Privatisation and the Failure Narrative

Last year I wrote about some of the dangers in talking up the negatives for public libraries and ignoring the positives.  As has been seen many, many times in the past, the supposed ‘failure’ of public services is used as an excuse to call in the private sector to rectify these ‘failures’ and deliver a more effective and efficient service (to use the terminology of the privatisation lobby).  It is the danger of the Failure Narrative that dominates the media.  Talk up the failure and you provide opportunities for those to claim that they have the solution.  It matters not whether the failure is real or imaginary, it simply matters that people believe it.

We’ve seen this before.  Before the Royal Mail was identified as the next public service to be sold off to the private sector, there was a great deal of talk about its failings.  Exposes were featured on flagship documentaries such as Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, which opened with the line:

“Once Royal Mail was your friend, not any more.”

It then proceeded to expose the supposed failings of the Royal Mail, wheeling out a number of pro-privatisation voices to stick the boot in and drive forward the Failure Narrative.  Of course, the programme did not reflect the experience of many who utilise the service.  For example, I have never either experienced a parcel or letter go missing once.  I have never received a package late or damaged.  Maybe I am in a minority, I doubt it.  I’m sure people have experienced problems, but it is in no way systemic.  Ironically, the only time I have had a problem with a delivery, it was via a private delivery firm who failed to deliver on time and, upon appearing at the depot to collect the item (a netbook since you asked), was told it might take “a couple of hours to find it”. Hmm.  And what of the performance of the Royal Mail?  Well, in May 2010 it reported a 26% rise in profits, coming on the back of growth in 2009 that saw all four parts of its business in the black for the first time in 20 years.

Of course, such growth is overlooked in order to preserve the Failure Narrative and present an opportunity for those that have the solution.  Which is why we are seeing private companies looking to take over library authorities despite the fact that library usage is at record levels and borrowing is actually higher than it was two years ago (despite increasing competition).  Those promoting the Failure Narrative are either to naive to understand what their words and actions will lead to, or else they are deliberately attempting to dismantle the library service as we know it, handing it over to profit-making enterprises.  We can excuse the former, it is an easy trap to fall into.  Those that do know what they are doing should, however, hang their heads in shame.  It is they who are destroying a great institution.  It is they who are ensuring the death of the public library service.

And what of these private companies?  Well, LSSI certainly do not seem to be the librarian’s (or even the user’s) friend:

“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”

The company, known as L.S.S.I., runs 14 library systems operating 63 locations. Its basic pitch to cities is that it fixes broken libraries — more often than not by cleaning house.

“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”

Fairly disturbing stuff.   Of course, we could dismiss this as being an isolated tactic by LSSI in the United States, surely this kind of approach would not be replicated over here?  Well…

The revenue model will differ for each council, although LSSI claims it can run public libraries at a fraction of the cost of local authorities.

The “slacks and trainers mentality” among librarians will be abolished, Mr Lynch says. In its place will be “a rigorous service culture”.

There is a link there between de-unionisation, cutting costs and “the slacks and trainers mentality”.  The implication being that staff are the cause of the inefficiencies and if only the unions were removed from the equation, the future of the library service would be assured. For companies like LSSI, it appears to be the staff that are the problem, at least that is what their solution seems to suggest.

But it is not even as if private contractors can ensure the long terms prosperity of the library service.  Hounslow, for example, were facing up to the potential loss of up to eight of their libraries.  They are not run by the local council though, they are operated by John Laing, a private contractor likely to be bidding against LSSI should any ‘opportunities’ emerge.  And like LSSI, Laing see staff as the cause of the problems.  Alan Gibbons writes on his blog:

“I don’t have first hand experience of Hounslow’s library service, but a recent letter from a library user who would prefer to remain anonymous does raise concerns. The letter describes recent refits as ‘appalling’ and reports that staff morale is ‘low’ with job cuts and forced retirements leading to great uncertainty about the future and the impending strategic review. The company running the libraries, John Laing, apparently has a fifteen year contract.

“The library user reports that staff have to dress in black because the company considers that they don’t look smart enough and will be sent home if they don’t comply.

