.
Removing ‘back office’ functions overseas means removing an invaluable source of employment for those who can’t travel far because of childcare or family commitments.
It means removing income from local economies, dependent on the expenditure of local council workers. It means an end to equal opportunity employment and fewer jobs for black and ethnic minority residents and local migrant workers.
Are the savings from offshoring really worth it? Our response to that must be more sophisticated than to tot up short-term economies. Better Public Organisations are possible without it. n
Heather Wakefield is head of local government, Unison
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