One of the most important characteristics of the social entrepreneur is what Linford Christie, in his energy-drink advertising prime, described as a ‘positive mental attitude’. Succeeding at social enterprise usually involves believing that a combination of some good ideas, a bit of luck and and loads of hard work can add up to a better world – and often involves continuing to believe this even when you haven’t been paid for three months and the only thing left in the freezer is an unidentifiable item of dubious nutritional value.
The positivity that provides a will to succeed against the odds is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, amidst the current political and economic tumult, there’s a danger that some sections of the social enterprise movement could be seen to be celebrating the fact that there’s so many hard battles to be fought.
There’s a broad spectrum of social enterprise views on public sector cuts ranging all the way from the view that there shouldn’t be any cuts at all, to the apparent view that the more the government slashes spending, the bigger the opportunity for social enterprises to rock up and do everything much better for less money.
This paper from Charlotte Young and Nick Temple of the SSE is a thoughful contribution located around the mid point of this spectrum. The basic premise we need more collaborative, trust-based relationships and less of the expectation that professionals can and should magically solve all our problems in exchange for our taxes – with the citizen consumer asserting their rights to a high quality service which the (national) government provider is accountable for.
Given that the authors are challenging the bureacratisation of community regeneration – rather than suggesting that maverick volunteers should be able to have a go at doing open heart surgery – I’m broadly in agreement with their overall thinking but there’s one thread within the paper (and the post-election social enterprise and the public sector debate in general) that I’m less keen on:
“One reaction to a squeeze on public funding and central initiatives might be to wring ones hands and cry ‘What will happen to us? What are ‘they’ going to do about it?’ Another is to treat it as a possibly-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop an even greater sphere of valuable trust-based activity which will be much harder for any future governments to control or subvert.”
There’s (at least) two problems with this line of thinking:
1. There’s a danger it enables governments to spin cuts in support to the most vulnerable people in society as being part of a clever plan to empower those people to become community activists. Closing the local public library may – in some areas, though probably not the less well off ones – provide a spur for local residents to get some bookshelves from freecycle and pool their own collections of paperbacks in the local community centre. I’m not in the camp that would see this as social progress.
2. For every social enterprise that gets to build the Big Society there’ll be at least one (maybe several) that gets burned on the bonfire of bureaucracy. The State of Social Enterprise Survey reveals that 39% of social enterprises (out of the cross-section surveyed) get more than 50% of their funding from the state and another 10% judge their state/non-state income balance at roughly 50/50. Whether or not government cuts of 25% or more provide many of these social entrepreneurs with once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will, in many cases, depend on whether or not they’ve had the opportunity to be unemployed before.
I’m not blithely sticking some pole in the ground and defending all current public spending, or all current government grants to and contracts with social enterprises. Nor am I denying the underlying good sense of looking for better ways for people – professionals and people who use services – to work together to do things as well as possible with less money. What I am questioning is the idea that swinging cuts in public spending mean that, for social enterprise, ‘our time has come’. My strong suspicion is that when the big spending squeeze really begins to hit home, for many social enterpreneurs and social enterprises, the exact opposite will be the case.