Say what you like about Capita, the company that Rod Aldridge founded – although someone will have said it before, and probably with more four-letter words – the firm is a byword for getting the private sector to work with the public sector.
“I don’t think it’s about politics,” he says, bullishly. “It’s about making organisations more efficient – and you and I as taxpayers are paying for it. It was polarising and some people didn’t like it. But it’s gone beyond that. The end user just wants the most efficient service.”
Do the people who are less keen – and their creation of the Private Eye-led “Crapita” label – ever bother him? “Doing a great job for your customer was what my job was about. If you ask me personally, sometimes, yes. But in the end it got quite hilarious.”
A potted history of Aldridge makes it clear that the man is less about ideology and more about unwavering pragmatism. He founded and led Capita to become Britain’s best-known outsourcing specialist, and he’s one of the UK’s biggest philanthropists through the Aldridge Foundation. He’s a lifelong Labour supporter (he stood down as the executive chair of Capita in 2006 after lending £1m to the party), who started to make his fortune at the height of Thatcherism. He’s a believer in the power of markets who now wants to help those who haven’t benefited from them.
The man is a walking contradiction – although this is exactly what has made him a pioneer in partnership working. Although no longer heading Capita, making the private and public sectors to work together is something he is still passionate about.
He says public sector outsourcing could be worth £1bn but that only 14% of this back office market has been tapped. New approaches are needed to move it on.
“At the beginning, partnerships were quite hostile, and I think that’s got to be more defined to see how we can work together. I think it’s going to go further and move towards more joint ventures that both the public and private sectors have stakes in, like [Capita and Birmingham Council joint-owned IT programme] Service Birmingham.”
After stepping down as executive chair, Aldridge set up his eponymous foundation which delivers projects to tackle educational underachievement and social exclusion of young people. He approaches the voluntary sector with the same unequivocal approach that led his business career. “I was a business entrepreneur now I’m a social entrepreneur. That means I can set the criteria. I always want match funding. I always want to be involved in what I do. We can be more challenging, more unreasonable.”
Partnerships of varying hues remain the focus of what Aldridge now does, including funding a Centre for Public Service Partnerships at Birmingham University. The foundation also ran a user voice session on the criminal justice system, and Aldridge is now considering funding or setting up ex-offender programmes.
He is also the sponsor of city academies in Blackburn and his home town of Brighton, with the former specialising in entrepreneurism. “When I was in Capita, it was more contractual. In the city academy programme you’ve got to be innovative and creative. But the common ground is you’ve got to understand how government works and your responsibilities.”
He is at great pains to say how much he always intended to do what he does now, and he does seem to relish the challenge. But there’s still a feeling that he perhaps misses the cut and thrust of business. Admittedly he is still a major shareholder in Capita, and without fail he refers to it as “ours” “us” “my industry”. In comparison to the battles fought to get the private sector into public services, fighting a planning permission battle in Blackburn doesn’t cut it.
But if anyone thinks that the scale of challenges he is willing to tackle has diminished, they would be forgetting what changes he has brought about before and could do again.
“In the third sector, there are too many organisations. They’re not as innovative as I thought they would be. If they are really going to be involved in public services then their delivery capabilities have got to be enhanced, they need to learn to procure, and do more joined-up working across the sector. I can see a situation where the front end could be the third sector, and the back office could be run by a partner.
“These relationships haven’t happened yet but I could see it happening in the future.”