“It does seem difficult to square these practices with the most cursory reading of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act whose founders surely did not anticipate that a statutory service would be hived off in this way.”

Again, clearly the staff are the target.  This is a familiar tactic across the private sector – break the unions, reduce investment in the staff, lower staffing levels to the absolute minimum required.  This is not the way to a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’.  Although who is to say that a private contractor will be held to that standard anyway?

But Laing also make their money in a rather peculiar way.  Part of the deal that they struck with Hounslow meant that library closures would actually benefit the company.  In response to a Freedom of Information request, Hounslow council responded:

In answer to your question yes we would be required to compensate John Laing under the contract. This may include loss of profit and redundancy costs.

Which puts the potential closure of eight libraries into context.  Presumably these eight are the least profitable to run and, given that the needs of the community are secondary to the profit-making capability of the company concerned, the decision was taken to close them and collect the payout from the council.  A council that, one would imagine, is already strapped for cash due to the government’s spending cuts.  Is this sensible?  Is it wise for an authority to contract out the library service and then compensate the contractor if the libraries are closed?  Are Laing, a company contracted to run the library service and ensure its long term survival, effectively making money from libraries closing?  And who decides whether a library should be closed?  Is it the council or is pressure applied by Laing?

Clearly there is a lot to concern both workers and users of public libraries.  Unfortunately, those that wish to talk up the negatives are simply providing covering fire for the private contractors who will launch an astonishing attack on the “extremely nice friendly people who work behind the front desk of the library”.  So long as the Failure Narrative persists, the private contractors will be rubbing their hands together with glee – this is their opportunity to provide the solution.  They may not be bonkers, but those adopting the Failure Narrative are doing a great deal of very serious long-term damage.

If you want to find out more about the damage that private sector companies do to the library service, it might be worth checking out Stop the Privatisation of UK Public Libraries – which has a few links to news about LSSI’s activities over in the United States.


5 thoughts on “Privatisation and the Failure Narrative

  1. Pingback: The Value of Public Libraries (and the measurement and demonstration thereof) « Walk You Home

  2. The reason if I remember this correctly that Tim Coates was called in was because top Council staff observed a very poor library service, and found the librarians uncooperative. He was then brought in.

    If there isn’t any discussion how can the future of the libraries and the needed change be planned – if we are all told to shut up. I did at one point suggest that a closed forum be created on VftL, because I had observed LIS-PUB-LIBS posters tended to be somewhat inhibited I think, and I figured maybe because it was an open forum.

    I’ve thought about private libraries, and what I am worried about is that that the current small number are flagship services (has anyone actually done any research on the success of the current small number?) – I’m worried that if they became the norm, then they would wind up at the level of a corner shop (which is not the mission of a library!). How would a librarian/library manager reconcile the duties of a librarian and those of profit? It does strike me as well, thinking about it, if it was said that as long as the Council made payment on condition of certain outcomes, by the time those outcomes had been defined (it would take a professional librarian!), they might as well then manage the service themselves (and without the overhead of profit, but with a public sector ethos of service).

    The solution is for librarians to take _all_ the criticism on board, and say we recognise X and Y (but maybe don’t agree with Z for these reasons…) etc., and respond to it as an opportunity for service improvement (or some other such textbook customer service or management technique otherwise). That’s all it takes, and they would get all the disgruntled and souls lost to the library otherwise back onboard. (‘Take a sad song and make it better’ as the words of the song go.) It would be a mistake for libraries to continue as if nothing was wrong – and it’s a quite aggressive business strategy to methodically eliminate any threats. People would feel as though they were being ignored, and would that not hasten the end of the public sector library service.

    Where criticism can’t be avoided or helped, then the libraries must very audibly respond. This is maybe where things have fallen down a bit. OK, focus on the success of the libraries, there is no need to go into failures, nobody wants to hear about these anyway unless they need to, they want to hear what the positive value of the libraries are to them. But if there is criticism (and I hear this, and can predict it as well), then it is a mistake to brush it under the carpet, it should be addressed, and that address voiced just as audibly as the criticism. But ignore criticism and it will start to accumulate like the water behind a damn, finding cracks to express its self through. Some people aren’t bothered enough to participate in any manner other than a thumbs up and thumbs down, the thoughts of these people must be anticipated. Others are quite articulate, and they must be enagaged. At the end of the day public libraries can only do their best and no one will expect more than this. But it does include engagement with criticism, and if they miss this step out, then they will lose support – no one likes to be ignored, and certainly not on the subject of public money.

