Mutual models of ownership in the provision of NHS services will play a ‘central’ role in overcoming the challenges facing the health service, ministers have said.

In a joint letter sent to trusts last month, care minister Norman Lamb and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said: “If together we are to overcome the challenges facing the health service, we have to find ways to deliver differently.

“The mutual model, with its focus on improving the engagement and empowerment of staff, is set to play a central role.”

The comments come as part of government efforts to encourage NHS providers to sign up to a scheme allowing interested trusts to explore the potential advantages of mutualisation for all or part of their organisations.

There are currently 53 mutual organisations providing some form of service to the NHS, according to Cabinet Office figures.

The Mutuals in Health: Pathfinder Programme, which will award 10 trusts £100,000 each, forms part of the government’s response to a review into NHS staff engagement, led by the King’s Fund chief executive Chris Ham.

The funding is to be used to procure “expert support” for successful trusts in helping them explore their options, according to application documents sent out to trusts.

Interested trusts have been told the scheme is searching for providers interested in exploring “whole organisational change”.

University Hospitals of Leicester Trust, one of the largest hospital trusts in the country, has confirmed to HSJ that it has applied to the pathfinder scheme. HSJ reported last month that the trust was “very interested” in exploring becoming a staff owned social enterprise

One trust representative present at an information workshop around the scheme held in London earlier this month said: “The opening presentation… included the statement that [the Cabinet Office and the DH] were now looking at whole organisational change or involvement rather than bespoke elements [of providers].”

A Cabinet Office source said: “The pathfinder programme is designed to help trusts consider the potential advantages of the mutual model and what it would mean for them.

“The hospitals themselves will then evaluate the option and decide on potential models, with the Cabinet Office providing funding to support this evaluation process.”

An application pack sent to trusts said that while employee control of a public service mutual can take the form of ownership, it could also be present though “enhanced governance arrangements, including employee councils and elected board members”.

It added that the government’s definition of a mutual organisation includes charities, social enterprises, community interest companies, partnerships, and joint ventures.