Refining the message

An interesting tonal shift at the Social Enterprise Coalition where Chief Executive Peter Holbrook issued this cautious statement on the eve of the general election.

I’m probably competing with Rob Greenland to be the blogger least likely to disagree with statements such as:

“Social enterprises are not panaceas, and they’re not perfect – they will have their ups and downs like any business.”

“Whatever form they take, they are based on the principles of mutualism, coproduction and participation and as such they offer an organisational form that is accountable and gives people a voice – and this is the important part – should they wish to use it.” – I’ve left out the italics I’d usually use for quotes to leave Holbrook’s emphasis in place.

but I’m surprised, as I gather are leading figures in the lobby, that Holbrook chose the day before the election to take this particular tack.

The Coalition has reached an interesting point. The previous Chief Executive, Jonathan Bland, was a phenomenally successful lobbyist and he succeeded in taking the idea of social enterprise from absolutely nowhere to being a key plank of the manifestos of all three major political parties.

The problem was that, under Bland, the development of actually-existing social enterprises in the UK outside the corridors of power didn’t proceed as quickly as the positive messages proceeded through Whitehall.

This may be partially because unlike, for example, ACEVO – which is very successful in lobbying and working in the interests of its members (which its team would obviously say are also the interests of society as a whole) – the Coalition under Bland lobbied heavily and successfully in the interests of social enterprise as an idea rather than specifically lobbying and working in the interests of social enterprises or social entrepreneurs.

To take a fairly crude illustration of this: it’s in the interests of social enterprise as an idea for the delivery wing of the local PCT to opt-out of the NHS and call itself a social enterprise but it’s not really in the interests of pre-existing small local social enterprise providers of health services who – having previously been faced with a local behemoth that was (to some extent) handicapped by its public sector structures – are now facing a competitor that’s as big and well in with decision makers as it was before but also probably more efficiently administrated.

I’m not saying that’s an argument against policies such as right to request but it creates a tension between the interests of social enterprise as an idea and the interests of the majority of organisations that make up the social enterprise movement.

In the wider voluntary sector – because it’s much bigger – there’s different organisations (ACEVO, NCVO, NAVCA) to represent groups with overlapping but slightly different interests and there isn’t the need to lobby in favour of the actual existence of the voluntary sector as an idea because, whether or not they call it the voluntary sector, no one disputes that it exists.

So the social enterprise lobby is faced with a circle that needs squaring but the only option is to find a reasonable balance between promoting the idea and promoting and supporting the work of people that are already carrying it out.

I reckon SEL do this reasonably well in terms of both promoting the idea and offering practically useful support services and events to existing organisations and socially entrepreneurial individuals in London.

The Coalition’s key messages from the last decade: ‘the general public doesn’t know what social enterprise is, give us cash to tell them’ and ‘the public wants social enterprises to deliver public services’ have, irrespective of their contradictory nature, been heavily slanted towards the ‘promoting the idea’ end of the spectrum.

The mark debacle aside, my hope is that Holbrook’s election message is a signal that the coalition is going to start showing a bit more interest in social enterprises and social enterpreneurs and the actual stuff that they do. Others in the lobby may worry that, in issuing this statement, he’s also inadvertently saying: “don’t blame us when social enterprise doesn’t solve everything”. I think that’s a reasonable point too but it definitely is an interesting time to make it.

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