Public Service Cooperatives and Mutuals
By Lesley Anne Gundy
Talk of cooperatives and mutuals forming out of the public sector certainly is in vogue these days. With Central Government’s announcement this past August of the pathfinder programme, which encourages and links services wishing to spin out of the public sector to experienced mentors, it seems as though mutualisation and public sector spin outs have been moved to the top of public service delivery agendas around the country.
Building on the Innovation Unit’s Engagement Ethic, Alan Lockey and I were tasked during the course of our internships to carry out some research into the practicalities of spinning out and to generate learning around what services undertaking this process may face. From this research, we are looking to add something of value to the quickly growing knowledge base. We conducted our research in two phases: desk based research followed by interviews. We interviewed a variety of people including several organisations who have spun out of the public sector adopting a shared ownership model of governance. From these interviews, we gained unique and crucial insights that will really help us to pull together all of the knowledge, evidence and stories that exist into a succinct tool that will lay out the things that public servants wishing to transform their services into cooperatives and mutuals should look out for…or at least this is our goal.
As I sit at my desk and attempt to pull together all of the information in the last stage of our project, I’m able to already pull out some key headlines:
- First off, the ambition of developing some sort of linear flowchart or process chart is pretty futile. Each organisation that has gone through this journey will run into different roadblocks and will be aided by particular factors unique to its circumstances. We can only hope to find commonalities amongst organisations.
- Secondly, strong leadership really drives the transition. These public services will need someone who can clearly and patiently deliver the vision for spinning out, consider the business implications, win over stakeholders and help staff members to navigate through a process that could potentially be drawn out and arduous.
- Lastly, the culture shift will be massive. With all of the regulations surrounding pensions and benefits, commissioning and procurement and the like, public sector employees making the move to an independent business will experience a lot of change all at once at the learning curve will be steep. Not to say that many aren’t up for the challenge, but some may not fully realise what they are getting themselves into until the transition begins to take place.
Now that I have effectively scared people thinking about taking the plunge, I just want to end on a positive. Because of all of the hype surrounding public service cooperatives and mutuals, there really has been no better time to spin out. The government is offering its blessing and support, organisations are popping up that specialise in this sort of thing and the Innovation Unit is rapidly expanding its knowledge base. And for all of those services facing the reality of budget cuts, this could be their opportunity to take control, implement some of the ideas I’m sure they have as part of the front line of delivery and really make a positive difference for service users and their communities.