When you scythe through the hideous jargon and confusingly loose use of different names for what appear to be basically the same thing, there are actually some genuinely interesting debates to be had around the potential for staff, service users and communities to own public services. I should know: I’ve had the dubious honour of being excessively deeply acquainted with the arcana of co-ops and mutuals for the past several months (and as you can probably guess I should declare a professional interest).
What seems to be clear is that there are some serious potential benefits to be had from handing over genuine financial ownership of a previously state-run service/organisation: once mutualised, the new organisations tend to be more productive, you get less staff sickness and absenteeism, they’re more resilient to economic ups and downs, and customer satisfaction is usually higher.
Equally clear is the fact that (a) you can’t do this by halves: ‘principles of mutualism’ are categorically not equivalent to actual shared ownership; and (b) even just setting up a staff, user or community owned organisation is far from easy, let alone making it work in the long term. A recent article on the ResPublica blog gives a really neat, accurate account of some of the ‘simple wisdom and caveats’ that apply (see here).
It’s with point (a) in mind that I get unhealthily het up when I hear people conflating social enterprises with co-ops/mutuals (because there is absolutely zero onus on a social enterprise to be run according to a mutual model: they are completely distinct, albeit potentially compatible models), or when, as Shiv Malik does in Prospect, ‘mutualism’ is assumed to be synonymous with the Big Society! In his article – read it here – Malik says:
Whether you call it the “big society” or “mutualism,” the idea is the same: that the working and middle classes will reject welfare dependency as a long-term solution if, with help from the central state, they can use their own resources—savings, profits and earnings—to purchase businesses, homes, and the land they stand on, and put money into mutually-owned long term investments—everything from local banks to pensions to infrastructure.
Now I absolutely do think that co-ops and mutuals are one of the concrete ways of achieving ‘good localism’, better and cheaper services and much more. But Big Society is vague enough as it is, it’ll inevitably become a broad umbrella for a whole range of specific ideas and initiatives not just a single set, and as mentioned earlier mutuals come with a whole heap of issues and challenges. For all of these reasons we need to speak and think clearly and tread carefully.
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