Raising the sails for when the wind comes

I was pleased to deliver the Annual Quaker Salter Lecture this weekend.

The theme I took were words from Fritz Schumacher. He said, a generation ago, that: “I certainly never feel discouraged. I can’t myself raise the winds that might blow us or this ship into a better world. But I can at least put up the sail so that when the winds comes, I can catch it.”

We have, on the best evidence and despite a recent lowering of consensus temperature projections, only three to five years, no more, to prevent more than a two degree global rise in temperature over time. The longer we delay, the faster the cuts need to become – the greenhouse gases that are forcing temperature rises stick around longer than we do. Beyond this, if we want to level off at no more than two degrees, then we have a choice. We can grow the economy, or we can cut emissions and try and do so rapidly. It is increasingly clear that we can’t do both.

So, the big economic choices of today are for an economy of prevention, a great transition to low carbon living within limits, or one of adaptation, a great disruption of coping, survival and loss.

We hide behind the idea that it might not happen. But whether we acknowledge it or not … or trust that it will fade away, I sense that there is a spirit of great sorrow on the edge of our every conversation about the future.

There are so many imaginative and hopeful enterprises and initiatives for a better tomorrow. These are the sails being raised. But in the name of hope, we have to face down uncertainty and sorrow, no less than we have to challenge apathy.

Our integrity

In July 2010, Andrew Lansley, then Health Secretary, launched his reform plans for the NHS with the ambition to ‘create the largest and most vibrant social enterprise sector in the world’.

This was his politics cloaked in our words.

It is far more interesting to have Government talk your language than not, such as championing social enterprise over the last decade, but there are risks too. We recently put down a constructive challenge to the emerging array of ‘co-operative councils’, mainly on the political left, arguing that they needed to have practical and measurable criteria for action if they were going to use our name.

Over the last few days, I been gently challenging Central Government on its use of the term ‘mutual’ to describe its joint venture public services that are being spun out. Having said the same thing, along with others, behind the scenes, we are now reiterating this in public – in a statement to the Independent and in a comment piece today in the Guardian. My comments have naturally been in my role at Co-operatives UK, rather than in any advisory capacity, past or present to Government.

There is a lot of good work being done by the Cabinet Office and Treasury for co-ops, mutuals and social enterprise, so this is not about ideology, but it is about integrity.

The potential mutual in this case is the Behavioural Insight Team. With around ten staff, as I understand it, this is a small offshoot of the Cabinet Office. Led by an outstanding policy academic, David Halpern, it was formed soon after the 2010 General Election and dubbed the Nudge Unit after a book of that name by US academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

Its mandate was to find smarter ways for government agencies to get the public onside. Regulation? Well, maybe persuasion could work instead. New public services? Try testing them first. Consumer action? Perhaps, but why not start the other way round, by making inertia work for you?

There couldn’t be a better team to start with, in terms of testing, from an understanding of how staff will feel, a new model of privatisation that Francis Maude has championed, where services are privatised but where Government retains a stake, that it can sell if the business thrives. I wish them well.

Now, this could conceivably end up as a mutual, but for the joint venture with a private investor to be spun as a mutual by the government on the BBC was to get this plain wrong. The Government spokesperson said “It’s great news that the world-renowned ‘nudge’ unit is spinning out from central government. As a mutual they will combine the benefits of private sector experience and investment with the innovation and commitment from staff leadership.”

It’s positive for sure to have minority employee shares of companies, but it is not a mutual. If Government was committed to using its stake to see the enterprise passed over to staff, with majority ownership, that would be one thing. But there is no sign that this is how it will pan out.

This is something that genuine mutuals, whether health businesses such as Benenden or insurance mutuals, are clear about. Mutuals are member-owned. It is our collective work over time, proving the success of the model, that gives it the public trust and reputation it now has.

Our words are inspiring in their heritage and vision of social organisation – mutual, co-operative, friendly societies. Their authenticity is worth championing.

A care economy

It is in the nature of us as people to care… and at times not to care.

There is a care economy out there. Many of the most important and fulfilling parts of our lives – such as parenting, neighbourliness and favours – are about care, even if they are not conventionally classed as economic activity.

When people are motivated by a need which inspires care, whether unpaid or paid, such as a care worker or nursing, there can be a richness in the motivation, because it is needs driven and sustaining of people and society.

When it comes to organisations, care is bit more of a slot machine.

The welfare state, in particular, plays a vital role in peoples’ lives. It can be a life saver, a safety net or a transformer. As one person explained to a friend of mine, Richard Simmons from the University of Stirling – “There are things that, if I didn’t experience them here at the day centre, I wouldn’t have ever done them in my life. Before, I never got out. I was a right scaredy-cat. Now, I’ve tried so many different things, I think “Yes, I can do it”. So that’s what it’s done for me’

But the welfare state can also lose a caring touch in random acts of thoughtlessness, pervasive bureaucracy or the demeaning nature of being assessed as in need. Talk to any parent over the years who has had to get one of their children ‘statemented’.

The language that is used to describe and plan care services mirror that confusion.

Richard, who I mentioned above, was doing research on people who use social care services. He wanted to explore the different ‘labels’ they have – citizen, consumer, client, customer, user, member of the public – all labels with slightly different connotations.

He showed the list of terms to one person and asked ‘How do you think the service providers see you?’ The man looked genuinely confused, and then replied ‘They just call me John’

The words that professionals use to talk about health and social care today, including that great ugly noun, personalisation, are no more than bits of Lego. Terms can be assembled, fit together and sound good, but they don’t capture the fundamentals of care. They don’t answer the question ‘why care?’.

At root we need to understand care as about meeting human needs and creating human dignity.

This needs to be good work. Fritjof Capra puts this as ‘we can’t be empowered by work that destroys the environment around us or creates systems of inequality. No matter how our work is organised, it cannot fully empower us unless we believe in its purpose’.

This is not how the care system, or the wider economy, works.

• In paid work, people are often being rewarded in terms of money and status when they are behaving destructively.

• Those who care at home or in the family that are unpaid suffer low status, poor conditions and often stress and personal costs.

• The burden of this work continues to fall disproportionately on women, whether they are out of or in the labour market.

• The entry of venture capital into the care of children and vulnerable people shapes the culture of providers towards an instrumental model of care, where service is means to an end in the form of a return on capital.

The co-operative model is now well-known and, thanks to the efforts of pioneers in the field, is increasingly looked to as an alternative, potentially better approach.

A co-operative is a business, owned by its members and there for no reason other than to serve their needs.

If the language is confusing, then yes, we can say that co-operatives are a form of social enterprise – something that is run commercially but with people in mind. What is distinct about co-ops is that the people in mind are not passive beneficiaries. They have a say. They have responsibility.

The Foster Care Co-operative, for example, gives a voice to foster carers. It can match pay and good working conditions, though not exceed them, but it adds a precious commodity – dignity.

The challenges of running a business focused on health and care, particularly in the context of local authority financing, are well known. The most impressive examples I know are long-standing health co-operatives and mutuals that in fact pre-date the NHS, such as Simplyhealth and Benenden, which has recently opened its services to all.

But when you talk to co-operatives like this, they stress that what makes the real difference is values and culture.

We are surprisingly unreflective as a nation about the institutions that serve us, surprisingly complacent about turning the care of vulnerable people into a market. To create an economy that cares for people in need, we should take a better road – the path to co-operation.