If you don’t invite us to your party then we’re not going to come

Any social enterprise observers who’d considered putting a bet on how long it would take leading figures in the social enterprise lobby to go cold on the Tories ‘Big Society’ brand will now be wishing they’d put £100 on  ‘under 3 months’.

In a refreshing break from the garbled niceties that so often serve to keep policy discussions well out of the comprehension zone of most of the small % of the general public who might be interested, Social Enterprise Coalition Chair, Claire Dove, has slammed the government’s new vanguard communities initiative saying: ‘It’s like the Emperor’s new clothes. There’s something there, but there’s nothing underneath.’

It’s true that Dove is partly cheesed off that one of the vanguard communities, whatever this is going to mean, is Liverpool but the Big Society team have decided not to talk to Blackburne House – the well known Liverpool-based social enterprise of which Dove is CEO – but given the reaction of Liverpool Council, her assessment seems reasonably accurate.

Also taking a turn in the direction of scepticism is Social Enterprise magazine editor, Tim West, who is still upbeat about some of the possibilities offered by the Big Society but dryly points out that it has now been launched at least three times without any clear explanation of what it’s going to be or do – and he also wants to know how social enterprise can actually get involved.

My overall position on Big Society is fairly similar to Rob Greenland’s. I don’t think it’s socially useful for social enterpreneurs to become either wide-eyed devotees of government policy initiatives or cynical opponents of those initiatives. We should always be open to engage with government to achieve positive social outcomes and to ask challenging questions of government to try and get them to deliver policies that make more positive social outcomes more likely to happen.

The early months of the new government period in office have seen many figures in the social enterprise lobby pursuing a PR strategy not entirely dissimilar to what the government’s been doing with the Big Society itself.

Not disconnected either as, while the government promoted the idea that the Big Society would somehow enable us to experience massive cuts in public spending without things getting extremely unpleasant, the lobby jumped on their bandwagon and explained that the social enterprise was the way to make this happen.

This changed slightly last week when Andrew Lansley published his health white paper which, whatever else it suggests, definitely doesn’t suggest that the exisiting social enterprise movement is going to be playing a major role in shaping the future of the NHS.

Now it seems that the Big Society initiative – while possibly promoting socially enterprising activity – may not involve taking a major interest in the ideas and experiences of the existing social enterprise movement.

I predict that this week’s outbursts are just the beginning of the gradual detorioration of the relationship between the government and the elements of the lobby who subscribed to the ‘our time has come’ rhetoric.

The problem is that our time hasn’t come. Ignoring the broader questions about the economy as a whole and focusing on public service delivery, with a few honourable exceptions in its current state most of the social enterprise movement can’t match the private sector for delivering services cheaper or the big players in the mainstream voluntary sector for delivering services a bit cheaper backed by a social ethos.

Given that the government needs to get some quick wins in the next couple of years, we’re not really the biggest players here. The government understands this, the social enterprise movement needs to understand it too, and get on with the job of pragmatically delivering positive social change.


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3 responses to “If you don’t invite us to your party then we’re not going to come

  1. It’s been about 5 years now since I wrote asking for support from former SEC chair Baroness Thornton at the Lords – to be disregarded.

    Reading Clare Dove express her displeasure at being marginalised reminds me of Martin Neimoller’s poem.

    “And then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up”


  2. I must admit I’m not quite sure why there is so much confusion about Big Society and what it means. We only have to look at the ideology of the conservatives to know that they believe in a small state. We can’t make needs disappear so if we have a small state (created through monumental cuts) then by definition we have to have a Big Society.

    In that case, Big Society will be the emperor’s new clothes because it isn’t a physical thing…it’s an americanisation where the state provides minimal support and everything else depends on (a) services provided by faith organisations wanting to spread their belief, (b) rich people who want to immortalise themselves by having their names on buildings, programmes, etc or (c) people who care about something so passionately that they are willing to work long hours for very little (free) in return for the other benefits that brings.

    The underlying problem with trying to create that in the UK is that (a) most of the general public aren’t that religious and (b) our underlying culture is that it is fairly vulgar to have our names plastered all over everything. and (c) there are very few people willing to work for very little regardless of the other benefits. It also means that only those things that are fashionable receive support.

    For me, Big Society is just another way of presenting Small State to the masses – just as with every ‘small state’ government there will be opportunities as long as we don’t expect any help in finding them or taking advantage of them.


  3. Pingback: The sector’s not for burning | Beanbags and Bullsh!t

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