News and Comment

An Indian summer for public service mutuals?

Wednesday 5 October 2011

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Over the spring and summer there was less media interest in public service mutuals and perhaps less actual new interest on the ground. But as England enjoys an Indian summer, we’re expecting interest to increase again.

At national level, there have been many questions about whether we yet have the right climate for public service mutuals in this country (as illustrated by Co-operatives UK’s report on international comparisons). Now that the Open Public Services White Paper consultation period has come to a close, we look forward to the follow-on report on how departments will take it forward, promised for November. The Mutuals Task Force has also been working for some time on challenges and removing barriers, and we hope that some of this will be out soon. And the Cabinet Office is moving to establish the next phase of the mutuals information service and from late 2011 will be administering the fund to support fledgling mutuals.

In individual sectors, there are also signs of renewed interest – in health, linked to the roll out of new commissioning arrangements and the future of commissioning support services, and in local government as councils look at next steps for services as part of this year’s budget-setting round.

At OPM, we’ve always advocated a well informed and grounded approach to developing mutuals for public services – so that mutuals which get taken forward have the right leadership and stakeholder support, can see a sustainable future, weather the inevitable squalls and deliver the desired benefits. Over the last year or two, we’ve shared evidence and contributed to policy and practice for mutuals, employee ownership and social enterprises in public services. We want mutuals to be widely understood.

How local authorities can ‘spin out’ mutuals

Our next contribution will be an event on 20 October at the National Children and Adult Services Conference. This fringe event will look at how local authorities can support the spin out and development of mutuals to deliver children’s and adults’ services. While the potential benefits are great, there are many challenges. Our speakers are involved in spinning out and developing mutuals in children’s services and adult social care and will discuss the practical issues involved, the gains they have seen, and how to maximise the chances of success.

As the autumn unfolds, we will also keep a close eye on how the policy of diversifying providers will play alongside the policy of encouraging spin-outs. (As is well known, these can be in tension: opening up services to competition can put new mutuals up against large, established private sector players as in a recent NHS example).

And we’ll be taking account of the latest policy climate as we help commissioners and providers who want to explore the benefits of these options to do so practically and to make good decisions about the way to go.