Outsourced BC public employees feel contracting out has hurt workplace morale and quality of customer service

October 30, 2007

(Vancouver) Outsourced BC Hydro and Medical Services Plan workers believe an erosion of customer service is occurring, as they are pressured to increase call volumes, often at the expense of quality service, a new study finds.

Workers also report a deterioration in the quality of their work life, including: lower morale, lack of training, a devaluing of employee knowledge, increased worker surveillance, a loss of institutional knowledge, fear of future job loss, and a limiting of employees’ ability to compete for other jobs within the civil service, according to the report released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

From Public Servants to Corporate Employees: The BC Government’s Alternative Service Delivery Plan in Practice takes a closer look at outsourcing.

“Alternative Service Delivery (ASD), which is a euphemism for the privatization of government services, is being brought in with promises of innovation, technological improvements, and intelligent reorganization, all of which are purportedly saving the government money,” says UBC professor and report co-author Penny Gurstein.

“Yet when we look at these privatization schemes in more detail, we learn that their main tools for ‘innovation’ are cost minimization, de-skilling staff, employee surveillance, increased hierarchical control, and a unilateral push by the employer to make people work harder – hardly what most would view as ‘innovative.’”

Through in-depth interviews with outsourced workers and managers, the report looks at how outsourcing has affected customer service and the economic security of former BC Hydro and MSP workers that have been outsourced to Accenture and Maximus, respectively. In both cases, work previously done by public sector employees is now administered by a multi-national, for-profit corporation.

“The restructuring that is occurring is largely invisible to the general public,” says Gurstein. “Nearly all of the workers interviewed had concerns about customer service. Workers reported that while the response time may be fairly quick, if information beyond ‘the basics’ is needed, customers frequently cannot get access to the people who can actually help them.”

A key finding is that outsourcing has resulted in a cultural shift for workers, as they move from being public service employees to working for multinational corporations: the “intrinsic satisfaction” that public employees used to get from public service delivery is being eroded.

“These findings should give the BC government pause to rethink the purported benefits of outsourcing,” concludes Gurstein. “These case studies reveal a large gap between the virtues attributed to ASD and the reality of what ASD looks like on the ground.”

From Public Servants to Corporate Employees: The BC Government’s Alternative Service Delivery Plan in Practice, by Penny Gurstein and Stuart Murray is available at www.policyalternatives.ca

The study was produced with the support of two grants from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada: the Economic Security Project, a joint research initiative of the CCPA and Simon Fraser University; and EMERGENCE Canada, an initiative on the New Economy project examining outsourcing of employment within Canada and between Canada, the United States, and Asia.


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