All posts tagged: cooperatives
Far too much debate around local government and big society has focussed on crude caricatures. This has distracted us from the fundamental questions around social and economic inclusion and masked the real issues facing local services and the needs of citizens. Its time to create new outcome focussed relationships. The social sector and Local Government need to be friends in this endeavour not foes.
The government inspired debate, reinforced by ministerial speeches have accused local authorities of unnecessary cutting, whereas, the voluntary and community sector (VCS) has been praised and lauded as the future of service delivery. This has created some unease between the public and VCS sector.
Furthermore, nationally driven and at times overblown and chimeric claims for the big society, have also translated into some mistrust between these local bedfellows.
This is worrying, and local government, the VCS and advocates of the big society need to be mindful of this tension and avoid it. Some advocates of the big society will no doubt construe this as constructive disruption, and maybe even some in local government will say bring it on! However, no good will come of this tension, and I fear there will be only losers and these will be local service users, residents and communities.
Far too much debate around local public service reform and talk about big society has focussed on a crude caricatures, which has broadly portrayed local government as inefficient, self serving, lacking in innovation, slow and wasteful, whilst the VCS has been cast as creative, efficient, speedy and responsive.
This is baloney and dangerous, as it masks the real issues facing local service delivery and the needs of citizens in the future as regards ageing, increasing demand on services, how we pay for them and ongoing environmental change.
It also avoids pressing questions around local social and economic inclusion. These are the real issues we should be concerned about, and we need positive and creative relationships to overcome them. The powerful, paternal and at times overly grant dependent based relationship between local government and the VCS is changing.
This is mostly a good thing. However, as the power balance shifts, this is not a time to either criticise the VCS or for the VCS to start undermining the sovereignty and representative role of local government. However, it is the time to create commonalities and rally around new localist values, bespoke to place.
CLES’s work on economic and place resilience, tells us that the stronger places have a good relationship between the public and social sectors. I have argued consistently about the need to maintain and develop a place stewardship role for local government.
Part of this role is about an active and activist local state, working with the wider society of residents, community and voluntary groups. This involves a plural delivery of service, including a range of delivery options, including a greater role for the VCS in this.
However plurality is not an end in itself. For CLES, plural service delivery and the associated contracts and service relationships need to forged on the basis of delivering high levels of social, economic inclusion and environmental justice. Many advocates of the big society, and some in local government have lost sight of this.Local government must work with the VCS in ways which are not solely based on service competition, price and efficiencies.
They need to be forged on the basis of creative partnerships, networks and relationships, which have effective and progressive outcomes for service employees and citizens at their core. Mistrust and acrimony are the enemies of this.
‘You know what, I am not sure I got into local politics to just manage contracts’. This statement, uttered to me a few weeks ago by an experienced local (Conservative) councillor, goes to the nub of fears around the future of local government
Should local government and elected members just outsource all service contracts to the ‘big society’ and commercial deliverers of services and/or should it play a democratically accountable place stewardship and coordinating role? I would argue that too much of the former, fetters the latter. Some areas may be fast approaching this tipping point and we need a much deeper debate about the consequences.
The cuts have created a dynamic and head of steam which make outsourcing a strong option. Firstly, the big society and commercial delivery are perceived as more efficient. Secondly, it gets the costs isolated as part of a contract and reduces the liabilities. These factors have created a dynamic where direct service delivery responsibility is moving away from Local government.
I am not suggesting that the use of the private and social sectors in service delivery is a bad thing. Quite the reverse, some services have always been delivered by a blend of public, private and social sectors. A plurality of service delivery is a good thing. However, there is a key place stewardship role, which too much willy nilly and short term outsourcing will kill.
This place stewardship role is about the qualities and values of public service. It is the ability to ensure a sense of fairness, and equality of access to services. It is also about governance and connecting up different services in creative ways. And fundamentally, its about sovereignty and maintaining direct democratic accountability over a service.
As a resident, in inner city Manchester, I quite like the fact that I can speak to my local councillor about a range of local services, knowing that she and local cabinet colleagues are accountable for them. Even if I don’t like how the service is run, I can even make a vote for an alternative candidate and party. I have a connection, I understand the connection, as does the councillor and all my fellow residents. In contrast, how would I influence a service, if all the local council does is manage a contract, I can’t vote against the CEO or the board of a large commercial company?
Also, are we weakening the power of local government to act as key lynchpins and actors in times of stress? All places are at the vagaries of unpredictable events and ongoing environmental, economic or social shocks. When these shocks occur, the strategic place steward role of local government is to mobilise quickly, harness resources, relationships and reshape services and activity accordingly.
Furthermore, what about opportunities? A major investment opportunity or securing a major sporting or cultural event, is achieved through strategic capacity across a range of partners, drawn together by local government.
Can these fundamental stewardship roles be achieved if all or the majority of our services are outsourced and part of legally binding contractual arrangements? It could well be that outsourcing on a grand scale, weakens the stewardship and strategic role of local government. In doing this we are making our places vulnerable to adverse change, and leaving our places weakened in attempts to realise fleeting moments of opportunity.
