Will public sector workers fit in the co-operative movement?

Another Guest blog, this time by ChangeAGEnts which exists to create a space for active citizenship and to be a platform for older people.  Cheryl of ChangeAGEnts responded...

Another Guest blog, this time by ChangeAGEnts which exists to create a space for active citizenship and to be a platform for older people.  Cheryl of ChangeAGEnts responded to a Linkedin discussion which got me thinking about the different cultures within worker co-operatives and public services, as ex-public sector workers, here are their views.

A worker co-operative is owned and democratically controlled by the people who work in it: Public Services are owned by The People.

If the Coalition Government is successful in ʻnudgingʻ public sector workers into the co-operative movement, how will they relate to, and with, existing worker co-ops?

Our guess is that the ex-public sector co-operators will create a space within the co-operative movement to deliberate: citizenship, democratic accountability, coproduction, available resources, commissioning and ownership. They will take some time to understand and re frame the co-operative business model, including and expanding upon current government thinking on ‘wellbeing’.

They will invite existing co-operators to facilitate their understanding of the values and principles of co-operation and to help them to form multi-stakeholder, partnership based, co-operatives, building on the established core values, policy, practice and legislation relevant to their service area.

A defining principle for worker co-ops is ownership, the public sector ethos is one of service but are we really so different? The co-operative movement and the welfare state share radical roots, shouldn’t we also have a shared future, blending the best of ethical business with the best of citizen empowerment? Might we, redefine ʻownershipʼ together with the public and establish a new paradigm for Public Services

A note of caution, we in Change AGEnts chose to become a co-operative, even so it was for us a challenging, though exhilarating journey, for others, who in reality will have very little choice or control as to if and how their service is transferred, there will be pain, loss, anger and disorientation.

We’ve seen a lot written recently about the ʻspinning outʼ of Public Services, most of it focusing on reducing costs (terms and conditions of workers) or increasing profit. We have not yet heard the ʻvoiceʼ of the public or public sector workers, nor has it included the current discourse on public sector reform beyond the political ideology of the coalition government.

If essential public services are mutualised but not made sustainable and they collapse, who will the public hold to account?

A recent survey by Ipsos MORI (2010) indicates that the public want public services to be distributed fairly. Fairness in this instance being about equity and uniformity of access, the notion of a variation in quality of service’s across different localities was unpopular and considered unacceptable. 82% of respondents supported greater public involvement in public policy and service design, 53% supported individual budgets only 41% supported free schools. The Coalition Government’s agenda of shrinking the state seems at odds with the majority of the citizens of the UK, who define their ʻBritishnessʼ not by colour, class or ethnicity but by fairness, as exemplified by the welfare state.

In relation to Public Services, people do not define themselves as service users, nor do they see themselves as retail customers. (Clarke et al 2007) ʻItʼs not like “shopping” was the response from focus groups, when asked for their views on health care, it is the quality of the relationships with health care workers that is valued, along with trusting workers to reach decisions based on need not profit.

The Co-operative movement is similarly trusted and valued by the public, for example Older People that we work with, frequently recite their national insurance number, along with their co-operative membership number as proof of active citizenship. We are often given life course narratives, where good neighbours and the Co-op were essential to the survival of a family or a community. The notion that a barely elected government can transfer that sense of ʻownershipʼ or re-negotiate a cherished relationship without permission or participation, we believe is risible.

So what might happen when worker co-ops and the public sector newbie’s get together?

A radical and powerful paradigm shift that moves us out of our current silos, bringing us to a new and shared understanding of ownership, taking us beyond
Thatcher and Blair’s consumer model for Public Services, applying instead the legacy of the Rochdale Pioneers, reflecting ʻbottom upʼ the aspirations and expectations of the wider public.

Climate change, obesity, chronic disease management, inequality, the financial crisis, the ageing of society and social justice across and between generations are challenges which demand co-operative principles and shared ownership, not to come together now, may be considered by future generations as not just a missed opportunity but as a betrayal.

Co-operative Public Services that re-create the Beveredge dream for and with the 21st Century Citizen, that’s the enterprise that we would want to own in common.

Cheryl Barrott
Mervyn Eastman
ChangeAGents

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