The role of the public sector is changing. Activities that were once deemed to be a natural part of the function of the state, are now being carried out by the private sector. Whether in health, education, transport or security, large parts of the job of the delivery of services paid for by the state are being delivered by private companies.
This matters from a transparency perspective because when an activity is conducted by the public sector, it is subject to freedom of information provisions and it is at least possible to find out what is going on. But commercial confidentiality trumps transparency for both the private company and also from its state counterparty. In the UK even direct requests by Members of Parliament for the costs of government contracts, for example, are typically refused on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
How much does this matter? Take Serco, which employs more than 100,000 people worldwide. According to its website, they:
- have a forward order book that stands at £19.1bn
- operate traffic management systems covering more than 17,500kms of roads worldwide
- manage 192,000 square miles of airspace in five countries
- employ 5000 scientists
- manage education authorities on behalf of local governments
- provide defence support services worldwide
- transport more than 275,000 passengers everyday on our driverless trains on London’s Docklands Light Railway.