Mutuals in the public sector: Supporting the Brave

Employee ownership can transform the public sector

Task Forces come and go. Some have dramatic success and others disappear into the long grass of political life.

The independent Mutuals Task Force (MTF) is no ordinary Task Force though. The remit of the MTF is to help public service entrepreneurs to spin out the services they manage into new businesses that are now commonly referred to as mutuals. As such the MTF is centrally involved in an emerging revolution in our public services – put simply, it is supporting the brave.

The MTF is, in the words of its Chairman, concerned with "unleashing the power of employee ownership and control". Its final report, published today, will be listened to right across the political spectrum.

Mutuals are officially defined as new businesses that have high degrees of employee ownership or control that have left their public sector parent body in order to manage and expand public services.

There is a wide variety of models and types of mutuals in terms of their legal form, business model, membership, stakeholders and investors, and they currently operate, or are being developed, in almost every part of the public sector.  There is now compelling evidence that public service mutuals raise the quality of the public services received by users, increase the returns on investment for commissioners and deliver many benefits for employees.

The Task Force report lauds the progress of public service mutualisation so far. But any revolution that seeks to change any ancien régime requires more and more collaboration from some key players inside that regime. And so, with clarity, the Task Force report makes a series of future demands on Government as a whole, individual departments, local councils, health bodies and also investors.

But the biggest "asks" are of Government. Hence, it advocates aggressive promotion of the Right to Provide – a key measure that gives employees the right to take over the public services they deliver.

It asks for proactive marketing of the range of information, advice, mentoring and finance that is available to employees contemplating mutualisation, and seeks an end to the current situation in which many new and existing mutuals compete for new contracts within processes that are designed for, and favour transactions with, large, long established, corporate organisations.

It encourages public service decision makers to overcome, via their pursuit of value for money, the cultural opposition of some of their colleagues to mutualisation in principle, irrespective of the evidence. And it does all this in the same breath as praising, quite rightly, the impressive work in support of public service mutualisation going on within some parts of Government.

It is a request for faster travel in the current direction. The recommendations and more are set out in detail in the Task Force report. Their implementation will need a major further injection of resource, energy and enthusiasm by and within Government and huge further changes in its operational behaviours. The implications for Government if it agrees with the recommendations are enormous.

This will only happen if diversification of public service delivery remains a priority for the Coalition.

I hope that the main recommendations in the report will be endorsed and acted on. I say that because I want to see a permanent obligation on Government, regardless of its political colour, to play a leading role in removing the barriers faced by employees who want to improve the services we depend on by setting up employee owned public service mutuals.

If the MTF report’s recommendations are implemented it will be fantastic to see even more public service entrepreneurs – the brave - as a direct result of that. If they are not implemented – the brave will remain the few.

Central Surrey Health is one of the largest public-sector mutuals in operation today

Iain Hasdell is the chief executive of the Employee Ownership Association the voice of employee owned businesses in the UK and a member of the Mutuals Task Force.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.