The UK’s Big Society experiment: “the move away from Big Government.”

The UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has embraced a vision for a Big Society, described by them “as helping people to come together to improve their own lives. It’s about putting more power in people’s hands – a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities; allowing more diverse providers of public services and greater power for communities to make local decisions, bringing huge opportunities to charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises.”

The three key parts to the Big Society agenda are:

  • Community empowerment: giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their area.
  • Opening up public services: enabling charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned co-operatives to compete to offer people high quality services.
  • Social action: encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society. National Citizen Service, Community Organisers and Community First will encourage people to get involved in their communities.

Unsurprisingly, critics see in this a sophisticated rationale for the current cost-cutting being applied across the public and social sectors. They anticipate that the government’s underlying expectation is that social enterprises, charities, voluntary organisations and community groups will deliver public services at lower costs (to government.) A factor in this is the failure of the social sector to adopt the full cost-recovery practices used by private sector tenderers.

Building a Stronger Civil Society  sets out the first steps the UK government will take. It includes plans to give public sector frontline staff the right to set up their own social enterprise, specifically mentioning co-ops or mutuals, to provide public services.

UK Minister Francis Maude says that “ownership also empowers employees to redesign services around the needs of their users and communities, and can ensure that services are more efficient. This is why employee ownership in public services has the potential to be transformative.” See here

The focus on co-ops and employee-led mutuals is an interesting component in this strategy, one that has been missing in recent Australian governments’ perspectives. In Australia demutualisation has been very much the accepted orthodoxy. Despite the absence of an enabling environment in Australia, the Big Society agenda can be seen in mutuals delivering health services: the Girudala Community Co-operative Ltd, an indigenous community controlled organisation which provides housing and health services for Aboriginal, Torres Strait & South Sea Islander people in the towns of Bowen, Collinsville & Proserpine in Qld and the West Belconnen Health Co-operative in Canberra which opened in December 2009. The patient users are its owners.

There is ample room for social enterprises to play a central role in delivering innovative health (and other) services in Australia.

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