Can co-operatives safeguard UK public services?

Jan Myers

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


    What has distinguished public sector agencies in the past has been ‘their stewardship over resources that are not under the control of any other private or public actor’ (Klein et al., 2013, p. 74). The public sector in establishing a collective or common ownership ‘in the name of all citizens’ (Bovaird and Löffler, 2009, p. 5) is therefore distinctive from the ‘private’ sector, even where the latter is delivering essential services on behalf of the state. This is especially relevant in the UK where there is an observed disconnect between stewardship and safeguarding, and commodification of public goods. For example, the recent reclassification of housing associations (social housing providers many of which are charities) to public organisations at a time of housing crisis (Orr, 2017) may enable easier transfer of assets from public to private through tenants’ right to buy schemes. While charities may be seen as ‘private’, the legislative arrangements surrounding their practice means individuals do not have direct ownership of goods, and said goods cannot be transferred unless to another charitable trust. In many regards they, together with modern philanthropy and organisations such as community land trusts, provide ‘public good by private means’ (Davies, 2015).

    This exploratory paper aims to open discussion of public entrepreneurship through the examination of the emergence of new forms of governance and ownership structures of public service providers. A question, Conaty (2014, p.4) poses, for example, is, ‘is there a democratically accountable ownership model for health and care services that could make a difference? Re-positioning service delivery models around mutual values and principles may raise opportunities for co-creating and co-producing services, but it also necessitates a critical look at the perceived benefits. There are, for example, arguments pointing to the resilience of mutual organisations. There is some evidence (see for example, Lampel et al. 2012) suggesting that employee-owned businesses are at least as profitable as investor-owned businesses, are at lower risk of failure, and can provide social as well as economic benefits. Much of the research to date, however, has concentrated on mutuals operating as businesses in the private sector, rather than as public service providers.

    Using publicly available statistical information and case materials, the paper considers whether ‘non-public’ organisations – a broader umbrella term that incorporates third sector organisations, social enterprises, spin-out organisations from local government and health, social and multi-stakeholder co-operatives, and other non-profit actors (Wollmann, 2015, p. 3) - are transforming and innovating services while safeguarding the values of the NHS and other public services; or whether they are contributing to continued commodification and privatisation of public sector services.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2017
    EventUKSCS 50th Anniversary Conference: The Co-operative Common Wealth - Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom
    Duration: 1 Sept 20173 Sept 2017


    ConferenceUKSCS 50th Anniversary Conference
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
    CityNewcastle upon Tyne


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