Prime Time for Social Primes?

by Craig Dearden-Phillips 08/12/2015

What do we make of the year just gone? And what can the enterprising public servant look forward to in 2016?  

The Comprehensive Spending Review, though not as far-reaching as trailed, will now put how all public services are delivered under much tougher tests of commercialism and efficiency.

Of course, commercialism isn't simply about government-owned enterprises, or about mutuals either, but which should receive a boost in 2016 under the promised 'Right to Mutualise'.

Commercialism, in our view, should increasingly be about partnerships. Across sectors, between sectors. The future of public services needs larger, 'Hybrid' organisations with 'DNA' from across all types of organisations.

If we are to build a public realm worthy of the name, we need the commercial acuity and cost-focus of the private sector, the social innovation of the community and voluntary sector with the scale and reach of the public sector. 

These need to be big enough to win and deliver major public service contracts. Attempts to create this, so far, like the Work Programme have not quite managed to build these new, more radical forms of delivery. They have relied a bit too much on traditional prime contractor models headed by global outsourcing firms that are not always, often with good reason, fully trusted by others in the supply chain.

Instead, what is needed in this new age of public reform are a new wave of 'social primes', These need to be 'hybrids' - new, properly capitalised companies that are commercially driven but far better able to work in trust with smaller organisations and communities of users to generate a bigger, better public realm. This alignment has to come through shared mission and values.

There is, of course, a place for global companies in these models, there has to be. Only EU can bring much of what is needed in terms of capacity and organisation. But, unlike attempts to date these need to be more balanced, with a power and weighting given to social sector partners which has been lacking in the past. Only with a greater equivalence can such partnerships really deliver what is needed.

Can this happen? The positive news is that the large amounts of matching capital needed is probably there, in the balances held by Big Society Capital (BSC), and of course we have the learning of earlier, less ambitious attempts such as 3SC. Whether BSC will take this kind of leap is a question for its new CEO, Cliff Prior, who himself understands the power of partnerships between sectors, as head, for nearly a decade of Unltd.

While there are, no really good UK examples of this kind of social prime working at scale, there are interesting examples further afield. One is Groupe SOS in France, which has scores of organisations under its wing and delivers hundreds of millions of pounds of public services and is a shining example of what could be done here. Groupe SOS takes a rightly commercial approach to its mission, builds on public service values and works with communities and staff to make it all happen. There is a powerful alignment of values across the group and its different deliverers.   While the private sector isn't a formal part of Groupe SOS there are important elements of how it operates that could inform how a UK social prime might operate.

So it can be done, with the will. Let's hope that we can do better than look on in admiration.


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