All of this is absent from present debate, and the localism bill is silent on them. The future has to be about a strong local government which creates the conditions and ensures the health and wealth of local places, communities, businesses and residents. It can’t do this alone, but it must retain the capacity to lead and steward place.
Local Strategic partnerships (LSPs)? Remember them? They are now increasingly irrelevant giving the demise of the Comprehensive Area Assessment and the National Indicator set and are withering under the cuts. Many will disappear by April. Good riddance some of you may say. At worst, they were unwieldy, bureaucratic, talking shops, plagued by a ‘tyranny of inclusion’, where bums on seats mattered more than actually doing anything.
However, at best, they were transformative strategic service delivery think tanks, joining up services, breaking down departmental silos and institutional cultures and giving representation to the ‘big society’ of the voluntary and community groups. Thus, lets not be too hasty in making LSPs the next entrant into the growing institutional waste basket of quangos and partnerships. Maybe a reshaped LSP, perhaps as ‘Public innovation Partnerships’ focused on innovation, is the transformative vehicle for public services we need?
We have had a load of talk about cuts, but not a lot about the post cut future. Cuts in themselves will not be able to transform services. At best the cuts will act as a trigger, but the timescale means they are being undertaken too swiftly for any serious transformative dialogue and action to be taking place at this stage.
Furthermore, whilst cuts may herald change, unless we retain some cross sector partnership perspective, the cuts may trigger a whole set of potentially damaging set of unintended consequences. Without something akin to an LSP, where is the forum for discussions about all public sector budgets (health, local government, police, housing etc), and how they need to connect up and effectively respond to the people’s needs? How do we get discussion and a work programme for the transformation to a big society in which communities and voluntary groups work to deliver public sector services? Top down strategic plans won’t work. Where are we discussing public sector spend and the development of a range of delivery options via cooperatives, joint trading companies and mutuals?
Without something like an LSP, we may well just get back door deals. We may end up with public services which through various contractual arrangements don’t meet or add up. Or we get a dangerous willy nilly outsourcing of services, a hollowing out of local government’s strategic capacity and a reduction not an increase, in opportunities for creativity and innovation.
Too many people are talking the talk about innovation and creativity in public services. However to walk the walk, we need dedicated public sector staff and elected members, openness and a forum or space in which discussion and ideas can be explored. Where best to do this, but in a transformed existing partnership body, which already has some buy in?
For example, I was recently conducting a workshop with Cornwall Strategic partnership (CSP). This is to be disbanded, but we looked at some ideas in terms of legacy. Some of their plans for the future did point to a partnership body as a way of maintaining dialogue and looking strategically at shared, combined and innovative ways of delivering services.
As I write, I can already hear the critics saying, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ LSPs were policy at its worst, all bureaucracy, structures and process and no delivery. However, in many countries, strategic partnerships are an institutional fix to the problems of silos and straight line service thinking, which are such a block to creativity and innovation in governance and transforming service delivery.
This would not need to cost any money. Many partners are willing. Thus, before we slump off back to our silos and protect ourselves and our own institutions from the cuts, we desperately need to start talking and connect up the strategic spaces between local organisations. This is where innovation and the future for public services lies.
TheRochdale Pioneerswould be turning the grave if they thought cooperatives were about ‘more for less’! It is laudable of theCabinet Officeminister Francis Maude to set out his vision across public services of a ‘rights to provide’in which mutuals and cooperatives would herald in ‘radical shifts in ownership, accountability and financing’ in public services. I am all for experimentation, innovation and creativity in the delivery of public services. However, there are valid questions of creeping privatisation or whether the delivery of a public service such as a Sure Start centre can be likened to the retail offer of John Lewis. Furthermore, we cannot assume, that cooperatives and their rich heritage will be some elixir for public sector cuts.
I am not the best placed to speak up for the cooperative movement, but my raw enthusiasm for the movement is grounded in the core values of theRochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, who first set out the principles on which co-operatives around the world operate to this day. These are now reflected in the International Cooperative Alliance, who state that:
‘Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others’
These values, to my understanding, must be reflected in operational terms to indubitable standards of effectiveness. Standards of employment, cooperation and of service. Efficiency is not the main driver here. We must ensure the proposed flourishing of cooperatives in the deliver of public services, reflect these values and standards. For example, they cannot be a Trojan horse for inferior employment terms and conditions.
Place leadership is something which you do not hear a lot about at the moment. We should be mindful, that local government performs vital overarching stewardship and coordination of activities and services within the places we live. However, the deployment of cooperatives, could lead to the atomisation of service delivery within any given locality, through splintered ownership. This will be recipe for a local government losing more strategic capacity. This indeed would be ironic give the cooperative movement is all about collaboration.
As Francis Maude says lets ‘challenge traditional public service structures and unleash pent-up ideas and innovation’. However, we must not unleash an abuse of cooperative traditions, which fragment and denude the standard of public service delivery, and create a hollowed out local government who can no longer effectively steward the destiny of local places.