It only really hits home that there’s a new government in office when one of their favourite thinktanks brings out a report and you actually bother to read it. The IPPR, the Fabians and Demos (in those days leaning towards New Labour) now gaze back nostalgically on the 1997-2000 period when their ideas where close enough to the agendas of a new government to matter beyond the worlds of academics and political anoraks.
Now the centre-right are in the ascendant and Phillip Blond’s Respublica is perceived to be so important that it’s worth taking their latest outpouring on a long train journey and battling through to the bitter end.
In fact, The Venture Society, produced in association with Unltd and launched at Shine 2010 a couple of weeks ago, is mostly very good. Amidst the babble and counter-babble about The Big Society, it’s a document that actually makes some practical suggestions.
Essentially, it’s a blueprint for stimulating grassroots social enterprise by increasing investment and support while reducing bureaucracy. The central feature of the plan is the creation of local community ‘lablets’ – effectively local incubators for social enterprise that will invest in local social entrepreneurs’ ideas and support their development to a level where they have a sustainable business serving the local community.
The context of this intervention is not what it might seem. For all its bluster about social enterprise being the way forward, and some interesting small scale initiatives, New Labour never made any clear effort to help people start social enterprises to do anything other than deliver public services. This may have been based on the quite legitimate opinion that supporting people to start social enterprises in local communities was no more important than general business support but it sat uneasily with their rhetoric.
On the one hand, we had the government and the Social Enterprise Coalition participating in an ever more intense two-way verbal backslapping contest, on the other hand the average person looking to set-up up a social enterprise in their local area was not benefiting from any meaningful practical interventions to make setting up a social enterprise easier than setting up a normal business. The suggestions outlined in The Venture Society would change that situation a lot, building on the existing relatively smallscale success of Unltd itself and other support organisations such as the SSE.
The Venture Society is (deliberately) a publication that looks at the mechanisms that could help the development of social enterprises and the work of social entrepreneurs, rather than a publication about the possible impacts of social enterprise activity or the question of whether social enterprise the best way of delivering positive social change.
One thing that’s not yet clear is how the drive to stimulate social enterprise fits in with the wider Big Society agenda. At a training event last week, the manager of a successful local voluntary organisation explained to me that social enterprise was an idea that was being promoted by politicians to destroy the voluntary sector by turning it into business – a more local example of this kind of discussion.
If the new government wants civil society to help deliver its agenda of solving social problems while also drastically reducing public spending, it may not want to wind-up the mainstream charitable bits of the voluntary sector by pushing the idea of social enterprise and, as The Venture Society advocates, diverting cash for third sector capacity building into developing social enterprise.
Having said that, it wouldn’t be impossible for the ‘lablets’ idea to support the development of enterprising grassroots organisations and activities that could be a mixture of social enterprises, charities or other structures. It’s too soon to say what, if anything, will come of these ideas wants if and when they end up being chewed over by those that dwell in the corridors, and none of this makes looming cuts in public spending seem any more pleasant but, from a social enterprise point of view, there’s interesting times ahead.