The Olympics and Hillsborough: two faces of the public sector

Brendan Barber, the outgoing General Secretary of Britian’s Trade Union Congress, called for “an Olympic approach to the economy“.  He was, of course, only one of many politicians and others trying to use the example of London’s success in putting on the 2012 Games to try and make a wider point.   He said that it showed that “the market does not always deliver”.  In this I think he was referring to both the fact that the games were a government sponsored grand project, and the spectacular failure of one of the private contractors, G4S, to deliver security staff.

Well I did not hear his speech, or even read it – relying on radio and press reports.  What comes over is a mixture of the coherent and nonsense.  The coherent part was the idea that an economy lacking in aggregate demand could do with some grand infrastructure projects to keep people employed and deliver future benefits.  Many people across the political spectrum agree with that, although personally I am on the sceptical side.  The nonsense bit was the idealisation of the public sector and suspicion of anything that smacks of private initiative and enterprise.  He precise words may well not have done this: “the market does not always deliver” is not the same as saying that “the public sector always delivers and market never does.”  But that is no doubt what his TUC audience heard, judging by what some people were saying.  The ideas of many trade unionists are not so much inspired by Maynard Keynes as Leonid Brezhnev.  Unlike in America, though, the public are more sympathetic to such notions than they ought to be.

To see why we have the terrible example of the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989.  Today a report has been released vindicating criticisms of the authorities long made by families of the victims; the Prime Minister was forced to make an apology.  The authorities, mainly the Police, not only made misjudgements that caused the disaster, but their handling of things made it worse by delaying medical help.  And to cap it all they systematically covered up the truth and put about mis-information to try and divert the blame.  It has take 23 years to get this far.

What is my point?  It isn’t that the public sector is any more likely than the private sector to perpetrate the sort of mistakes that led to and exacerbated this tragedy.  Far from it.  It is that it is so much harder to hold the public sector to account.  They are integrated into the system that is meant to secure justice; they can pull strings, call in political favours, and work the system so that the truth does not come out.  For every Hillsborough that eventually does come to light, think of the hundreds of lesser tragedies where the authorities manage to thwart the victims.

Compare that to the private sector.  At the Olympics retribution was swift and brutal for G4S, publicly humiliated in days (while their public commissioners who seemed asleep on the job just kept their heads down).  Or to take something a bit more comparable: BP’s Mexican Gulf disaster last year.  BP faced the full weight of the US political and judicial system, forcing a rapid response and compensation payments.

Hillsborough was a long time ago.  I would like to think that standards of public accountability have improved since then.  But we still get procurement disasters in the Ministry of Defence, bad hospitals getting away sub-standard services, state schools in many parts of the country not trying hard enough to raise standards among less well-off communities.  And even the Olympics – compare the cost to original budget!  Not to mention their reliance on armies of unpaid volunteers.

Scepticism of the private sector and open markets is understandable – but we need to get things into perspective.  We have too easily forgotten what happened to the Communist systems in Europe.  All those expressions of goodwill and the promotion of the public good soon get buried in a culture of passing the buck.

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