We've all heard a lot about public sector mutuals: the government's vision of millions of public sector workers setting up shop as employee mutuals and selling their services back to the state.
In truth, progress has been slow. The Mutual Support Fund, launched at the beginning of December, has been a long time coming. Councils in particular have had other things on their mind over the past year. Overall, it is probably fair to say that public service mutuals have not, as yet, set the world on fire.
Is this about to change? Possibly. At a structural level, it is clear to that the public sector's days as a provider of services are numbered. Selby council, in north Yorkshire, now employs just 14 people. The rest are with external providers. This is the direction of travel and the new localism bill will make challenge to direct public provision a lot easier.
The question now, therefore, is who is going to take on services, update them and bring down their costs most effectively.
Let's be realistic here, the private sector is very good at organising councils' back-office services, mending the roads and collecting the bins. But there are areas where private companies are not so good – like providing social, community and healthcare services that bring together public resources with the energies of communities and individuals. This is, or should be, the "sweet spot", which mutuals and social enterprises can address.
One example of such a service is NAViGO, the ex-NHS service which was overall winner of the Guardian Public Service Award 2011.
But there are big hurdles to overcome for the future NAViGOs. The biggest by far is procurement. At the moment, the norm in public services is to run a tender process for virtually any service, even when one isn't strictly necessary. For the nascent mutual this can feel like climbing Everest. With no trading history or commercial skills, being pitted against experienced competition is a deterrent. Why go to all the trouble of forming a mutual only to get knocked out in round one?
There is, however, a way through the procurement conundrum, one supported by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude – though, strangely, not one you hear so much about. Joint-venture mutuals – new ventures which bring together public sector staff with a seasoned external partner to set up a new company on a 50/50 basis – can run a procurement, not for the contract to provide but for a suitable external partner for the staff-led mutual, which will itself become the provider.
This transforms the staff's position in the procurement from one of nail-biting underdog to one of a judge in a beauty contest between different organisations hoping to partner the new mutual. Potential joint-venture partners can be selected, or dismissed, on the basis of their experience, skills and cultural match to the staff in the mutual.
This is arguably a far more attractive proposition not only for the staff, who also get help in setting up the mutual, but also for the public bodies, which will be able to transfer a lot of the start-up costs on to the new joint-venture partner.
Can this idea fly? Yes, if it is given the same amount of attention and support as the idea of stand-alone spinouts, with all of their attendant risks and complications.