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Cooperative and mutual approaches to public service delivery are becoming increasingly popular. The cooperative/mutual model involves service users and/or employees as the owners of service delivery organisations. Profits are distributed to members or reinvested in the organisation. Social enterprises and cooperatives already operate in a range of services, including social care, social housing, offender management and leisure services. Foundation Hospitals are seen as a successful example of the mutual model in public services.

Both the previous and current governments have promoted the idea that more public services could be run along cooperative lines. A Commission on Ownership, chaired by Will Hutton, was set up by the previous government, although its work is ongoing.

Former Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell explained the perceived benefits: ‘When a public service is mutually owned, we know staff feel that they are leading the reform process, rather than having it imposed upon them. This turns them into champions of improvement and reform, enhances feelings of solidarity and responsibility and makes staff more willing to co-operate for the common goal.’ 

During the 2010 election campaign, the Conservative Party proposed a new right for public sector workers to form employee-owned cooperatives in services such as JobCentre Plus offices, community nursing teams and primary schools. Such cooperatives ‘will continue to be funded by the state so long as they meet national standards, but will be freed from centralised bureaucracy and political micromanagement. They will have complete freedom to bid to take over other areas of government activity, or merge with other staff co-operatives if they wish.’

In office, this agenda has been connected to the wider Big Society programme.

The London Borough of Lambeth has rebranded itself as ‘the Cooperative Council', announcing a range of new initiatives: ‘when we talk about Lambeth becoming a co-operative council we are considering the opportunities to deliver traditional council services through co-operatives or mutuals. That is, not-for-profit businesses owned or part owned and controlled by local people or by the people who work there. And have set up a commission to explore how this will be taken forward.’

The mutual principles underlying co-operatives have clear links to co-production. For example, Breton links co-production to the emergence of mutual aid literatures in 1970s and 1980s, and the notion of people assuming ‘the dual roles of helper and helped’ (1999, p.35). According to ACEVO, under the mutual model, ‘We should see people not as ‘service users’ but as ‘service helpers’ and change agents.'



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Ham, C. (2010) ‘Membership governance in NHS Foundation Trusts: A review for the Department of Health’,

Hunt, P. (2010) ‘In the Public Interest’,

Lambeth Council (2010) The Cooperative Council white paper,

Michie, J. (2010) ‘A Mutual Health Service’,

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