In today's local government, efficiency has to be a big part of any changes to services. So is this something mutual structures can deliver? Or are they little more than a frivolity that should be saved for less straitened times?
Adopting a truly co-operative model involves a rethinking of the relationship between the council and the community it serves, rather than simply a redesign of the mechanics of service delivery. But that doesn't mean that it can't improve service delivery. If we need to offer personalised and joined-up services that empower and give responsibility to communities, what could be more appropriate than a structure that gives citizens a voice and a sense of ownership and encourages collaboration?
A key feature of the mutual structure is its flexibility. New mutual organisations tend to value their freedom from nationally agreed or dictated methods of working. This is not primarily about paying less; it is more often about working more flexibly and making the best use of people's time.
Mutuals can also find ways of rewarding staff beyond the public sector norms where their performance or the performance of the organisation justifies it. Importantly, through the stake that staff and the local community have in their organisation they have a stronger sense of ownership and responsibility.
This creates an environment in which over time people can have more rational discussions about doing things differently. In successful mutuals, staff take pride in the service which is delivered and understand how their work contributes to the whole. They are prepared to be more flexible, whether in the hours of day they work or in the type or amount of work they do. They may also be more sympathetic to action taken to deal with those who are not contributing properly.
The community stake, too, can change the way the organisation works. For those who choose to become members, their relationship with that service transforms the way they deal with problems. Instead of simply complaining about a state service, hoping the issue gets to the right people, they can be given a real involvement in driving change. Letting the people who use the service say how it ought to work is completely logical and is a concept that is the founding principle of well-run mutuals.
The community stake may also alter the way people use services over time. Service providers are more easily able to set up a dialogue with the community, to get them talking about what makes a difference to efficiency and performance. It can encourage them to take responsibility for a service that they own.
If you are dealing with a provider that is your mutual, you are more likely to think twice about the demands you are making on it, and the effect that might have on the service and other users. This is the holy grail of the mutual project – allowing providers to deliver services more cheaply not by making cuts, but by reducing demand.
This will not happen immediately but it is a legitimate goal. Mutual organisations in other sectors have found this to be true. In the insurance sector, statistics show that members of the Friendly Societies tend not to claim unless they really need to. Those dealing with private insurance companies, however, will claim for anything in order to get the most they can out of their provider.
Like users of mutual public services, Friendly Societies members understand their responsibility to maintain that society, which is there to support them and others in their time of need.