contract and pen

After Atos … who?

By Fiona Sheil 27 March 2014

Despite increasingly stiff competition, Atos are this week’s winners of the infamy in outsourcing prize. Today’s news is that they have been booted off the Work Capability Assessment (WCA)—or  ‘fitness to work’ test—contract by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

Mike Pelling, Minister for Disabilities, has stated his intention that, in time, delivery will be split between several providers. This, he argues, will create competition. It will also reduce the toxicity of DWP’s association with just one provider.

But who will DWP turn to instead? There are already serious problems among other major outsourcers—manslaughter charges, fraud, failure to deliver. If DWP are to make the WCA less of a political battlefield, they will need to involve charities in the next stage of provision. But will charities want to go anywhere near the WCA? And if they do, can they manage a better job than Atos?

That depends on whether DWP can address their own failings in the current WCA contract. As commentators have noted, the problems are with ‘the organ grinder, not the monkey’. It’s the contract itself that determines how providers behave. The WCA contract only paid for fast, superficial assessments and demanded that people were found able to work—so that’s what Atos did. Any other provider would have set out to do the same or they wouldn’t have won the contract. Providers work within the parameters of their contract—so if this makes unrealistic demands, you’re going to struggle to do a good job—regardless of which sector you’re in. And if charities aren’t given scope to do a better job than t the lamentable Atos, why would they bid?

It seems DWP were looking for the wrong things from this contract right from the beginning. When questioned by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) on why Atos was selected, DWP Permanent Secretary Robert Devereux said the decision was based  ‘on the bids in front of us’. Which begs the question: what had DWP asked to see in the bids? For Atos—a company later found to be dishonest and incompetent—to come out top suggests a selection process unable to identify over-claiming and criteria that didn’t value quality.

As well as questioning under what rationale an IT contractor was able to argue itself best suited to assessing disability and vulnerability, we have to wonder whether DWP considered the implication of pursuing a policy that charities weren’t comfortable to bid into. Because, even though the WCA requires specialisms in assessment and disability which the charity sector excels in, the policy of mandating people to work and removing their benefits made charity sector involvement impossible. Unlike the private sector, charities are not agnostic about policy. At the moment, it seems the only reason that charities would consider  delivering WCA would be to try to reduce the damage for people on the receiving end—an approach adopted by Barnardo’s when working in the ‘pre-departure centre’ for failed asylum seekers run by G4S.

To replace Atos with anything better, DWP need to go back to the drawing board. They need to reconsider their selection criteria, pricing plans, contract objectives, as well as the scale and accountability of the contracts.

If they don’t, they’ll just end up buying Atos 2.0 from the same old suspects. Politically, that’s very unwise. And in terms of quality? Disastrous.