During 2011 we at Stepping Out have helped 25 leaders to cross the aisle from the public to the third sector, and their stories have inspired me to write a new book, published this week. How to Step Out’ is a guidebook for people in the public sector who want to take their service out as a mutual organisation or social enterprise.
What can be learned from these freshly-minted converts? Three things stand out. The first is that they have come into the third sector, with all its uncertainties, because of the unique freedom it offers: freedom from the senseless bureaucracy and brutal top-down management of the public sector: and freedom from its alternative - the hollow profit-grind of the private sector. For all of them, joining the third sector is like breathing mountain air after years of choking industrial smog. In the words of one of the newly liberated: “We are free – you cannot believe the energy and value this unleashes”.
The second bit of learning from this cohort of new third sector leaders is that good, old-fashioned leadership is absolutely key to seeing through major change. Convincing public sector workers to give up their ancient comforts for a life of competition in the free market is not an easy pitch. In their move from public sector caterpillar to third sector butterfly these leaders provide a masterclass in how to take people with you. You put yourself out there. You communicate until you drop. You listen. You engage people in the change. You put your money where your mouth is. Again, in the words of one recently stepped-out leader, ‘you have to make your case hundreds of times – then all over again’.
Another thing that can be learned from this group is that third sector providers should be involved in new-style public service provision in a big way. My book abounds with stories of how these organizations have achieved amazing things with former public sector services and saved public money at the same time. These leaders show us that the civil society sector is a viable alternative to the public and private sectors - not just a cherry on the cake.
This is perhaps the most important point to make. The cold logic of long-term austerity – possibly running into the 2020s - means that old-style public services are, sooner or later, going to run out of road. They will either have to stop or be replaced with stuff that is cheaper and better. We have to be part of the answer, in my view. If we refuse to be properly involved, and remain in our historic comfort zone, we will end up as bystanders to probably the biggest privatization of public services in the developed world.
One final thing that really hit me hard when we researched this book was the total unanimity on one question: ‘Would you ever go back to the public sector?’ Nobody, not even the ones who have struggled since stepping out, would ever entertain the idea. This says volumes for what is good about the third sector. You might not see it that way, but this sector, despite all its irritations, is probably still one of the best places in the world in which to work.