Challenging mutuals (and policy-based evidence)

The Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) has published a report this week called “Proof of Delivery: A review of the role of co-operatives and mutuals in local public service provision”

In an article in the Guardian summarising their report, APSE’s chief executive writes:

Apse believes co-operatives and mutuals can have a valuable role in running services and that, where appropriate, this should be supported by local government.

So far, so good.

But we want public sector decision-makers to properly weigh up the tangible outcomes of transferring work to co-ops and mutuals before making decisions concerning the future of local service delivery.

You can probably guess where it’s going as soon as that “but” appeared. And, indeed, it goes in that direction pretty quickly, using “but” once again:

But while enthusiasts assume that communities will be galvanised and staff motivation will soar as a result of this model, decisions involving large sums of public money require a solid, evidence-based approach.

It just so happens, of course, that APSE has done the research to determine what the evidence tells us. And what it tells us is that there is

a paucity of evidence to back up claims about the supposed benefits [as to whether] co-ops and mutuals could provide local public services more effectively and at better value.

They conclude that collaboration between the third sector and the public sector must exist in order to deliver public services, noting a complex combination of factors must be in place to sustain this collaborative model. Such factors include enough time to see the benefits and buy-in from a variety of stakeholders (including staff, Councillors, citizens and service users).

Where this conclusion, to some extent, bears out the findings of, say, the King’s Fund’s recent research on social enterprises, there is a notable air of scepticism from APSE about co-operatives and mutuals, which is to be expected from an organisation whose business is based around supporting local authority front line services.

I don’t share their scepticism, and there’s a bit of their argument I’m not so sure about.

What politics allows for is not always evidence-based policy, but sometimes policy-based evidence. If politicians deem something to be valuable – because of ideology, circumstance or some other reason – then, to some extent, actual evidence is neither here nor there.

When it comes to mutuals and co-operatives at the moment, the support from politicians is there. Whilst APSE are welcome to be sceptical, I’m with the politicians on this one.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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