Informing policy and debate on democratic public ownership

There is increasing evidence of the inability of the private sector to deliver affordable, effective and sustainable public services (e.g. mail, rail and utilities). Professor Andrew Cumbers’ research has developed alternative models of public ownership, which are more transparent and democratic than either privatisation or top-down state ownership. His research has shaped policy and debate in Scotland, at UK-level and internationally.

The research

Public policy debates about privatised industries have expressed concerns about their conduct and performance since their creation in the 1980s.

Cumbers’ research synthesises a range of evidence that shows more democratic ownership and public participation can greatly enhance service delivery and public policy outcomes. This approach involves giving people a direct say in the running of public enterprises (e.g. in decisions about working hours, wages, investment and new technology).

His research advocates more diverse and multistakeholder forms of public ownership and argues for more de-centred public and state models that can utilise grassroots and tacit knowledge more effectively.

From this, Cumbers has set out a framework for how democratic forms of public ownership can be deployed across different sectors of the economy.

The impact

Cumbers’ research cuts across the traditional lines of debate by critiquing both privatisation and earlier forms of top-down public ownership.

His research has come to the attention of various think tanks, political parties and media within the UK and the United States. Through these channels, it has shaped public and political debate in arguing for new democratic and diverse forms of public ownership.

In 2013, Cumbers was invited to co-write a report for the Jimmy Reid Foundation to inform Scottish public policy debates on energy policy. His contribution to the public consultation exercise was cited on three occasions by the resultant Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee Report (2018).

From 2016 onwards, Cumbers was invited to join the UK Labour Party’s working group on alternative forms of ownership, and commissioned to write a consultation on democratic public ownership for an internal policy review, which was pivotal in developing party policy.

In the US, Cumbers’ research has enabled think tank, The Democracy Collaborative (TDC), to forge stronger links with grassroots organisations. In 2017, TDC commissioned a report on public ownership, which led to Cumbers’ presentation to the Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus (the third largest caucus in US Congress).

TDC’s bold proposals on expanding democratic ownership were subsequently endorsed by Bernie Sanders during his 2020 presidential campaign.