Mutual back slapping

I went to a revivalist meeting recently. You know, one of those events where a preacher gets the audience going, members of the audience get up to speak – with growing passion – about how their lives have been transformed, and then another, higher preacher, comes to the podium to thank the Lord for all of this and tell us that if we repent, we too can reach the Promised Land.

This event, however, was not a religious event but the launch of a report from the grandly-named ‘Mutuals task force’, a government-created body which is all about trying to encourage spin-outs, in the shape of mutuals, from the public sector.

The high preacher was cabinet minister Frances Maude, the warm-up act Professor Julian Le Grand of the London School of Economics – and chair of the task force – and the audience members some very inspiring folk who had already been involved in spin-outs, from places such as Central Surrey Health and Anglia Community Enterprises.

The stories were impressive. The old bureaucratic, top-down meddling had been ditched at a stroke. Staff were now liberated to do what actually worked instead of what some higher body decreed.

Employees felt real ownership of the spin-out they were now running, and so gave more to it. And those receiving the service were getting a much better service at a much cheaper price. This, said the high preacher, was the beginning of the end of the monolithic, state-run version of public services.

Hallelujah – although he didn’t actually say that!

This is a cause that many sort of agree with, at least, in principle – and they began to happen in the health service under the last government. Staff running their own service has always been attractive, and the co-operative movement has always argued for versions of mutuals, both employee and user-owned forms of governance.

In certain cases, some spin-offs will undoubtedly bring a new wind of change that will help everyone. Jobs-worth middle management swept away is an attractive offer, and councils or primary care trusts stopping interfering and instead, allowing the outcomes to be the focus is also to the good.

But just as one always wonders whether people are getting carried away in the fervour of a revivalist meeting where doubts are not allowed, we must surely be realistic about what is going on here. Some of the push forwards is being done for good, mutuals-related reasons, trying to create new ways of serving the public well. But, at least some of it is being done for the simple reason that money is now very tight.

Far from a ‘desired’ approach, it is a necessary consequence of councils and other public bodies no longer being able to afford to provide in-house. Furthermore, some of this is surely being done for ideological reasons – to break up the state – with the effects on the users or employees coming a strict second.

So, what do mutual spin-offs mean for the new owners of the mutual? And for services?

In truth, we don’t really know yet, as the good Prof Le Grand would surely admit outside the pulpit. Is it a way of genuinely producing more innovation and better services, or simply of reducing security and terms and conditions for workers?

If the spin–off is made with a contract from the council, or another commissioner, to get it going, what happens when that contract is up for renewal?

Can they hold on or will some other player come in – perhaps a private operator which takes advantage of the break-up of the in-house provision that the mutual spin-off contributed to? How many of these mutuals have business plans which depend on getting new work from other commissioners in other areas – and in aggregate does that stack up?

The Government has clearly had some problems getting all this going. It is progress of a sort that we now have 58 of these spin-outs, according to the task force report but, given the political will and effort put into making things happen, this is perhaps not much.

In addition, the main big mutual spin-off, the pension body for civil servants that has now been turned into MyCSP Ltd, appears to have been more or less forced on the staff.

As we move ahead in these new times of severely-constrained resources, we are bound to end up with a mixed set of providers in the public service arena.

But, just as at NPC we insist on the charity sector constantly proving its worth rather than just asserting it, it would be a great mistake to push one sort of organisation of public service delivery at the expense of another for anything other than good reasons.

Revivalist passion has its place but not much of one in public service delivery.

This blog was first published in The MJ on 3 July, and is reproduced here with permission.