John Lewis vs Easyjet
By John Craig
As the Guardian notes today, two rival private sector brands are now doing battle in debate about public sector reform. On the one hand, both the Tories and Labour have suggested a shift to a John Lewis approach, in which local services are owned and run by those who deliver and receive them. On the other, Conservative-led Barnet Council has suggested that their approach to reform is akin to Easyjet’s, providing a bare minimum of services are for free and others at a fee.
The Innovation Unit has been helping the Cabinet Office to think through what a ‘co-operative’ approach to public services might look like in practice. Update: you can now read our Engagement Ethic on the future of mutualism in public services here.
We think there could be a lot to be gained from mutualising parts of our public services, such as child care, schools and community health services – unleashing the power of both individual creativity and collective endeavour. There is evidence that standards of services are not compromised but that staff commitment, and community engagement is higher. There is also an improvement in efficiency and staff accountability. The fact that mutuals can go bust focuses the mind of those who own them. However, questions remain: When you are a health provider with a turnover of tens of millions of pounds, how social a social enterprise can you really be? And if you are working within huge service systems like health and education, how enterprising could a social enterprise really be?
As a result, there are two things to remember in this debate. First, it is easier to focus on organisational forms than the context in which they operate, but not smarter. In today’s school system, for example, whether a school had Easyjet or John Lewis over the door, it would still struggle to act radically differently. Systems of inspection, funding and performance management may be harder to write headlines about, but they remain core to the task of improving services.
Second, there is a bias in debates about public service reform towards talking about structures and process over practice. No matter the institutional furniture, our basic capacity to support innovative work and help it develop is too weak. The point is not simply to re-structure activity as it is, but empower people to change it.
However, that may just prove to be what is exciting about this shift in the debate – a greater focus on the staff and citizens who would lead the new co-operatives of the public sector. The radical efficiency we need will only come from unlocking their ability to design and deliver better public services. And if we can shift the focus from citizens as passive consumers to potentially creative producers, that would be a great start.