Andrew Laird is a founder and Director of Mutual Ventures.
It’s now just over two months until the Government’s devolution drive will see the first democratically elected “metro mayors”. To date, most devolution deals across the country have focused on place-based factors – i.e. infrastructure and the local economy. But this is also a huge opportunity for local areas to rethink radically how public services are delivered. The deals struck between central government and both Greater Manchester and the West Midlands are among the most ambitious in terms of people-focused services such as health and social care. The whole country should watch these areas closely since, with the Government inevitably focused on delivering a successful Brexit, they are likely to provide the best opportunity for new thinking on public services.
For me, the most exciting prospect is the West Midlands. The new mayor’s patch will cover eight councils, including Birmingham City, Coventry and the four councils of the Black Country. With a population of over four million, this will, with the exception of London, be the largest population in the country to have an elected mayor. Greater Manchester will only have around 2.7 million citizens. What an opportunity this presents.
One man who recognises the potential of all of this is Andy Street, the Conservative Mayoral candidate. The former John Lewis boss has exciting plans. I’ve previously written on this site about the importance of public service entrepreneurship in solving the problem of an ever-widening gap between available funding and public expectations. If anyone should understand this, it’s Street.
He has spoken recently about taking his learning from business and applying it to the public sector. Those of you familiar with the John Lewis model will know that he’s not talking about simple outsourcing and privatisation. Part of John Lewis’s success is based on the fact that there is substantial employee ownership. Street knows that commitment and “buy-in” from staff is an incredibly empowering and motivating factor which is critical to improving productivity – an idea that will please the Chancellor.
He wants to apply this to public services by encouraging more front-line staff to take ownership of the services they deliver by setting up public service mutuals – an idea strongly favoured by the Prime Minister. Street also wants to see a more balanced public service market place by encouraging more established social enterprises and mutuals to bid for contracts. For too long, public service delivery has been dominated by in-house public sector and traditional out-sourcing to the private sector. Social enterprises and mutuals occupy the middle ground between the two, combining a strong public service ethos with commercial discipline. They are the perfect disrupters for a market place that has grown a bit stale over the years.
The areas Street has earmarked are mental health services, adult skills and transport. Certainly on mental health services and adult skills there are fantastic examples of groups of staff who have taken the leap from the perceived “security” of the public sector. In Grimsby, Navigo is a mental health service which “spun out” of the NHS into a staff-owned mutual. As well as running award-winning mental health services, Navigo has made a number of investments such as buying a commercial garden centre and turning it into a social enterprise which employs service users. Can you imagine an NHS Trust trying something like this? Somerset Skills and Learning is a vibrant former council service, which is now going from strength to strength as an independent mutual. These organisations (and the more than 100 others like them) have motivated staff groups, involve service users in the governance and day to day running of the service and regularly experiment with new approaches. This is exactly the grit needed in the public service oyster.
Mutual Ventures recently ran an event in Wolverhampton which focused on the role mutuals and social enterprises can play in devolution and the future delivery of public services. The public servants charged with delivering the ambitious West Midlands Mental Health Strategy were there and they have a real appreciation of the need to involve the social enterprises and mutuals who are closest to the most vulnerable members of society. They also understand that there are exciting opportunities for new partnership between the public and social enterprise sector.
If he is successful in May, it is clear Andy Street intends to take full advantage of this historic opportunity for the West Midlands. He has given up a lot to offer himself at the ballot box and he has the demeanour of a man with a plan who won’t waste any time.