The age of public services
Not too long ago, essential facilities in the European countries were developed and exploited by our governments. These facilities were public and the people delivering the services were civil servants at that time.
In the Netherlands we had public post offices and mail services, a public telecommunication and broadcasting organization, public transport, electricity, drinking water, prisons, publishers, banks and libraries. The general idea was that only governmental organizations could provide the appropriate guarantees for quality, trustworthiness, availability and security when services were of crucial importance for everybody (like pure water or reachability of cities and villages), when they implemented a reserved governmental task (like imprisonment) or when they touched essential human rights (like the confidentiality of mail).
The age of privatization
From the 1970’s very many public organizations were “privatized”, bringing four important changes:
- Instead of ‘doing the job’, the government now had to specify the requirements for the private companies that would deliver the service from now on. For example the frequency of mail-delivery, the availability of electrical power, the timeliness of trains. Supervising organizations had to be created to check if the companies fulfilled these requirements: Opta for telecommunications and mail, Dta for electrical power and so on.
- Services, combined into one organization because of their interdependence, were split in order to distribute responsibilities. For example the deliverance of electrical power was separated from the transport of electricity;
- The people delivering the services now became normal employees not having the special status of civil servant anymore. They now were employed by a commercial company like all others. No more specific responsibilities, no more specific rights. Because of this there is little difference today between a newspaper boy and the ‘postman’ in a private company;
- Instead of one public organization being responsible for the delivery of services in a specific region, today there are many organizations delivering the same service. Nowadays, finding out who is responsible is a difficult task especially when two or more companies are involved (as, for example, is the case when travelling from A to B using different transportation companies).
In my opinion the benefits of this privatization are still very much overestimated because many losses stay invisible because they appear in other parts of society.
Today we are in the situation that our governments don’t take responsibility anymore for delivering essential facilities to their civilians. “Lean government”, “market driven”, “control from a distance” are the words used for this approach. The drawbacks of this approach became strikingly apparent in the banking crises. We learned from it that there are institutions and services which are simply too important to delegate to commercial companies. The impact of failure is a too big disturbance of our society because these services are essential parts of our financial, social, economical etc. system.
So, looking behind, we may conclude that privatizing all energy supply, all public transport, all telecommunications and mail, all financial transactions etc. etc. perhaps has not been a very good idea. But looking at today’s society we must conclude that modern essential services are also owned by commercial companies and hardly regulated. And this is logical, looking at the 1980’s “the market solves everything” theorem but also very frightening because the shortcomings in this approach become more and more known by the vast damages created.
Apart from reconsideration of the privatizing already done, I find it evidentially necessary to evaluate the role of essential “IT services” in our society. Do you have any idea what would happen if Google spontaneously decided to have a “Google off” day, a day during which their search engine wouldn’t work? What would be the impact of that on society? Or, even stronger, when Oracle decided to distribute a Java version that would not connect to the intended IP-address but to a different one? Or a version that would lock out specific IP-addresses? Any idea how many telephones, traffic lights, TV sets, routers etc. would be affected? Or what would happen when Microsoft distributed a patch for MS Office that would automatically publish a summary of all Word content on a website?
Modern infrastructural services are delivered by companies that have not been “split up” like the electrical power services. They are hardly governed by effective and up-to-date lawgiving and are not inspected by democratically controlled supervising institutions. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon are of crucial importance for many businesses and private lives and are becoming even more important. These companies possess an enormous amount of information about their users (and even information about people that are not their users, but are only connected to them as friend, relative, mail contact or on a photograph). In my view these companies and their services are at least as essential to the society as are electrical power, clear drinking water and proper transportation. But these companies are not controlled by our democratically choosen governments. So I can only hope that our modest lawgiving and the 1980’s “market mechanism” will be enough to safeguard trustworthyness, reliability, security and continuïty.
Governmental search engine
This is why I want our government to provide a search engine, an engine of which I can be sure of that it shows all relevant information, without prioritization and filtering, and because I than know for which purposes my “traffic information” will be used, open, transparently and under democratic control. Our government is democratically chosen and transparently monitored, a commercial company is not.
And, when we have got the “governmental search engine”, I also want a democratically controlled Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter, a national broadband network, and a provider for mobile telecommunication. This way it will be publically known what happens with all the connection and location information and every essential “system functionallity” will be under strict democratic supervision and control.
By ing Bob Schat
Principal Solution Architect