Tag Archives: Stepping Out

Making the case for “tilting the table” for mutuals

By David Bicknell

A recent get-together organised by Stepping Out discussed the landscape for mutuals and asked what needs to happen to get the mutuals show on the road.

The discussions are summed up in this well argued blog by Craig Dearden-Phillips.

A few paragraphs caught my eye:

“The general view in the room is that financial weakness – in the form of small balance sheets – is a disadvantage facing spin-outs tendering for contracts. There appears to be a truth that when tenders come up, this sector struggles to show the financial ‘leg’ necessary to get nervous public sector commissioners into bed. Instead they bee-line for safer-looking super-providers. Some would argue that social enterprises should be ‘gifted’ public assets in the form of property to address the balance sheet issue.

“Therefore, to what extent Government should ’tilt the table’ and if so how was one of the talking-points. There is a natural reluctance in many quarters of too much government intervention in markets of any sort. ‘Best is best’ is a common watchword in the world of public procurement. How to behave in markets is also a big question for spin-out organisations. Are they best, in the longer term, to partner up or even fold-in larger healthcare groups in order to gain efficiencies and achieve long-term stability? Or is this too much of a compromise that would water down their raison d’etre as socially focused organisations?

“This one of the unresolved questions facing spin-outs in this sector, particularly as they come up head to head with organisations whose chief competencies lie not in actual service delivery but the winning and fulfilment of contracts, often with third party deliverers.”

The blog makes some good points and appears to sum up the key issues facing mutuals.  To deliver any sense of a future for spin-out mutuals, the question is not whether to tilt the table, but how and when.

Will private sector involvement in mutuals make for a perfect partnership?

Although The Times today has been reporting that the Coalition might be getting some cold feet about its plans for public service reform – the Public Services Reform White Paper now looks as if it may be delayed in the wake of  recent discussions about NHS reform – there is little doubt that the role of the private sector in partnerships is being discussed.

The Guardian recently carried a piece in which Craig Dearden-Phillips, founder and chief executive of Stepping Out, a business helping parts of the public sector become a social enterprise, wondered  whether the marriage between public manager and the private sector will work?

“One concern is the compatibility of each side’s goals,” he says. “So far, public sector mutuals tend to be more focused on social rather than commercial aims. Few appear to have share capital financially worth much to staff. They tend to be defined by a passion for people, place or profession, and they often aspire to stay local and be more personal. Every person I have met who leads a spun-out organisation is motivated by social purpose. They identify strongly with public sector values – albeit ones that see a mutual or social enterprise as the appropriate vehicle for this.

“A private company, however, will, quite rightly, be mostly concerned with its shareholders’ or directors’ interests, and that will include a strong focus on growth, either by merger or acquisition and on cutting costs quickly.

“These are legitimate goals, and, arguably, the only way to create large organisations. But you can see a potential tug-of-war here, with one side driven by a growth agenda and the other living in fear of becoming remote from its community – and of losing control to a private partner.

“Can both sides meet at least somewhere in the middle, with private investors accepting the potential constraints on return introduced by being partly employee-owned and former public managers bowing to some of the commercial imperatives of  investors?

“As someone working every day alongside public managers, I hope we can find ways to bring necessary investment and expertise to the table. Unlike in continental Europe, this is unlikely to come from the state. So we need to examine closely how to do this while ensuring the values we hold close are upheld.”