Gary Sturgess: a middle way for contestability

ANZSOG’s Professor Gary Sturgess has written a paper making the case for contestability. The word has come to mean many different things, as synonym for “competition” or a soft alternative to “outsourcing”, but the former mandarin says the concept is much richer than that.

The public don’t like monopolies. And they are suspicious of them in the public sector as well as the private sector. Sometimes there is no other way of organising the production and delivery of goods and services, but we all know from experience that monopolies are generally unresponsive to the needs of customers and service users, and they pay too much attention to the convenience of management and staff.

On the other hand, we are also worried about the use of competition and outsourcing in the delivery of public services. In certain parts of the public sector – in primary health care; primary, secondary and higher education; and now in disability care — Australians have made it clear that they value user choice. And where contracting has been done well, the public seem to be more relaxed about the private management of public services. Sydney Ferries is an example of a public service that has been recently franchised, where service quality remains high and the public no longer care who is responsible for its operation.

But the public do want social services to be delivered by people who are motivated by a desire to serve. They worry about the profit motive. And they are concerned that public servants may be outwitted by commercially-savvy contractors.

The public have much greater confidence in those who deliver front-line services than those who manage the finances. Understandably, they identify more closely with those who care more about service quality than those whose care about cost. Front-line staff are much more likely to identify with service users, which is one of the reasons the public trusts them more. In short, the public wants social services to be delivered by people who are motivated by a ‘public service ethos’.

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