Privatizing Public Works in the UK

Prime Minister David Cameron has put revamping social services at the top of his agenda. His plan, in a nutshell, is to shift responsibility for delivery of social services to the private sector– thereby increasing GDP and employment by creating jobs.

The business opportunities for this are numerous, if it works. Many fear that government budget cuts will lead to a shambles with larger gaps in public service provision, small business financing, and rising unemployment. Business Secretary Vince Cable said that the abolition of the regional development agencies was “chaotic.”

In a speech Monday, upon the release of the government’s ‘Business Plans’ outlining how social enterprises will be integrated into public service provision, Prime Minister Cameron said, “Instead of bureaucratic accountability to the government machine, these Business Plans bring in a new system of democratic accountability – accountability to the people.  So reform will be driven … by the consistent, long-term pressure of what people want and choose in their public services.”

Which sounds great– but there’s a lot that has to come off correctly for the Big Society to work.

Economist David Boyle defined co-production at a conference for practitioners in Manchester last week:

“Delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professional people using service, their families and neighbours; where activities are co-produced in this way both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change.”

He added, “If it isn’t about change, it isn’t co-production.”

This model is indeed more complex than US based public-private partnerships like utilities or charter schools and how co-production practitioners themselves define it is still evolving. At the conference on co-production, practicioners urged each other not to get hung-up on classifying what it is they do– calling it social enterprise or public-private partnerships– but to work instead on core principles and best practice in the doing.  The naming of it will come later.

The core tenets in co-production include the assumption that all people have the innate, organic assets to share. The process is about harnessing those abilities in a positive aspirational manner, to create a reciprocal experience that is self-reinforcing, and over-time therefore, able to grow and change within a given community.

Co-production creates effective change by actively and continually measuring impacts.  Measurement is an area with deep business opportunity: Co-production seeks to instill the skills and awareness necessary for users to continue to produce their own research, their own data and then communicate it (thus, active).

According to members of the co-production community– service designers, charities, and social entrepreneurs– the government doesn’t quite understand the full extent of what they have to offer. They feel as though the Conservative party has just jumped on the movement’s potential for decentralisation, slimming bureaucracy and increased profit.

At a panel on the Big Society at the Conservative Party conference early last month, Fay Selvane, CEO of the Big Life Group and Peter Holbrook, CEO of the Social Enterprise Coalition expressed reservations at the government’s plans for the ‘Big Society,’ saying that the government doesn’t understand that what social enterprise has to offer is difference in interaction with end users and a different set of values.

After expressing concern about volunteers being taken advantage of, a representative of Volunteer England at the Demos panel was told by Francis Maude, MP that, in his experience, people like to take responsibility.

But for co-producers the immediate way forward is about standardising how co-production works so that as a practice, it doesn’t get swallowed up in a government policy.

According to co-producers the decentralised aspect of the government’s co-production agenda doesn’t work. Julia Slay writes, “while the actual process and activities can vary, it almost always looks and feels the same as the principles which underpin the approach are manifested in everyday practices, as well as in strategic level governance.”

In other words co-production isn’t something that will benefit from too much decentralisation.  Linked networks are a vital part of the co-production process to disseminate values and experiential learning.  The government budget cuts have fostered the need for co-produced services (vacuum left by government in the market) but not the system to make it work.

In a web2.0 fashion, the government plans to take advice until the end of year, and publish a white paper with its findings and intended next steps in early 2011.

Ann Danylkiw is a freelance writer and digital media producer. Her background is Finance and Development Economics.While writing for Triple Pundit, she is currently producing her first social experiment / digital documentary, the lives in London but visits 'home' in Wisconsin during the summer.

One response

  1. Thanks very much for the write-up. Interesting to root it firmly in the ‘big society’ discourse. Will be interesting to see how this moves forward – how the conference can help contribute to and perhaps critique this discourse.

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