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.