    I’ll finish on my opening note, Tim Coates was brought in _only_ when librarians refused to respond (they in fact put up a brick wall) to as you term it ‘failings’ (but essentially people not happy with the library service). If the libraries don’t address those concerns in this day and age people will not have the patience (it is in fact a bigger society than it ever used to be in this respect, though I might add not for the efforts of the current Government!).

    Evidently, the libraries have screwed up badly on this one to date, they need to get things back on the rails as soon as possible – meeting peoples’ expectations. And those expectations _certainly_ do not include the libraries shutting people up!

    (Please as a courtesy, if you decide not to post the above, can you email a copy back to me before deletion 🙂

  3. A point also on the subject of privatisation – the free market is not in fact as free as it aspires, there are entry costs to get into the market (which would then leave some flexibility for a private company to provide a less than ideal service), and I note above that there are contractual terms running for 15 years – how can it be a flexible free market if the companies running them can’t be replaced just as easily as an employee in a US company can be (is an illusion of this being framed for people?). Business strategy and business economics can in fact be and often is geared towards achieving a monopoly of some sort. (The issue of free market v. public sector is actually a first year business studies subject – to my shame I can’t say I’ve studied it beyond a surface level yet myself.)

    As an aside from the subject of this thread. On the subject of the changing society context that the libraries have to respond to. We are very much living in a ‘big society’ nowadays, much more so than ever in the past. This though is not on account of the policies of the current Government, but on account of Information & Communication Technologies. These technologies creating what has become known as a ‘cognitive surplus’ (any surplus after your day-to-day job previously being largely ‘manual’ rather than cognitive). Leading to the creation of phenomena that includes, e.g., Wikipdia. In the past the public libraries have largely been after the public authorities themselves bureaucratic and authoritarian. In organisation theory terms this type of organisation is on one end of the scale, while at the opposite end is the country club type organisation. Should the libraries given the changing society context and expectations of a bigger society, perhaps not be veering towards the routines and practices of this latter type of organisation?

    Once again I find myself filling this blog up! I’ll shut up now.

  4. Can I cite another angle on this:

    Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success. When my young son burnt his finger on a match he learnt more about the dangers of fire than any amount of parental instruction could provide. All human cultures have developed forms that allow stories of failure to spread without attribution of blame. Avoidance of failure has greater evolutionary advantage than imitation of success. It follows that attempting to impose best practice systems is flying in the face of over a hundred thousand years of evolution that says it is a bad thing.

    There are as well plenty of quotations that suggest this wisdom has been with us for many centuries (having just googled quotes and failure). I must admit I like the ones as well that point out the relation between how you react to failure and character (again centuries old wisdom, and probably not Western in origin!).

    Talking of quotes, and I do acknowledge your point that the private sector seems to be circling like a vulture waiting for its next meal (but it ain’t quite dead yet unfortunately ;):

    “The ideal of the entrepreneurial, hyper-efficient private sector is as much a myth as the ideal public servant.”

    A fundamental principle of decision making is integrity, or ‘truth’, or to put it in more pragmatic terms, wiring your brain to reality. I acknowledge the vulture circling above, and the libraries do have to respond, I am just not convinced brushing the dust of the past under the carpet is the response that will save a library if a vulture should swoop down – a smart, alert, intelligent, professional library might.

  5. I’m at it again 😉 Apols but I haven’t got round to creating the that WordPress blog of my own yet. You’ve probably seen this via twitter, but for reference as it is relevant to the blog:

    Badvocates – that’s the opposite of an advocate. A badvocate may be a chronic complainer who has nothing good to say about the library, but more likely the badvocate is a community member who just had a bad library experience that’s going unresolved.

    The article then goes on to suggest a whole host of ways to approach the situation.

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