So Royal Mail is to be privatised: another institution tumbling into the hands of profit-seeking capitalists, channelling yet more money from the taxpayer into private monopolies, and threatening the notion of public services themselves. So goes one narrative, one that resonates with me on a straightforward level. Since a brief post-war enthusiasm for universal public services – healthcare, education, we are now living through the ramifications of economic neoliberalism, in which efficiency comes only through the market. Since in straightened times we value efficiency above almost all else (apart from growth), depending on our temperament and tribe, we either welcome or are resigned to the dominance of the consumer market.
Stepping deeper, we find ourselves in another journey, that of the nature of the delivery of public goods by private sector providers. Most concepts and concerns split into many parts when you peer at them: so, the attraction and repulsion of private running of public services scatters into a variety of considerations. Ownership? What does that even mean? Private investment, so that risk and return becomes a shareholder concern? Accountability and democratic influence? Public and user influence? Ability of politicians to directly intervene? The risk of dropping commitments – to provide a universal service, for example? The character and nature of the shareholders? The long-term erosion of public-sector knowledge capacity? The comparative insecurity (what if a private provider goes bust)?
There’s much to unpick. But there is a story of private sector providers being able to structure themselves, and local authorities being able to structure contracts, in a way that preserves their ‘public’ nature: in essence, one that separates the finance and innovation issue (risk and return, entrepreneurial innovation) from the governance issue (ethos and accountability), and provides security both in terms of the intentions of the provider (values, trustees) and the longevity of the relationship (asset-locks). This story is seen partly through the rise of cooperatives and mutuals, partly through the emergence of B-corp and Corporate Sustainability agendas. It is a modern story, often ignored by those needing to stand firm and defend the raw purity of private enterprise, or the unselfishness and sanctity of public service.
I want to stretch this story one level deeper, and perhaps reach the point of this sketch.
Once we lived in a time of pioneers, where we could temporarily afford to reach out and grab. It was foolish to discount the ramifications of this activity, felt through the ages, but nevertheless, we thought that once we had reach a border we could reach out and draw a new one, through conquest or exploration. Just as we have been through a geographical expansionist phase, we have been through a private enterprise expansionist phase, where it is resources and rents up for grabs. Just as this period of geographical expansion has halted, this period of private enterprise is drawing to a close as we reach boundaries we cannot safely cross.
When the boundaries are drawn around a resource there is only one long-term sustainable system of management, as the Nobel-winning economist Elinor Ostrom demonstrated. It does not lie in property rights and abandonment to the market. It does not lie in monopolistic beaurocratic control. It comes in a system of private operation in an evolved system of cooperative governance. My friend and thought-colleague, Emilia Melville, is exploring one such emergent community infrastructure – in this case, a smart electricity grid – that could be managed under Ostrom’s rules. This governance framework sets actions in the context not of whether there is a market for them, but what the consequences will be for other users of the same resource and what ramifications will be felt in the entire system. It relies on a similar end-point for the delivery of all goods and services: private energy and enterprise happens in a context of community governance.
And here I’ll rest. So protest the privatisation of Royal Mail if you will. But there are deeper currents, in which the crowded nature of our space means that we will live through an age of the dramatic expansion of the meaningful elements of public ownership – not within the traditional public sector, but within an emergent network of community governance arrangements.
So this government may privatise. But the deeper currents take us further towards appropriate, collective public governance – a world full of public service.