Public good trumps mutual suspicion

The mutuals policy is missing an opportunity to win popularity

By Matt.Ross

13 Jun 2012

Our survey on civil servants’ attitudes to mutualisation reveals an overwhelming lack of enthusiasm for the idea. More constructively, it also highlights some solutions – for our findings suggest that the government has misdiagnosed both what attracts civil servants to the idea and what scares them about it, and thus built a policy that arouses the suspicions of sceptics while missing chances to entice the interested.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has set his face against an ‘asset lock’ that would guarantee in perpetuity new mutuals’ charitable status or employee ownership: he argues that mutuals’ staff must be free to turn their participation into hard cash in the future if they wish. His appeal to civil servants’ entrepreneurialism sees the rewards of enterprise largely in financial terms – yet according to our survey, his audience aren’t hankering after shares bonanzas. Both those sympathetic and those hostile to mutualisation see the primary attraction as the “opportunity to focus on public benefit rather than institutional interests.” The second greatest attraction is the closely-linked “greater operational freedom”, and personal enrichment only comes in third. Yes, civil servants resent the restrictions, waste and distortions of big public bodies – but Maude will win more support if he emphasises mutuals’ ability to achieve public aims more effectively, not their potential to privatise the rewards of success.

Maude may argue that mutuals offer both benefits; but many perceive a conflict between the two, and see the government’s mutuals model as a Trojan horse for privatisation. The potency of this view is evident in the reasons given by opponents for their scepticism: the single biggest concern is their belief that the public sector is the best place to preserve their workplace’s greatest strengths, while over a third are worried that new mutuals might be taken over by competitor businesses. Such opposition is rooted in a political philosophy that resists the ingress of private companies into public services – but it might weaken if ministers were more ready to safeguard the public aims and mutual ownership of new organisations.

If the government fashioned its mutualisation agenda to tap into public servants’ public ethos rather than their private interests, it could both heighten the interest of the favourably-disposed minority, and help allay the majority’s suspicions: Maude should broaden the structures on offer, allowing officials to set up charities and social enterprises whose mutual status is protected in perpetuity. Meanwhile, he should focus on the biggest deterrent putting off the policy’s natural supporters: a “lack of trust in the government’s ability or willingness to support and protect new mutuals.” Even sympathetic officials fear that new spin-off bodies will be cast alone into price-sensitive supplier markets full of big, powerful, private competitors. For mutuals to win the staff enthusiasm on which the policy will stand or fall, civil servants must be reassured both that the new bodies will liberate people to focus on public benefit – rather than self-enrichment – and that, having created a flotilla of small, new, expert organisations eager to improve public services, the government will recognise in its procurement and its pricing the added value that its new fleet of contractors could bring to public services.

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