To take part is to win;Opinion

26th March 1999 at 00:00
With proper regulation, competition can bring better public services, Neil McIntosh writes

A FEW weeks back CfBT, the nonprofit-making company which I run, failed in its bid to win the contract for the management of Kings' Manor School in Guildford. If the truth be told we, or perhaps I should say I, failed pretty comprehensively.

Almost unanimously the parents who attended the public meeting at the school expressed their preference for what turned out to be the winning bid. As is often the case, CfBT had spent a substantial amount of time and money in planning and considering our bid, on the face of it to no avail.

Our experience with regard to Kings' Manor would surely have strengthened the view, particularly commonly expressed in education, that competition is wasteful and unpleasant, creating more losers than winners with the costs for both being excessive.

The argument against competition does not end there. Schools, careers services, colleges, all the institutions which have been required to compete for their contracts or their students, become, it is said, secretive and unco-operative in their attitude to the development and dissemination of best practice. Regrettably there is sometimes truth in this accusation.

Yet despite these arguments I am increasingly convinced of the virtues of competition. First, because CfBT learns so much almost every time it competes, win or lose. Bidding for work necessitates a thorough examination of what we do and why we do it.

Before we even consider making a bid for a new service my trustees require convincing that we have some added value to offer. Some years back we bid in four consecutive rounds to manage careers services. By the end we had refined and developed our thinking substantially.

I recall a councillor and chief education officer in one local education authority whose careers service was about to be handed over to CfBT asking what it was that I thought CfBT could offer that the LEA could not. I had no doubt that in that case (though not in all others) the answer was partly an in-depth knowledge of their service which we had analysed in considerably greater detail than they had ever found necessary.

Rarely is it the case that a bid is for a contract so unique that the experience gained cannot be used for future tenders. Thus in the case of Kings' Manor, the intellectual demands of the competition made the process worthwhile for its own sake even though we expressed publicly our doubts about the contract and were unwilling to comply fully with the LEA's proposals.

There is no denying that every organisation will have material it considers commercially sensitive. But my strong impression is that the suppliers of services who are most defensive about sharing information are those least experienced in the competitive arena or, in the case of schools, those which are less confident about their performance.

The best suppliers are happy to be open about what they are doing, confident in the knowledge that what they learn from such dialogues will enable them to keep a competitive advantage. For example, almost all primary schools start with a competitive advantage within their own neighbourhood. All other things being reasonably equal parents will choose the nearest or most convenient school.

The alternative to competition - partnership - is not without its own drawbacks. The Government's approach, which comes under this label, is in many ways unexceptional. Clearly, no one can doubt the importance of working together in many situations.

But after more than 20 years' work in charitable organisations I am well aware that the absence of overt competition often means that the conflicts of interest which continue to exist do so unacknowledged and pursuit of sectional interests takes place by covert means. It can also mean that responsibility for outcomes is widely shared which, all too often, means that it is diffused and dissipated.

At the level of individual pupils, an admittedly somewhat extreme example illustrates the dangers of trying to banish competition. Every year the inner London primary school which my children attended had a non-competitive sports day. It was frankly chaotic. The children didn't enjoy it, the parents were understandably confused. And, worst of all, the lack of structure was dreadful for the teachers.

No doubt it would be possible to arrange such an event efficiently but it would be extremely difficult and would deny, just as some of the rhetoric of partnership denies, the inevitability of self interest as a motivating force. Such self-interest needs to be regulated but that is very difficult to do if we pretend that self-interest and conflicts of interest do not exist.

All too often the debate about the strengths of public and private sector provision misses the point. Asked, for example, what support services to schools CfBT can provide that are better than those provided by LEAs, I make no outlandish claims.

What I do say is that the schools which fail to examine what is on offer, or are effectively prevented from doing so, will never be able to assess whether they could have got a better service. In doing so, they risk being subject to the almost inevitable slackness which comes as a result of monopoly provision over a long period.

Analysis, 22

Document of the week, 23

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