UK government forges ahead with £3.5bn contact center and outsourcing framework

Will this be a successful public outsourcing project by the UK Government - or an expensive calamity?
7 September 2021

An electronic billboard asking members of the public to follow the UK Government’s guidelines to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Newcastle city centre. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP)

A couple of weeks ago, the commercial entity of the UK government officially identified the service providers who will be the architects of a £3.5 billion (US$4.8 billion) framework with the aim to supply public sector contact centers, along with the enterprise and infrastructure software to support them.

A list of serial shared services giants who frequently support UK public sector initiatives, featuring Capita, G4S, Serco, and Accenture in particular, will line up on the framework that is designed to offer “outsourced contact center services, shared services and operational business process services,” according to a tender document from the Crown Commercial Service.

In a wide-ranging arrangement for the UK public sector, the framework is set to be used by the central government as well as wider civil services comprising local authorities, the National Health Service (NHS), non-departmental government bodies, and police. Third-sector public organizations such as charities will also be able to utilize the shared services.

Under the terms of the framework, the deal is divided into two sizable chunks, namely one Lot to establish public sector contact centers that will be worth up to £1.5bn (around US$2 billion), and another for business services that will be worth up to £2bn (approximately US$2.75 billion).

While the services are being contracted out to the usual UK government outsourcing suspects, this procurement actually had its roots in pre-Brexit Britain. A prior information notice dated October 2019, when the UK was still formally part of the EU, had indicated how budgeting on the public works framework might need as much as £5 billion (US$6.9 billion) and that a contract notice would be available by August 2020.

This did not in fact materialize at the time, as the UK dealt first with the fallout from Brexit that was followed swiftly by effects of the global pandemic, and the actual contracting notice only surfaced in April 2021, where the estimated total value was now worth £3.5 billion, £1.5 billion than originally laid out in the information notice.

Public sector outsourcing has had a tumultuous history with the UK government – and so have all four of the contractors listed on the tender paperwork. International business process outsourcing (BPO) outfit Capita’s back-office services once failed to deliver over 47,000 cervical cancer screening letters, and waited two months before informing the NHS.

Serco meanwhile was part of the group of outsourcers who helped build the NHS Test and Trace system for the government’s COVID-19 response, but as of June had still failed to adequately share contact-tracing data with local authorities in efforts to suppress renewed outbreaks.

Private security contractor G4S also teamed with Serco to introduce an electronic tagging system for prison inmates, which was supposed to cut prisoner-tagging costs by between £9m and £30m a year but ended up costing taxpayers millions instead. Meanwhile, Accenture gave up two failing NHS contracts after making heavy losses that year.