It was with some surprise that I checked yesterday and found that it is over a month since my last post. However it has been a little busy with finalisation of our budget, restructuring, and a wonderfully restful cross country skiing holiday in the Black Forest, amongst other things. The great thing about such a break is that it provides the space and distance for new perspectives. And in the last week or two I have found conversations with colleagues have often turned to the question of mutuals, social enterprises and new forms of local services.
There is much work is going on in this regard, emerging thinking within local government, development by the voluntary sector, and interesting work going on in the background by some high profile private sector organisations. Is the latter surprising? What advantage can there be for the private sector in not making a profit? My answer to these questions are ‘no it is not’ and ‘who says they won’t?’.
There is actually a very large potential market out there and it seems to me that it could provide useful access to turnover through any not for profit subsidiaries that might be set up, and/or organisations wanting to purchase support services or contract out significant elements of work. This emerging palette of options has also prompted me to think about the relationship between scale of business and appropriate form of delivery.
The academic Mark Lewis has developed a model which looks at the interrelationship between volume and variety of business activity. I think some useful work could be done to develop this in relation to mutuals. For example, it would seem to me that high volume, low variety forms of delivery would be best suited to becoming co-operatives owned by the recipients, social housing might be a good example, where owning an interest in the business could help build social capital. At the other end of the scale, very specialised relatively low volume work, like educational psychology, might lend itself best to a practice co-owned by the employees. There is of course a vast swathe of activity which covers both ends of this spectrum, for example cultural services, and this is where I think social enterprise in the form of some form of trust is probably best suited.
So what’s left? All of the above carry a level of democratic benefit and load, and the possibility of an exciting entrepreneurial approach. Yet there is a crucial and currently slightly unfashionable missing ingredient, that of the need to balance the competing priorities of a place and the balance of its civil society, market, and state (to use John Benington’s categories). A second missing ingredient, which is linked closely to this, is a compelling model for a regulatory framework to address the basic hygiene requirements of an area, the historic roots of local government. My third missing ingredient in the rather consumerist model, is a clear idea of how ideas about citizenship and participation in civil society will develop and a return to my previous theme on common good, which requires further thought and reading on my part!
The frustrating thing, of course, about all the above is that they are all relatively unformed concepts. However I offer the thoughts here as a starting point, to which I hope to return when time permits.