Alternative models of business – time for a change?

John McDonnell at Labour Party Alternative Models of Ownership conference

John McDonnell speaking at Alternative Models of Ownership conference

Last weekend the Labour Party held a conference, where it launched a report highlighting Alternative Ownership Models. It criticised the prevailing model of public service delivery and highlighted some of the failures of the corporate sector.  It also challenged the old idea that renationalisation means bringing services back inside the public sector itself.

I too have written on many occasions about important lessons that big business could learn from alternative business models, e.g. social enterprises, particularly with regard to delivering public sector services. As we continue to see high profile private sector/corporate service delivery debacles, which put shareholder interests before people and communities; Carillion, Virgin Care, G4S to name just a few recent examples (not mentioning the banking sector!), I can’t help thinking that we should surely have reached a turning point by now?

There is another way, which offers a credible alternative to this corporate approach; social enterprise offers a flexible business approach to tackling key social issues, without the over-riding pressure to make profits for shareholders and investors. Frustratingly though, the response usually seems to be ‘how can we get social enterprises to scale up to meet the needs of commissioners and become more like corporates?’ By focusing purely on growth, the risk is that services become routinely standardised and therefore lack the flexibility to tailor services to the needs of the public. How many times have you been stuck on the end of a phone to a call centre only to speak to someone who has a standard response and can’t understand your individual issue and provide a satisfactory solution?

Social enterprises can offer a more flexible tailored approach that actually focusses on local need rather than ‘efficiency savings’ aimed at providing dividends and bonuses for shareholders, directors and investors.

Thankfully, consumers seem to be cottoning on quicker than the powers that be; the recent 2017 Ethical Consumer Markets Report showed that almost ¼ of respondents reported buying goods/services specifically because of a company’s ethical reputation, a 28% increase on the previous year. Hopefully this trend will force the hand of the public and corporate sector – to compete and survive, they will need to prove they are creating a positive impact on society and the world around us.

Although it may be considered naïve to think that we may see a day when social enterprise becomes the business model of choice, I would like to think that at the very least we may see an era where big businesses take inspiration from the example set by social enterprise, to consider public value as a key criterion when making decisions, rather than the other way around. I’ve lost count of the times when we have been required to listen to corporates tell us how to do things.  It would also be great to see more attention being paid to the motivations of the business rather than just putting a good bid together that over promises and under delivers.

Key lessons can be learned, much of it concerning change in the corporate mentality – profit is of course important for survival, but this shouldn’t come at the expense of everything else. There needs to be an end to ‘lip service’ and meaningless CSR claims, replaced by a system that looks realistically at the promises made by bidders and their track record (e.g. what is it at the expense of…. customers, beneficiaries, patients, students?).

Corporations need to view society and the environment as truly active stakeholders and therefore should consider public interests as a high priority when designing and delivering services.


Adapted from a guest blog written for Your Public Value, published on 9th February 2018