By John Hitchen
The launch of Social Value Ethos at the Transition Institute was a fascinating event – the quality really coming from the insights and discussion between three individuals who had moved, or were in the process of moving, a public sector service out into the private sector and created a new social enterprise to deliver that service. In the report, these individuals are referred to as Change Leaders. I would highly recommend the report, and the other literature on the TI website about this complex subject matter. There are many issues that feed into the debate around public sector ‘transitions’, and in this post I am not going to focus on the broader issues of efficacy or whether it is the right thing to do, but rather on the cost of the “transition” itself.
It was deeply striking to me that those leaders at the event, and those featured in the publication, were the ones shouldering the transition cost. They were working much longer hours at much higher stress levels – effectively doing two jobs, as one suggested. There is a cost to this process, and through their labour, these individuals were covering it. There was talk of the personal cost to relationships, to time and also a need to buy more hair dye!
Much of the conversation here and at other events I have been to about this topic has centred on the impressive nature of those individuals involved and I am not for one moment going to debate that – they are highly impressive and passionate individuals. If this is to be a sustainable movement though, where all suitable teams or entities have the opportunity to transition out of the public sector if that is the best thing for the social value and the outcomes of that service, then there have to be more mechanisms to distribute the risk and cost of transition.
The optimistic view is that you need to work with great people, and once we collectively identify enough of them and collect the evidence of their work and tell their stories, the tone of the debate will shift and organisations will try and create the space for more people to take on this type of work. These vanguard individuals will change the way others think and act and create a new space for others to move into more easily. This is a tempting analysis, and may well be proven to be true.
The pessimistic view would be that only those services with this type of person have the chance of spinning out – because that type of person is a necessary factor in transitioning out of the public sector. If this is the case, then the movement will have failed. Brilliant though these people are, it is surely more about the service than the individual, and we should be encouraging the right services to move out of the public sector, not just those with great leaders. Given the high costs of transition, this view suggests that organisations are not willing to deliver both their service, and support a transition – only a committed individual will do this.
Both of these views, however, rely on the assumption that this is the only way to do it. I’m interested in whether there are other mechanisms to move the risk (and the transition cost) around. The two views imply that host public services might take on some of the cost. The optimistic view is one that over time the public sector will better facilitate the process, the negative is that very few public services will be too tightly squeezed. Whilst I hope to see a level of facilitation following the learning, it is difficult to expect budget holders to spend their resource on transitioning a service, rather than the delivery of a public service. Unless there is a very quick return on investment – this is not likely (nor do I think it is appropriate).
A further option could be other organisations. Are there existing social enterprises that could perhaps create joint vehicles with the public sector or with employees, so as to share the risk? Could, for argument sake, Andrew Burnell at City Health Care Partnership, set up a joint venture with staff in Scunthorpe? They would benefit from the experience of City Health Care Partnership, the risks are moved around a little more and a new enterprise is formed. At Renaisi we’re exploring this option with several local authorities that we know – ranging from taking on services that they can no longer afford (but which we believe in), through to creating joint ventures with public sector bodies to deliver on shared aspirations.
I’m interested in other models of how to achieve these aims. There could be several routes being explored, and the question is how do we deliver on the outcomes discussed in the paper – an increased social value? Understanding how individual leaders are working is essential, and that learning must be shared, but other avenues need to be explored too.