The couple of pieces on futures and mutuals turned into an article in the Local Government Chronicle last week under the title ‘A question of balance’, for which thanks and acknowledgement is due. The full original text is set out below, one or two of the more obtuse sentences did not escape the sub-editors!
For mutual benefit
Considerable efforts are under way in local government and health to establish mutuals to deal with various aspects of their work. Most of these efforts are public and voluntary sector based, but there is also some interesting work under way by private sector organisations, aware there is a large new market to be explored. The future mixed public economy could provide existing suppliers with access to turnover through not for profit subsidiaries and new organisations wanting to purchase support services or contract out significant elements of work.
There is work to be done to explore the relationship between complexity of activity and form of mutual. High volume, low variety forms of delivery such as social housing might be best suited to becoming co-operatives owned by the recipients, 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. In between, some form of local trust might well work best.
I welcome such a pluralist world where strategic decisions (and any associated taxation) are taken at the right levels. The purpose of democracy is to ensure that decisions are made which balance competing interests in the pursuit of the common good. However it seems that much of the thinking so far will result in a troubled interface between the new mutual world and that of even the most modern state frameworks, which still owe more to Weber 1.0 than Web 2.0 or 3.0.
So what if, instead of having a council to commission this framework of provision, a whole locality were to propose not an elected Mayor, but an overarching social enterprise? In this model, taxpayers would also be the shareholders and the purpose of the organisation would be to commission the services which the residents agreed on from a range of providers across the sectors. Through an elected board, taxpayers would provide a strategic focus to determine and regulate the future of the place. This fundamental rethink of the democratic framework would lead to new forms of deliberation at the local level and reshape the three key outcomes required from local government: focused civic leadership, appropriate local regulation and excellent service provision.
As well as being an active part of local democracy, taxpayers could benefit directly, and financially, from their voluntary service to local communities and work in partnership with public servants. Approached in the right way, there could be considerable benefits and reduction of costs. Taxpayers could be rewarded through community dividends for more recycling, less litter, helping with older people’s care, participating in youth activities and helping to prevent anti-social behaviour.
This proposition envisages a new way of balancing competing interests fairly, which is precisely why democracy exists. However at another level it is also a logical development of the big society and community engagement arguments, but without the potential downsides arising from simply accommodating competing interest groups. It is not an argument for the status quo. To face the future we need to find a way of engaging people in deliberative democracy in order to underpin the electoral democracy which is the basis for our rights, freedoms and responsibilities. Most importantly it would fundamentally change the relationship between local people and the local state, but would we dare try it? In doing so, we might cease our continuing preoccupation with governance and focus instead on achieving the desired strategic outcomes for the places we serve.