Developments in the Public Sector

Developments in the Public Sector

Recent articles in The Guardian highlight the key issues surrounding the development of co-operatives and mutuals to run public services.

A recent article in The Guardian highlighst the key issues surrounding the development of co-operatives and mutuals to run public services.

The John Lewis State

Thursdays front page headline in The Guardian highlights the increasing appetite in government to radically alter public services, creating new structures based on the eponymous John Lewis model.

While the sentiment is admirable, the article exposes the increasing confusion, amongst government, the public and the media, that surrounds alternative models of enterprise. "Public sector workers are being urged to set up John Lewis-style co-operatives,..."; the opening sentence alone highlights the lack of knowledge regarding alternative models of enterprise. John Lewis, to be exact, is not a co-operative (though it has utilised the term in past); it is an employee-owned company. To qualify as a co-operative, a company must be democratically owned and controlled by its members. This isn't an attempt to discredit the hugely successful and progressive model that John Lewis employs, I am merely exposing the gap in society's knowledge, knowledge that is neccessary to make the Big Society ideal a reality. Past articles in the national papers have also referred to John Lewis as a mutual; again inaccurate. A mutual is a type of co-operative that is member owned and controlled, but only trades with those members and nobody else.

Despite this open invitation to public sector workers to grasp responsibility, ownership and control of the services they provide, the national bodies representing co-operatives, mutuals, employee owned companies and social enterprises are hesitant to embrace this offer. Peter Holbrook, Chief Executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition, articulates his fear of privatisation, similar to what happened in the 1980's with British building societies. This sentiment is also echoed by Co-operatives UK.

Unsurprisingly, the trade unions have vociferously voiced their resistance and resentment to the proposed mutualisation of public services. Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite states that "There is no appetite from the public sector workforce or the public generally for these so-called co-operatives." This statement is accurate enough though it is ironic that, in a time where the economic crisis has exposed the glaring inequalies prevalent in the economy and society, workers are hesitant to claim ownership over the means of production, apparently contradicting the spirit that shaped nearly all of Britain's trade unions.

Employee ownership or being a member of a co-operative is not for everyone, nor are alternative models of enterprise panaceas for ailing businesses or public services. The fact remains though that there is a serious imbalance in our economy and society, one that can be addressed by an increase in alternative models of enterprise that transfer ownership and control to the masses.

Education is the key to all of this; public sector workers and the general workforce are not literate in the workings of a co-operative, mutual or employee owned enterprise. There are unique skills and attributes that workers need to have to operate efficiently and effectively in said enterprises. In essence, this is a blatant call for the inclusion of alternative enterprise education in our schools and universities. Only then, will we have a fair chance of establishing a more equal and equitable society.

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