On outsourcing and accountability

I drove down to South Devon last Friday evening and stayed overnight at the Paignton outpost of a well-known budget hotel chain. Arriving at around 8pm, I was pleased to find one solitary space left in the hotel car park. Sufficiently pleased, in fact, that I didn’t even bat an eyelid at the £5 overnight charge. What annoyed me, though, was that I had to scrabble around to find change for the ticket machine rather than just pay at reception.

I mentioned this to the lady at the front desk and she expressed surprise that I’d managed to find a space in the car park at all, as it was usually full up by that time of the evening. The management of the car park, she explained, had been outsourced to a specialist company, and was therefore nothing to do with the hotel.

This struck me as a little odd. It was the hotel car park. It was next to the hotel. It was for the exclusive use of hotel guests. And I had just paid a fiver (in very small change) to park there. It was, in my view, everything to do with the hotel. Just because the hotel had outsourced management of the car park to someone else, did not mean that it could abrogate itself of all responsibility for it.

This reminds me of a local authority I worked with in the dim and distant past. They had decided to outsource their refuse collection operations and had worked hard for some months to decide how the service should operate and who should be contracted to provide it. They’d thought, too, about what would happen if things should go wrong and had built into the contract a series of financial penalties for poor performance.

A couple of years later, the refuse collectors went on strike. For several days, their lorries sat idle and the bins went unemptied. The council and its contractor worked hard to resolve the dispute, but the situation caused outrage among the local population. How incompetent must the council be, went the refrain, if it can’t even collect the bins? Reassurances about contractual obligations and performance deductions fell on deaf ears.

The thing I learned from this saga is that you can delegate activity but you cannot delegate accountability. If you say that you will do something, whether it be calling someone back later, collecting the bins or building a new hospital, then you are responsible for making sure that it gets done. How you do that is up to you. You can do it yourself or get someone else to do it for you. But if it doesn’t work out, then the buck stops with you.

With organisations across the public and commercial sectors outsourcing more and more of their activities, this is something that is too easily overlooked. Sure, contracting out your car parking or your finance team or your out-of-hours GP service might save you a bit of money. But what if things go wrong and the service fails to deliver? What will you do then? What is your Plan B? Because regardless of what it says in the contract, it’s to you that people will look for answers.

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