Editorial: Mutualisation is delicately poised

There is tension in the government about whether to push ahead rapidly with public service reform, including mutualisation, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

The government's ambition for the mutualisation of more public services, with a million people providing public services through various kinds of social enterprise by 2015, has particular relevance for voluntary and community organisations. The project expands the boundaries of the third sector and offers charities greater opportunities to work with the new spin-outs - indeed, some of the spin-outs might choose to be charities themselves.

Our analysis shows that small parts of the health service that were mutualised under a programme of the previous government appear to be doing well and functioning better, and that there are fair prospects for some of the current government's 21 so-called pathfinder projects, which involve local government services as well. The community interest company appears to be the favoured legal model.

But it's also clear that many elements of the supportive framework that such spin-outs require have not yet been put in place and that Julian Le Grand, chair of the Mutuals Taskforce, has his work cut out - see our interview with him. Tripwires identified by him include business planning, finance, pensions and, not least, political and trade union opposition. One mutualisation project stalled when control of the local council changed back to Labour.

Perhaps most significant is the wider political context. Mutualisation is a small part of the government's ambitions for the wholesale reform of public services, opening them up to greater provision by the private and voluntary sectors. But the white paper laying out those ambitions has been much delayed, and there appears to be conflict in the government about how fast to proceed.

Ministers were recently forced into a pause on health service reforms and now face a wave of public sector strikes on the issue of reduced pensions. Is this the moment to push ahead with further public service reform, including mutualisation, which also raises the crucial pensions question? The visionaries face the pragmatists, and the issue seems delicately poised.

See how the first spin-outs are faring

Read our interview with Julian Le Grand

Find out how other mutuals make it work

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