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Making It Mutual: A radical ethic of social innovation?

19th March 2013

ResPublica Fellow and Making It Mutual contributor, Francis Davis, writes for Pioneers Post

In July 2010, fresh from electoral success, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced at Liverpool Hope University that he wanted to build a ‘big society’. It would comprise, he proposed, public service reform, new models of philanthropy, and fresh approaches to community empowerment.

Three years later, while the language of ‘big society’ has fallen by the political wayside, the legislative and reform programme that underpinned that first announcement have been driven forward at a ferocious pace: New ‘community rights’ in a huge Localism Act give civic bodies the power to challenge to run or own services and assets which they value. A Big Society Capital Fund is working at pace to create a new social finance market. ‘City Deals’ are decentralising the powers of London’s Whitehall mandarins to drive local economic growth in what will soon be twenty eight unique urban arenas. And in such localities pioneering pooled ‘community budget’ pilots are paving the way for the creative recombination of resources until now constrained by their centrally dictated budget silo or performance target. No wonder that the Labour Opposition wants to take this inventive strand of the Coalition’s life further still, and no surprise that a key meeting ground in the drive to a new consensus is the terrain of ‘mutuality’.

‘Mutualism’ of course is both a political philosophy and a general descriptor for an array of employee, client, supplier and citizen owned enterprises. Globally mutual businesses comprise the largest insurers, outstanding agricultural businesses, and football clubs. Often associated historically in the UK mind with 19th century North West England international counterparts are as old and as extensive as the 17th century South American Jesuit Reductions, 18th century Japanese credit circles and 20th century mainland European attempts to sustain collaboration in the face of rural and industrial scarcity. Likewise, the North American tradition is supported by ground breaking academic centres at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. In Spain’s Basque country the mutual movement is so large it has even spawned its own university. Back in modern Britain ‘mutuals’ are being harnessed to give fresh life, and deeper social responsibility, to the demonopolisation of rigid bureaucracies.

The £250 million Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWAC), for example, are among the most innovative in the country. A unitary authority, it comprises neighborhoods of significant wealth, rural districts and areas challenged by intense poverty and low aspiration. Even before the Labour government’s invention of ‘Total Place’ to innovate in the use of cash-flows, CWAC was trialing ‘community budgets’. Under the Coalition it has been one of a small number of designated ‘community budget’ vanguards where spending across all local state bodies is undertaken on a collaborative basis. It is now advocating a full pooling of budgets so that local agencies who invest to save may share the upsides of such investment across Whitehall silos, as well as pooling any potential risks.

As a development of this organisational re-invention, a group of senior managers are currently championing a move to a ‘mutual’ spin out of regulatory services. From car parking to marriages, environmental health to licensing, these are services currently held close by government that touch on a community’s every day activities and interests and have never before been the focus of ‘mutualising’ attention.

Thus, while the CWAC regulatory services mutual intends to become a full co-operative, its most differentiating feature is that it is exploring mutualisation in an area of service provision that until now has not been considered ‘ripe’ for such an innovation. In turn, this will require national shifts in policy and local habits so that red tape does not restrict the size of such a market as a new mutual in this area grows.

But while the Coalition’s urge to demonopolise bureaucracy is laudable in a recent pamphlet from the think tank Res Publica the case has been made to roll this ethic out across the private and civic sectors too so as to make social innovation more sustainable: From energy to housing, retail to paper manufacturing, media to banking there should be no ‘no go’ areas. For if demonopolisation is right in principle it ought evenly to be applied to private monopolies as well as public ones so as to make information flows, markets and creativity as transparent and far-reaching as possible. Entering the debate where the Coalition government leaves off the Labour opposition calls this new turn to mutualise the whole public realm, widely understood, the kernel of a new ‘one nation’ settlement. To the Conservative direction of travel then Labour is adding ingredients such as employee-employer co-determination, citizen participation and a critique of economic inequality.

For while in 2010 David Cameron may have set out to unleash extreme innovation in pursuit of a Conservative ‘big society’ he may instead, for all the Coalition’s success in this field, have created the perfect conditions for a more radical mutual ethic to pervade. Only time will tell.

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