Over the last five years, library services have been among the hardest hit by local authority budget cuts. Despite the Chancellor's summer budget revealing slightly less aggressive short-term cuts, libraries are not being shown any quarter. Against this bleak backdrop, the calm, silent persona that you expect from these bastions of society is melting away. Librarians have had enough and they are starting to take control of their own destiny.
York Libraries and Archives service is the first in the country to take the radical step to move from council-owned to a community and staff owned mutual (York Explore). Like other library services, they were faced with severe budget cuts (in fact nearly 20% in a single year). The librarians had a choice - either sit back and see their service wither on the vine - or take pro-active action. They chose the latter and through some seriously entrepreneurial activity (like partnering with adult education services, making better commercial use of their space and improving their café) they plugged the funding gap. They will be looking to grow and turn a profit (as good commercial practice) but will reinvest this in its entirety for the public good.
These librarians are the among the van guard of a new generation of public service entrepreneurs. Many public services (not just libraries but also adult social care, support services for schools and even building regulation services) face the twin challenges of reducing budgets and ever increasing service user expectations. Most services have now squeezed all they can through traditional efficiency drives and now need to think much more radically about how they can sustain their service- possibly by going it alone.
On paper, the Government are right behind this radical thinking. The Conservative manifesto clearly stated: "We have supported the growth of public service mutuals - organisations that are owned by their staff and deliver public services...this will free up the entrepreneurial spirit of public servants and yield better value for money for taxpayers."
In the context of public services, this "entrepreneurial spirit" is the combination of strong public service ethics with the discipline of the commercial sector - it is the quest to maximise a service's potential through empowering staff, engaging more effectively with service users, trading more widely and encouraging the development and prototyping of new and innovative service ideas.
So you might ask - can't this be achieved from within the public sector? The truth is it can be ferociously difficult to achieve radical change within the bureaucratic structures of the public sector. There's too much risk aversion, and years of red tape layered upon red tape can discourage staff from any sort of fresh thinking. It's possible to move towards entrepreneurialism whilst still in the public sector - but moving to a new more independent model (like the York Libraries mutual) can get rid of much of this red tape in one fell swoop.
This can have a great local benefit for the staff and users of a service - but it also contributes to an important rebalancing of public services at a macro level. At present the public services market is dominated by in-house public sector delivery (like local authorities or NHS Trusts) and traditional out-sourcing to large scale private/third sector providers (you'll be familiar with the likes of Serco and G4S). Over the last few years, there has been a gradual emergence of a new breed of organisation that gains independence from a public sector "parent" and then contracts back to deliver services. These socially focused organisations occupy the fertile middle ground between state and traditional private sector and are the natural home for the public service entrepreneur.
The librarians have shown the way - we now need many more to follow. To get things moving, we need strong, practical leadership from central government. The signals coming from Cabinet Office and other departments are very promising - but there is a huge amount of latent entrepreneurialism within public services that we cannot afford to keep locked up for much longer.