Thursday, May 03, 2012

The perils of mutuals and the possibility of co-production

Full marks to UNISON's Local Government section for convening a meeting of branches from local authorities who are part of the "Co-operative Councils network" (http://www.councils.coop/) yesterday.

It's clear that, of the small number of authorities who are formally part of the network, all are at different stages of developing their ideas - and not all are necessarily developing the same ideas.

Some Labour Councils are enthusiastically pursuing the goal of becoming a "Co-operative Council" even as they continue to define what they mean (and struggle to communicate this to senior officers). Others are sat on the sidelines watching.

I share the view held at the UNISON Centre that the "Co-op Councils" network is likely to grow, if only because Labour Councillors who did not come into politics to implement Tory cuts, yet do not see how they can avoid this, are desperate to find a political narrative to persuade themselves (and, they hope, others) that they have a purpose beyond acting as a conveyor belt for Coalition cutbacks.

UNISON branches are rightly, in general, both cautious and cynical about this initiative - but then caution and cynicism are both essential requirements on any imaginable person specification for a branch official.

The risk with this initiative is that senior officers may in some cases interpret the "Co-operative Council" as meaning no more than open season to outsource to the "third sector" and "social enterprises" (or faux mutuals) in an orgy of fluffy privatisation. Indeed, since Blairite ultras still inhabit many Council chambers, many Councillors may agree.

If Councils go down this road then unions need to resist. Protecting ourselves from privatisation by the cunning ploy of privatising services to new providers who sound nicer than Capita is quite as daft as it appears.

However, co-operation, as an ideal, need not require any outsourcing, nor the creation of a single "co-operative" (since, after all, a local authority is a democratic representative body of the whole community in any case). Co-operation can better be expressed by a focus on co-production of public services between front line workers and service users and greater collective engagement with the community in directing the development of services.

Where Labour authorities decide to go down the, still as yet unmapped, path of the "Co-operative Council", UNISON needs to adopt an approach of critical engagement which both protects (and asserts) our independent role as representatives of the interests of workers and seeks to push local authorities away from the rocks and rapids of outsourcing towards more fruitful and practical "work streams" of co-production and community engagement.

Key to protecting our independence from our employers will be our consistent and militant rejection of the implementation of Coalition cuts, including when this is done by Labour Councils. Councillors have to live with how they feel about engaging constructively on some issues with union reps who will denounce them and seek to defeat them on other issues. It's their job.

Co-operation means very little if it only means co-operation with people who already agree with you, are malleable or will do as you say.

Co-operation which empowers front line workers and service users to reshape service delivery, and which holds managers to account to those who use and provide services (rather than the other way round) does have positive potential, if we can rescue the "Co-op Councils network" from those who see them as useful stooges for privatisation.

We shall see.

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