Straight-talk on our times by one of the UK's best-known social entrepreneurs.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Is the Government 'playing at it' with public service mutuals?
This week the Labour MP for Rochdale, Simon Danczuk, launched a full-frontal on Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude, telling him that the Government is ‘just playing at it’ when it comes to Mutuals in public services.
Maude’s reply, interestingly, was not a counter-blast but rather a concession that we are still in the ‘foothills’ of this initiative.
Is Maude, in effect, agreeing with Danczuk – or rather simply conceding that this agenda is inherently a longer-burn than first anticipated.
Speaking as someone working quite closely with the Cabinet Office on this, I think it is a bit strong to say the Government is playing at this agenda. Over the last year a strong civil service team has been pulled together under credible leadership. This has been supported by an excellent Taskforce and soon, I hear, a team of well-placed ‘Mutuals Ambassadors’. Funding too is now coming on stream and something that looks like a Programme around this agenda is now in place. This is a far cry from a year ago when, arguably, the Government had a less coherent approach. If they were ‘playing at it’ then, it certainly doesn’t feel that way now.
But there is a larger question behind Simon Danczuk’s remarks that does merit some attention. Where he is perhaps more on the money is around the politics of public service reform. When it got in, the Government appeared wedded to an idea of public service reform that saw alternative forms of delivery as front-and-central. Mutuals appeared, alongside localism and Big Society, as a vital part of the grand-narrative of public service reform.
Two years in, the Government’s overall approach on public service reform has not turned out to be quite so coherent. Having rowed back on certain earlier ideas and, in particular on the Big Society concept, the overall story being told on public services is one which, while lionising the voluntary and social enterprises sectors, also appears, to many, to be pushing far harder than previously to a bigger role for large private firms. While it is by no means impossible to push for more diversity of provision in all it’s forms, the tone, tenor and now track record of the Government appears to be one that de-emphasises Mutuals and other ‘alternative’ vehicles and puts more weight on the role of big business.
The net effect of this, when you are stood in front of a bunch of staff in Norwich or Salford trying to sell the idea of a public service mutual is that people wonder, understandably, whether there is any real political backing for this from Whitehall or whether this is just ‘window dressing’ or ‘privatisation by the back door’ - a few years of a mutual followed by the capture of its contract by powerful firms that are better at bids and can afford to offer early savings to cash-strapped public bodies.
A firmer line on Mutuals: ‘This is an approach we stand behind as government’, would give assurance to people who might be putting their jobs and services on the line and show that the Right Honourable Mr Danczuk that this Government is certainly not ‘playing at it’ when it comes to public sector mutuals.