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‘It is not just about public versus private’ - Discussing New Ways of Organizing Public Services

The workshop 'Alternative Ways of Organizing Public Services and Work in the Public Sector: The role of Public-Public Partnerships', which took place on July 4-5, 2013 at the Ver.di headquarters in Berlin, was an offshoot of a research project undertaken by Edlira Xhafa during her time as a junior fellow with the Research Group on Post-Growth Societies at the University of Jena. Bringing together around 30 researchers and activists from trade unions and NGOS from five continents, the event was organised and supported by the Kolleg Postwachstumsgesellschaften, the German services union Ver.di, Friedrich-Ebert- Stiftung, Public Services International, Public Services International Research Unit and the Austrian Arbeiterkammer.


The workshop was intended as a forum for discussing the main findings of Xhafa's research with public sector trade unionists, academics and practitioners. It also aimed at supporting and broadening the existing dialogue among trade unionists, practitioners and academics on Public-Public Partnerships (PuPs) and alternative forms of organising public services and work in the public sector.
To start the discussion, David Boys of Public Services International (PSI) gave an overview of the main challenges facing public-sector trade unions across the world. According to Boys, unions will have to bring down barriers between themselves and communities because not all problems can be solved at the bargaining table. Furthermore, researchers working with activists should invest more time to analyse and explain the causes of success in political struggles so that this knowledge can be used in future political action.

Edlira XhafaAfter these introductory remarks, Edlira Xhafa presented a number of key findings of her research: Xhafa stated that in many ways, PuPs represent an important strategy against privatisation as well as Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) and serve to create spaces for thinking and experimenting on alternative forms of organising public services and work in the public sector. This is particularly so for those PuPs which have sought to involve workers and communities to enhance the "publicness" of public services, i.e. to pursue goals of democratising the services, enhancing efficiency, equity, sustainability and solidarity. Workers' involvement in PuPs can also open spaces for new ways of reorganising work in the public sector. In this context, Xhafa emphasized, it is very important to see PuPs more as a process than as an end in itself.

The afternoon panel was all about water: Marcela Olivera from Bolivia, who was involved in the Cochabamba fight against the privatization of water and now coordinates the inter- American water network 'Red Vida', talked about forms of water supply in Latin America. She emphasised the need to view struggles for affordable water supply for all as not just being about "public versus private" but also about transparency and the active participation of community members. Al-Hassan Adam, who works with Oxfam UK, spoke about the fight for re-nationalization of Ghana's water supply system after it was privatized in 2005 under pressure from the IMF.

Al-Hassan Adam   Christa Hecht   Esteban Castro

Esteban Castro (University of Newcastle, UK) talked about the situation in Latin America: despite the political left-of-centre turn in many Latin American countries, the inertia of still-dominant neoliberal thought presents a critical challenge for universal access to water and sanitation.
Mary Ann Manahan of Focus on the Global South in the Philippines spoke about water management in communities throughout Asia through Public-Public Partnerships between water authorities, local communities and trade unions. She emphasized that these partnerships have led to increased efforts not only to supply water to the communities but also to conserve and protect the watershed. Emanuele Lobina (PSIRU) presented the example of an EU funding programme for PuPs, which included both North-South partnerships and South-South partnerships. Christa Hecht, Executive Director of the Allianz der öffentlichen Wasserwirtschaft e.V., the Alliance of Public Water Providers in Germany, gave an overview of the situation of water provision in Germany and argued that indeed the Alliance itself could be considered a PuP. While stressing that public water provision in Germany has gone along with strong employee representation and intense cooperation between different public entities for many decades, Hecht also pointed to the increasing interest of citizens in water politics as expressed in various initiatives for remunicipalisation of water services and a more meaningful role for communities in running them.

Richard Pond & Edlira Xhafa.The following panel dealt with the organization of municipal services. Jane Lethbridge of PSIRU discussed the role of trade union involvement in innovation in the public sector. In presenting a case study on the struggle against privatisation of the City of Newcastle's IT services, Hilary Wainwright showed how innovation took place through struggle and experience as managers, politicians and trade unions, supported by popular political mobilisation of communities, came together to challenge centralised knowledge. Richard Pond, policy officer of the European Federation of Public Service Unions, warned against wholesale criticism of existing public services. He emphasized the successful lobbying by unions and NGOs all across Europe to have water excluded from the proposed concessions directive as well as the first panel on the second day of the workshop dealt with the energy sector: both Sandra van Niekerk of PSIRU, South Africa, and Mansour Cherni, the National Coordinator for the Fédération Nationale de l'Electricité et du Gaz in Tunisia, spoke about the latest developments in Africa, while Peter Arnold, head of the works council at Mainova AG, Frankfurt's public energy provider, focused on Germany.

The first panel on the second day of the workshop dealt with the energy sector: both Sandra van Niekerk of PSIRU, South Africa, and Mansour Cherni, the National Coordinator for the Fédération Nationale de l'Electricité et du Gaz in Tunisia, spoke about the latest developments in Africa, while Peter Arnold, head of the works council at Mainova AG, Frankfurt's public energy provider, focused on Germany.

IHilary Wainright & Wolfgang Uellenberg -van Dawen.n her input on energy supply in Africa, Sandra van Niekerk focused on renewable energy sources as they offer the chance to end energy poverty in much of Africa. She made a strong case for fighting for more public involvement in renewable energies: private companies are currently the main investors in renewable energy in Africa but they base their decisions on profit which makes them unreliable partners especially when it comes to serving poor communities. Mansour Cherni spoke about the efforts that are mentalists start to organize against the planned drillings since fracking requires a lot of water in a region already marred by water shortages. Peter Arnold presented a very different case: the Thüga group is the largest association of municipal service providers in Germany, aiming at maintaining communal values and the power of communities to influence their public services. While workers are involved through processes of codetermination, communities' involvement is channelled through political processes at the local level.

In engaging with these issues, Christoph Herrmann of the Working Life Research Centre in Vienna attempted to summarize and systematize the discussions of the different panels. He identified a number of preliminary categories into which the different forms of PuPs can be grouped:

(1) PuPs focusing on knowledge sharing and capacity building (developmental assistance, mainly in North-South Partnerships);

(2) PuPs aiming at increased participation and involvement, including community and trade union involvement (co-management?);

(3) Forms of cooperation between public organizations on a not-for-profit base; and

(4) Networks of public organizations (including co-ownership).

Furthermore, he pointed to a potentially problematic 'openness' of the concept: While in many countries, PuPs are primarily developed as alternatives to privatization, they can also appear as alternatives to centralised state provision or as substitutes for state provision in countries or regions that altogether lack basic services. Thus, while PuPs normally aim at the improvement of services and/or at enabling ecological transitions, they could in some cases also turn out to be a channel for commodification. Still, as Oliver Prausmueller of the Arbeiterkammer argued, the concept of PuPs is a useful notion in the current debate on public sector development, as it raises basic questions of key values and the meaning of public services.
The final session focused on identifying the main areas for future research and activities. While the participants appreciated the space for discussions and debate provided by this workshop, they pointed to the need for more work on the terminology of PuPs and on issues of "publicness", for more evidence on the potential role of PuPs in democratising public services and improving communities' and workers' involvement, as well as sources of public financing and taxation. The participants expressed the need to link this initiative to other ongoing initiatives undertaken by various existing networks and to disseminate research on useful, appropriate and popular forms of partnerships.