May 2018
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A crisis in local government outsourcing?

News of the latest outsourcing giant to hit choppy waters is worrying for anyone with responsibility for their council’s contracts.

Following the collapse of Carillion in January and the losses reported by Capita last week, the announcement of a massive drop in Interserve’s share price comes like the arrival of the proverbial third bus.

And although each company is different they have certain similarities which raise important questions about the balance between the public and private spheres.

All three are – or were, in the case of Carillion – companies spanning the continents and offering services in a dazzling array of sectors.

Capita is very much a child of local government – started back in the 1980s when senior CIPFA staff saw an opportunity to set up on their own and provide outsourced services to councils – but quickly grew into a multinational business operating in Europe, Africa and Asia, with about half its business in the public sector and the other half in the private sector.

Most of Carillion’s business was in the United Kingdom, but it also operated in several other regions including Canada, the Middle East and the Caribbean.

Interserve, the latest to run into problems with mounting debts and falling share prices, operates in more than 40 countries, providing services to a wide range of industries including oil and gas, civil engineering and construction and providing facilities management at UK embassies throughout Europe.

Business logic might suggest the wide range of skills and experience offered by this kind of international, inter-sectoral organisation can be a big plus. Local government and other parts of the public sector – the NHS, for example – can benefit from the entrepreneurialism and know-how of senior personnel in business. Oil and gas industry executives no doubt have much to offer town hall managers.

But such size and diversity can also be a weakness. Like the Roman Empire, when an organisation becomes too big and geographically spread, it can become difficult for its different wings to co-ordinate and follow the same overall objectives, potentially leading to confusion, duplication and waste.

Nevertheless, giant outsourcing companies have become part of the local government landscape and many councils depend on them. Further crises would be bad news for all concerned, not least the employees whose jobs may be threatened.

Unlike Carillion, Capita and Interserve have time to turn their businesses around and look forward to better times. Capita points out that its reported losses were caused by a write-down of goodwill and that its underlying profits actually amounted to £400m.

But taken together the recent spate of crisis stories suggests a picture of local authorities and other parts of the public sector beholden to huge multinationals at the mercy of uncontrollable market forces.

It seems to suggest that for all their advantages, massive multi-national conglomerates operating across a wide variety of sectors may not be the ideal partners for the more focused and stability-minded world of local government.

Now that the three buses have passed it may be some time before another one comes along.

Certainly that is what is to be hoped, if confidence in big private-sector outsourcing partners is not to be shattered altogether.

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New findings challenge the idea that women are more attracted to dominant men during the fertile phase of their ovulatory cycle

Women’s sexual interest in men increased at the more fertile phase of their ovulatory cycle, especially if they were already in a relationship, but there was no evidence for an increased interest specifically in dominant men

By Alex Fradera

In 1914, the psychologist Leta Hollingworth’s experiments punctured holes in the prevailing idea that menstruating affects women’s intellect. But a century on, the ovulation cycle continues to interest psychologists, who today focus on how it affects sexual behaviour. A popular evolutionary psychology theory states that during fertile periods, women become more interested in men who use dominant masculine behaviour, as this signals they are likely to provide good genes for any offspring. A University of Goettingen team have now conducted the largest ever test of this idea, published as a pre-print at PsyArxiv.

The “good genes ovulatory shift hypothesis” or GGOSH suggests that during fertile phases of the menstrual cycle women should be especially attracted to potential mates who are likely to provide good genes to their offspring. The hypothesis further states that such genes are signalled through men’s sexual assertiveness and confidence, via behaviours like flirting, smiling and directly gazing at women.

The evidence for GGOSH is sketchy. There are two relevant meta-analyses, both published in 2014 – one in Psychological Bulletin, the other in Emotion Review – but only the first supported the hypothesis.

Enter the new study, led by Julia Jünger. Employing a stronger design than past research, her team tested the same subjects repeatedly (at different times in their cycle) rather than relying on different participants. They also used larger sample sizes and collected hormone data via saliva samples to validate the self-reports of where the women were on their cycle. The study was also pre-registered and the data made available for other researchers to review.

The 157 participants, heterosexual women aged 18-35, took part twice, in the fertile and the luteal (non-fertile) phases of their menstrual cycle. On each occasion, the women saw a series of 30-second video clips of single men in real interactions with an attractive woman they’d just met (however the woman was not visible in the clips). The men’s behaviour varied in the amount they smiled, the time they spent gazing at the woman’s face, how much they spoke during the clip, and other flirtatious actions.

During the more fertile period of their cycle, the women found the men more sexually attractive – on average, they were more interested in pursuing a potentially short-term and purely sexual relationship with them (a pattern that was mediated by the levels of the hormone estriadol in their saliva: more estriadol correlated with more attraction), and they were more interested in long-term relationships with them too.

This fertility-attraction link confirms a well-established finding, but the GGOSH makes a much more specific prediction – that women will find dominant, flirtatious behaviours in particular more attractive during fertility, and here the data suggested otherwise. Eye contact, confident body language, smiles – none of these mattered more during greater fertility, against the predictions of the hypothesis.

The GGOSH also predicts that good-gene markers will be particularly valued by fertile-phase women who are already in a relationship (the idea is that they already have a safe nest in which to raise a kid, so will not be too fussed that dominant mates with good genes may be less reliable). In fact, the dominant “good genes” behaviours weren’t any more attractive to partnered women during their fertile phase. This is two firm strikes against the hypothesis. 

However, the women’s relationship status did make a difference to their overall levels of attraction in the men – when the researchers conducted their analyses separately for partnered and single women, they found that it was only partnered women whose overall sexual interest in the men increased during the fertile phase of their cycle, perhaps, the researchers suggested, because having a partner they can rely on to raise a family increases women’s interest in sex (though it would be easy to have come up with an ad-hoc evolutionary explanation for the complete opposite result, so I would suggest waiting for this finding to be replicated before drawing conclusions).

Returning to the GGSOH, while this research reaffirmed that the ovulatory cycle affects women’s interest in sex, thanks to shifts in hormones, it does not support the hypothesis that it swivels their minds towards a different object of desire. So if any aspiring pick-up gurus were hoping to build a creepy philosophy around switching up your style at points in the cycle, they will be disappointed. And women shouldn’t be concerned that during times when their body is amping up sexual desire it is also dictating who that desire should be projected towards. 

No evidence for ovulatory cycle shifts in women’s preferences for men’s behaviors in a pre-registered study [this study is a pre-print meaning that it has not yet been subject to peer review]

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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