Heroes and villains?

It’s neither fair or helpful – indeed, counterproductive – to condemn private sector organisations as sinners. This is Tom’s April 2015 blog on the Common Good for the CoVi web site:


Falling victim to judging players by what they are, rather than what they do, is all too common in today’s society. Recognising that it is possible to approve of organisational behaviour in relation to one particular piece of activity – without necessarily endorsing the whole organisation and everything it does – is vital if society is to march to a common purpose.

If we agree that the world would be a better place if the resources of business were better deployed to support the common good then we must eschew the luxury of classifying businesses into ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’. And we should agree about those business resources: after all, only 40 of the world’s 100 biggest economies are countries (the rest are corporates). Whatever nations choose to do collectively about climate change, hunger, poverty and resource depletion, it will not succeed if corporate resources do not support the common good of people and planet.

Undoubtedly capitalism has contributed to the existential dangers posed by these four issues: but it’s the only way forward.

A case in point: hearing the word ‘Nestlé’ reminds many people of irresponsible marketing of baby milk substitute in Africa, a controversy from the 1960s and ‘70s. However, since a World Health Organisation edict in 1981 violations have been few and Nestlé has performed better than others in the market. Yet public opinion paints them a pariah. Today, Oxfam declares the Swiss multinational the world’s most sustainable food company, Greenpeace celebrates their response to a palm oil problem and their espousal of ‘shared value’ in business, regularly championed at the World Economic Forum, pre-dates even Michael Porter’s encapsulation of the idea.

Government outsourcing, of course, is always gobbled up by ruthless predators threatening the very future of public services. Of course, this is not the case.

Serco has certainly experienced problems, including the unacceptable administration of ankle tags, which may yet prove to have grown out of poor commissioning practices. But it has 600 business units, mostly uncontroversial, and some – such as their partnership with four charities to run half of the first generation of the National Citizenship Service – are revolutionary. Within the Work Programme, Serco’s partners speak more highly of them than of other prime contractors; many employees have a public service background and are good people to work with.

Most people think that NHS outsourcing is rampant. In fact, even after five years of the Coalition, it’s only around 8 per cent. But this is where a company’s values are more important than its sector identity: a private company delivering elderly care should have a record of good care, not just – and certainly not only – a record of generating profits. Circle found itself with the right values and a great record, but the Hinchingbrooke experiment failed because the NHS sent along a different profile of patients from that which it was contracted to serve, another commissioning problem. When guided by common good principles, if it delivers better care at an acceptable price, then it should not be ruled out.

Google, Barclays and Starbucks are amongst the most generous sponsors of community initiatives in the UK – however this does not mean we cannot take issue with their tax behaviour. Paying tax is surely a hallmark of both corporate citizenship and common good.

Responsible business knows that caring for customers, staff, supply chain and environment makes business sense. There are few saints in the corporate world but few destined for certain hell, either. Businesses have their good points with room for improvement elsewhere. Criticise bad practice, of course: but we recruit businesses to the common good by encouraging good behaviour; not by condemning whole companies, let alone the whole private sector, for being irreconcilable sinners – because they’re not.