To Privatise or Nationalise: is that Really the Question we Should be Asking?

By Allan Watton on

Nationalisation versus Privatisation: Is it the question we should be asking?

Inspiration for this piece came from an article I happened across recently. It was a passionate plea from openDemocracy UK, published just prior to Jeremy Corbyn’s elevation to party leader, which extols the virtues of nationalisation over privatisation. While clearly leaning towards the narrative of the organisation that published it, this did make me wonder whether who ‘owns’ responsibility for service delivery is, on its own, really a clear enough driver for a project’s success?

Jeremy Corbyn has certainly shaken up the world of British politics. Until last month his brand of left-wing politics was considered by many to be a throwback to an age gone by, at odds with those in the party’s mainstream. But after his landslide victory on 12 September, questions absent for so long from the discussion table have come back onto the agenda. One such topic is the role of nationalisation in creating successful organisationsnationalisation versus privatisation. If you thought that question had been answered long ago, think again – because it’s back.

Not surprisingly Corbyn seems to be a fan of the former, and has been quoted in the media as supporting the reopening of coal mines and the nationalisation of energy companies. In another article he is quoted as saying that there was “overwhelming support” for the renationalisation of the rail network, suggesting that a third of rail franchises could return to public ownership over the next 10 years under his administration.

Champions on both sides of the political divide will no doubt have ample opportunity to debate the issue of which is ‘more right’ – privatisation or nationalisation. But for our purposes – the creation of more efficient and successful service delivery – I’m convinced that this question is a bit of a ‘red herring’.

No matter whether public services are run by public bodies or private entities there are far more important levers at work that should be focused on than who is in charge – those of measurement, management and outcome clarity.

Key considerations that lead to service delivery success

In nationalised public services, and to a certain extent in today’s organisations that turn to private sector outsourcing, what is often forgotten is the need for rock-solid accountability, clear managerial structure, and the transparent setting and measurement of business outcome led KPIs. So here are a few of the considerations any organisation should make when attempting to optimise their service delivery that transcend the question of public or private delivery mechanisms.

1. Know what you are looking to achieve and why (outcome clarity)

2. Know how to prove achievement of your goals (measurement)

3. Know who is responsible for getting you there (management)

1. Know what you are looking to achieve and why

The creation of a clear business case is the essential starting point of any project, however, all too many lack clarity or simply do not exist in concise written form. An appreciation of where you are now is just as important as a clear view of where you are looking to get to; they are two sides of the same business case coin. Know your starting point, analyse to form a definitive perspective of the difference between where you are and where you hope to take your service delivery – establish the value benefit that’s achievable, and this will be the beginnings of a business case for your project, the beginnings of the measures against which you can assess your progress – outcome-led KPIs.

Knowing ‘why’ you started down a path in the first place is essential, identifying this in your business case and keeping it ‘top of mind’ throughout is important. Establishing quantitive outcomes and milestones is the only way to know whether your project is on target and has eventually achieved its goals. Outcome clarity is vital from start to finish.

2. Know how to prove achievement of your goals

Measurement of progress and the identification of when milestones or KPIs are passed are essential to the success of your project. Were you looking to lower the costs of your service delivery, to improve the quality of service, or to inject greater innovation into it? Rough estimations and subjective opinion on these goals are not good enough. A clear quantity-orientated plan of action needs to be built into your delivery agreements, and progress must be regularly assessed to determine precisely where you have got to. Measurement of progress will assist in the reallocation of resources to maximise your chances of achieving planned outcomes, or surpassing them.

3. Know who is responsible for getting you there

The allocation of responsibilities and the appropriate resources that enable in-house or outsourced providers to achieve expressed outcomes is another vital step along the road to service delivery success.

If you wish to ensure that tasks are performed and standards are met you will need to know who is responsible for every aspect of the delivery process. This will enable you to give praise where praise is due, discipline where performance is lacking, and to allocate resources when and where they are needed.

Understanding the individuals, teams or organisations that are responsible for your project delivery will enable you to maximise opportunities for encouraging motivation and innovation, as well as adequately strategising for succession planning for when important individuals move on.


If Jeremy Corbyn ever did get into No.10 it looks like the renationalisation of public services would certainly be back on the agenda. But if that ever does happen, it’s important to appreciate that no matter whether your service delivery is ‘owned’ by the public or private sector, the key considerations we’ve highlighted in this article will definitely need to be addressed.


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