The Mutual State

Around ten years ago, I set out to explore the case for converting public services from public ownership to what Henriette Moore and I called a public ‘sense of ownership’ in a pamphlet for the New Economics Foundation, later developed in collaboration with Mutuo.

Since then, we have had some remarkable experimentation. A clutch of participatory models in health, the emergence of cooperative schools and, at community level, around 350 projects underway at present to transfer assets like parks and playing fields to community ownership.

The case for creating an enabling environment for staff and citizens still seems to me to be very strong and it is good to see debate on this taken up by politicians across the parties. Tessa Jowell’s contribution this evening has been excellent – her speech drawing on a report by the Innovation Unit, which I was pleased to help launch today.

There are still challenges. Only ten per cent of those asset transfers appear to be in deprived areas and yet those are the areas that need community action the most. Some state-sponsored social enterprises are genuinely social but not genuinely enterprise, unlike most cooperatives which live or die as businesses. But above all, the challenge is to create meaningful and inclusive communities for membership.

These are the central challenges, though, for all public services not just mutual ones. We have to rebuild the constituency for social justice and welfare. If not more of a mutual state, we may only get the leftovers of market outcomes and residual state action.

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