News and Comment

Putting social value at the heart of new public sector mutuals

Monday 5 December 2011


I recently attended a great event held by the Transition Institute to launch their publication on public service spin outs called, Towards a Social Value Ethos. The lively and challenging debate focused on the different things that need to happen in order to spin out public services into a different form of ownership. Whilst the paths, processes and duration of each transition are likely to vary from organisation to organisation, there are some commonalities that need to be in place for the journey to effectively take place.


The event included a panel discussion featuring pioneers like Andrew Burnell from City Health Care and Brendan O’Keefe from Kensington and Chelsea Youth Services. Panellists agreed that having the right reason to start the process of change was a crucial ingredient. As Sir Stephen Bubb from ACEVO pointed out in his keynote speech, moving to new models of ownership should not be undertaken merely to save money or prevent the need for difficult decisions in the current financial climate. Instead, public service spin outs have to be driven by the desire to improve services and increase social value for the local community and service users. Only this mindset at the beginning of the process will enable the type of culture change required for a successful – and smoother – transition.

Linked with this desire for positive outcomes – and need for a clear vision before starting the process – is the importance of strong, committed and dynamic leadership. The panel debated the human cost of public service spin outs: managing director of Your Healthcare Siobhan Clarke described the process as ‘all consuming’ but ultimately ‘worth it’, recognising the toll of change but which is made bearable with a focus on the end result. Mechanisms for change – legal processes, resources and other tool kits for example – are important, but these in the first instance are catalysed and driven by effective leaders.

Leaders do not have to act alone though. Things can be done to support them to drive through this vision for change and increased social value. Commissioners could think differently about value and outcomes. Whitehall could support leaders by reviewing VAT and tax breaks, linking organisations up with Business Mentors or simply allowing them the ‘space’ to change. An evidence base of ‘what works’ and a clearer understanding of the meaning of social value could help inspire other leaders to come forward and create a compelling vision of the impact of spinning out, to whet the appetites of staff, service users and the local community.

Whilst event attendees were clear about the benefits and positives of spinning out, they were equally clear about the challenges; as Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd suggested, new models of ownership are ‘good in theory, bloody hard in practice’. More information, better sharing of best practice and a greater understanding of the process – three things provided by this event – will help support some new leaders to come forward. But what else needs to happen to push through this culture change?