Much of the immediate reaction to the Government’s publication of its Open Public Services White Paper concerns issues surrounding assets, definitions of mutuals and most importantly, support for them, and financing.
Dom Potter from the Transition Institute says, “Noticeable by it’s absence is any provision in the paper to establish a mechanism for ensuring that publicly-owned assets such as council buildings or parks will remain in some form of public, common or shared ownership by communities.
“This will be taken by some as evidence of wholesale privatisation looming around the corner. But in my view the political discourse that will swirl around the issue of asset locks shouldn’t obscure the need to utilise these assets for the wider, long-term public good.
“There is also an issue that isn’t addressed in the paper around how public assets could potentially be used to leverage external investment into public services.
“As long as the assets are secured for public/shared ownership, I would be interested to see what mechanisms might emerge from the Big Society Bank and out of central and local government to enable assets to be sweated in order to raise the initial cash to get emerging mutuals up and running with a sustainable business model.
On mutuals definitions, he says:
“Thankfully for those of us who are keen that each individual spin-out is set up with the legal and governance structures appropriate to it’s unique local context, the one-member-one-vote implication of calling them mutuals is not quite as literal is it could have been.
“There is a clear indication that a variety of ownership models – ‘wholly employee-led, multi-stakeholder and mutual joint venture models’ – are mentioned, although further clarification is needed as to exactly what is meant by these terms.
On finance and support:
“There is mention of an ‘Enterprise Incubator Unit’ set up within the Cabinet Office to ‘provide advice, challenge and resources for public service providers from central government departments and their agencies who want to move from the public sector to the independent sector’. This sounds interesting, but I am wary of the idea of government advising itself on how to set up independently of itself. In my view, the Unit at least needs to be staffed by individuals who have experience of the transition to independent delivery or by individuals with experience of running independent organisations (or, ideally, both) in order to have the desired impact.”
“The Mutual Support Programme is due to come on stream in autumn 2011 according to the White Paper. This means that there will be support available for entrepreneurial public sector staff more quickly than had been anticipated, given how quiet the Cabinet Office had become around getting the MSP up and running since it was first mentioned last year.”
“Recognised within the paper is the need to look for innovative ways of routing external finance into public services. The Big Society Bank will be a key part of this, and this may be a fruitful way of expanding, for example, the pool of social impact bonds beyond the one pilot in Peterborough prison.
CBI Director General John Cridland says:
“The Work Programme shows how companies of all sizes are successfully working in partnership with social enterprises, community groups and charities. While it is right to recognise the benefits mutuals and smaller providers can offer, the principle of any willing provider also means that larger firms should be able to bring their expertise to bear, and when they achieve better outcomes they should be able to make a reasonable profit. We think the Government could have made this much clearer in the White Paper.”
However, Peter Holbrook, Chief Executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition, takes a different view:
“We are concerned that the proposed reforms will create an unequal playing field in which social enterprises are unable to compete with large private sector providers for public sector contracts. Social enterprises often do not have the capital or scale required to compete with big private businesses in open markets.
“These reforms must protect our public services, not put them at risk. Without the necessary safeguards, the consequence of these proposals will be that private providers will dominate public sector markets. Taxpayers’ money will flow into profit seeking organisations that exist only to satisfy the needs of their shareholders. Public services must operate for the communities and people they serve, nobody else.
“The Government’s plans to extend Payment by results across a number of other public services will put private sector organisations at an automatic advantage. The reality is that without decisive action to use public spending to improve social outcomes, the big organisations will simply use their stronger balance sheets and ability to attract private investment to win contracts.
“We only have to look to the Department for Work and Pensions Work Programme to see that when markets open up, large private sector providers move in and squeeze out smaller organisations. A very small proportion of the contracts went to social enterprises, despite it being hailed by Government as a boost for the Big Society.”
Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, says:
“The government’s public services reform white paper presents an important opportunity for co-operatives and mutuals to bid for and deliver public services. As trusted organisations that are able to unleash the talents and energies of their employees and users, co-operatives can provide good quality public services.
“Longstanding examples of thriving and successful co-operatives running services like foster care, leisure centres and affordable housing and out of hours GP services show that the co-operative model works extraordinarily well.
“As the trade association for co-operatives we want to see co-operatives thrive in all areas of the economy, including delivering public services. Like many, however, we are wary of some elements of the government’s approach to opening up public services to outside providers.
“First, there are serious issues facing public sector employees and users looking into the co-operative option – from uncertainty about jobs and pensions to the challenge of public sector workers setting up new businesses – that need to be addressed if public sector mutuals are to succeed.
“Second, in the current context, it won’t help staff or users if all the government does is to open the door to privatisation with fake mutuals that fail basic quality tests of member ownership and democracy.
“Third, there is a gap between national policy and local practice, with a lack of understanding of the benefits of co-operatives delivering public services amongst local authority councillors and officers.
“Fourth, there is an urgent need for high quality advice and support with sufficient resource to make sure that this is in place for all who need it.”