Tag Archives: outsourcing

Public Functions, Private Companies, and Freedom of Information

Should private companies and charities delivering public services be subject to FOI? (Image c/o danbrady on Flickr.)

The following article was sent in by Erin Ferguson, a qualified librarian and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde Law School. Erin tweets as @fergusonerin.

The recent privatisation of the Royal Mail and scandals involving companies like G4S and Serco have highlighted the ongoing concern over the transfer of public services to the private sector. Privatisation, in this instance defined to include both the sell-off of public assets and the contracting out of public services, has long been a controversial issue. Critics point out that privatisation often fails to meet its objectives, such as improving the quality or reducing the cost of public services. Additionally, there is concern that the delivery of public services is becoming less transparent as private companies are not responsible for responding to requests for information under the Freedom of Information or Freedom of Information (Scotland) Acts.  This post examines these concerns, as well as some of the recent proposals that have been put forward to extend FOI responsibilities.

Both the FOIA and FOISA confer on the public the general right to make requests for information from public bodies, which are listed in Schedule 1 of the Act. The list does not include private companies or charities that are now frequently responsible for the delivery of public serves, and both the Scottish and UK Information Commissioners have expressed concern over the potential for services to become less transparent and accountable. A recent survey by We Own It revealed that the public shares these views, with 88% of respondents indicating that they believe private companies delivering public services should be held to the same transparency requirements as the public sector. This concern is not only about the public’s ability to track the public pound. With 1 in 10 prisons no longer covered by the FOIA, there is concern that reduced transparency will make it difficult to scrutinise the performance of core functions of the state.

The continuing calls to protect transparency have spurred politicians into action. In 2012 Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan announced Labour’s pledge to extend the FOIA to private contractors if successful in the next election. Labour MP Graeme Morris introduced the Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies) Bill in October 2013. The Public Services (Ownership and User Involvement) Bill, sponsored by Green MP Caroline Lucas, had its first reading in Parliament in January 2014. Among the latter private members’ bill’s aims was to make the contracting process more transparent and to extend FOI responsibilities to private contractors. Earlier this month the House of Commons Committee on Public Accounts published a report, in which it was acknowledged that greater transparency in contracting is needed and recommended that extension of the FOI regime be considered.

Last week, Justice Minister Simon Hughes confirmed plans for upcoming consultations on the FOIA. He announced the intended publication of a revised Code of Practice aimed at introducing FOI requirements into the contracts of private companies performing public functions. However, the coalition government has stopped short of actually extended the FOIA to private companies, a move that has been criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. They argue that contractual disclosure provisions defeat the purpose of the FOIA, which was to provide a statutory right of access to information. Indeed, the plans seem reminiscent of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, which was introduced by the Conservative government in 1994 as an alternative to FOI and was subsequently criticised for lacking ‘teeth.’ Whilst the details of the revised Code are still unclear, it is clear that the consultation process will need to consider how to ensure that this is not another missed opportunity to preserve transparency.

Librarianship courses in 2013: falling student numbers and fewer courses available

Graduation ceremony at Aberystwyth. Will there be fewer librarians graduating in the coming years?
(Image c/o ijclark on Flickr.)

Libraries and universities are two services that have taken a battering during the Coalition years. Both have been haunted by the spectres of budget cuts, marketisation and outsourcing. While public libraries have often been unwilling victims in the Conservatives’ ravenous small-statist maw, the higher education sector has often been a ready and willing partner in the embrace of market structures in the provision of university education. Compare and contrast, for example, the fate of Lincolnshire Libraries and the recent repression of protest by the University of London.

In the library sector, public libraries aren’t the only game in town, with university libraries making up one of several different sectors employing information professionals. A necessary step for any budding librarian in the UK is to undertake a CILIP-accredited qualification, at undergraduate or postgraduate level, and/or CILIP Chartership. As a recent graduate of London Metropolitan University’s now-defunct MA Information Management, I was interested to see how many other UK universities have shut down their librarianship courses, and how that has intersected with policy introduced by the current government.

Aside from London Metropolitan University’s librarianship course, the University of Brighton has also frozen its information management courses, subject to a review of postgraduate teaching. These aren’t the only recent casualties though; a quick trawl of archived CILIP webpages in the Internet Archive revealed a drop from 17 to 13 in the number of UK Universities offering CILIP accredited courses (note: CILIP’s current qualifications page hasn’t been updated to include the withdrawal of the University of Brighton’s courses).

The other institutions to have withdrawn their librarianship courses since 2009 are the University of Central England, Edinburgh Napier University and Leeds Metropolitan University. In the meantime, two new UK course providers, Glyndŵr University and the University of Ulster, have been added to CILIP’s offer, along with one overseas provider, the Cologne University of Applied Sciences .

Even with the inclusion of Glyndŵr University and Ulster, the drop in CILIP accredited course providers in the UK still stands at 24% in just a little over three years. The start of the drop coincides almost exactly with the election of the coalition government in 2010.

The number of students undertaking information management courses is also on a downward course, with a 14% drop in numbers between 2007/2008 and 2011/2012 (source: HESA). There are no figures available for 2012/2013, but a drop from a high of 4560 students in the 2007/2008 academic year to 3920 in 2011/2012 represents a significant shrinkage of the student population studying on librarianship degree courses.

 

 

It seems that since then, librarianship courses have become less attractive to both students and to the university sector that provides them. From the available figures, applications for librarianship courses have recovered slightly from a 14% drop between 2009/2010 and 2010/2011, but on the whole student numbers for information management courses are decreasing at a greater rate than the current average for postgraduate (-3%) and undergraduate courses (+1%) in the UK.

The fall in student numbers can of course be partly attributed to a drop in the amount of equivalent course places, but it is unlikely that the withdrawal of three course providers would account for the 640 fewer students studying librarianship in 2011/2012 compared to four years previously.

Universities saw a £940 million pound cut to their government funding in 2011, compounding the impact of a £449 million pound cut under the previous Labour government. At the same time, post-Browne review undergraduate students began paying up to £9000 a year in tuition fees and postgraduates experienced an average 24% hike in prices.

In this context, it is easy to see how the pressure to concentrate on financially viable courses on the university’s side, and the pressure on students to apply for courses with a high level of post-degree employability and pay, has led to relatively niche courses like information management being dropped.

Put simply, universities are less keen to commit resources to running them, and students are apparently less likely to commit to an increasingly uncertain career in librarianship. Public libraries, a key sector of employment for new librarians, have been decimated by the coalition’s commitment to shrinking expenditure on local government, with another 70 public library closures and a 4.4% fall in library budgets recorded in 2013.

We’ve arrived, in the five post-recession years since 2008, at a situation where libraries across all sectors are threatened, where students are seemingly less keen on a career in librarianship, and where universities are less likely to facilitate that career through providing courses. By the next election in 2015, who knows which other aspects of the library sector will be plummeting off the graph?

Andrew Day

@doombrarian / http://doombrarian.wordpress.com/

Appendices

PG  and UG students on information management courses 2007-2012 (source).

PG and UG applications for information management courses 2009-2012 (source).

 

Number of UK course providers with CILIP accredited courses 2005-2013 (source).