I got a letter on Friday. It was from Francis Maude. Of course, it wasn't to me personally, just the hundreds of others that eagerly signed up to the Cabinet Office's efforts to promote mutuals and social enterprises in public services.
Before and just after the election there was a lot of heat and light about this. Talk was of a million public sector workers moving into social enterprise by 2015. Privately I thought fat-chance but it was good to see this ambition. Then we saw the Cabinet Office struggling to gain traction across Government departments - never easy at the best of times but made harder by the countervailing desire of the Treasury to keep the public services market open with a clear preference for 'pay and play', 'black-box' services. These would be delivered by whoever won the contract. None of this Big Society, 'co-creation of services' nonsense.
Hence the rather rubbery White Paper on Open Public Services a couple of weeks ago. A Green Paper in all but name (have you ever seen a White Paper with a list of questions for the reader??), this paper was clearly about getting something out, not presenting a clear Government position.
What it does for spin-outs can be more clearly expressed by stating what it dodges. In short, the three 'P's. Procurement, Pensions and People. It doesn't tell public bodies that they can give spin-outs contracts and enjoy support from the centre in doing this. It doesn't clear the mud about pension-rights for staff joining a spin-out or going back into the public sector afterwards. It doesn't allow give clear rights to people who want to do this the entitlement to do it, assuming the business-case is there. Compared to the Academies Bill, which made all of the above very clear - with mass spinning out as a result - this White Paper was lightweight.
All is not gloom. The Government's own Mutual Support Programme opens in the Autumn and there are signs that the Department of Health's successful Social Enterprise Investment Fund (SEIF) will also reopen for business soon. Conferences are aplenty, and some have more than just consultants in attendance, notably the Employee Ownership Association's excellent event this month.
Further to this, there are also signs that local authorities in particular are rising from the canvas following the knockout blow from this current year's financial settlement. While a punishing in-year programme has needed to be put in place, absorbing all energy to date, councils are now eyeing the horizon and looking more strategically at the question of how they deal with greater demand and fewer resources long-term.
The answer many are coming up with is that you can only really deliver more and better public services through a more fulsome engagement with citizens and communities. The public service cake used to be just made of one ingredient: public money. In future, the cake will be more complex, combining public funds, private funds, citizen effort and community endevour. The tailored, equitable services we all want will only come with all of these extra element 'baked-in'.
The questions most councils up and down are now grappling with is how to do this. Legacy services are expensive and ineffective but often politically incendiary because of what they represent. Public libraries are an example. The potential for libraries as community-hubs is well-documented but you need to convince people of the need for a new type of settlement for these kinds of institutions to work properly. This includes volunteers on top of paid staff, fundraising on top of public funding, paid for services on top of free ones, a business outlook on top of a social one.
Where I am driving here is that I think the solution to the big question councils are grappling with lies in social enterprise. This defines social enterprise not in the frame of the public-private continuum, but as an entirely new approach to producing the public goods that most of us wish to see in our communities. For this reason, we should see their development as outside the usual EU procurement mindset that preoccupies most commissioners of services. Local authorities should be freed up from worrying about that and worry instead about how they are going to best combine their own resources with those of communities and citizens.
Can't the private sector do this just as well? Cannot a tender spec be written that is broad enough and open-ended enough to allow the private sector to do all of the above? While I don't totally rule it out, it is important, at this stage, to be able to convince all sides - local politicians, the public, staff and users - that we all need to bring what we have to the table. The profit motive, while a noble and good thing - just doesn't work in this sort of context. The trust - barely there now - required to bring about a new settlement, is going to be absent if people believe the profit motive is at work, however well-intentioned this is.
There are another couple of reasons why I think the private sector isn't quite right for leading this kind of change. Firstly, the track record of the large-scale private sector in social innovation, at least the sectors I know - disability - isn't that strong. Investment goes where the money is, even if it's in rebuilding long-stay institutions that undo years of social progress.
Secondly, I think the risks for private investors are too open-ended. You can't nail these specifications down hard enough. Outcomes will need to flex and evolve, not be fixed at the the beginning. It's just not natural private sector territory, at least the large end of the private sector. Certain small players, with a balanced approach to profit versus other goals (like us in fact) will be part of it, I am sure. But the big players- Serco and the like, I struggle to see them engaging.
Which bring me back full-circle to spin-outs. I believe in them because they co-mingle public money, citizen and community effort together into something new and different from the 'black box', 'pay and play' public services beloved of the Treasury. What we're talking about is not black box but big society, good society, call it what you will. And, of the competing world views out there just now, for me, Big/Good Society is right one when it comes to our future public services.