Tuesday saw the departure into the sunset of the Social Enterprise Ambassadors marked with a celebratory evening at Coin Street (more on this later).
Opinion on the closing speech from Civil Society minister, Nick Hurd, ranged from Allison Ogden-Newton‘s view that Hurd was ‘passionate’ in outlining his commitment to social enterprise to Liam Black‘s view that the ministerial contribution was ‘shallow and cliche ridden.’
My view lies somewhere in between. As junior ministers go, Hurd is a strong performer. He seems like a genuinely decent bloke and his short speech was well judged for the occasion – in the sense that it was positive, good-humoured and didn’t involve too much ‘big P’ politics. Where I’m with Liam Black is that bit of it that was political revealed the ongoing gap between the coalition government’s pro-social enterprise and the practical reality of what they’re doing.
What they’re doing, according to Hurd, is:
- cutting bureaucracy to make it easier to start a business,
- launching the Big Society Bank,
- encouraging public sector workers to spin-out their services into social enterprises and
- encouraging public sector commissioners to commission social enterprises to deliver public services.
As far as existing social enterprises are concerned, only the the fourth of these measures is practically useful and – conveniently or otherwise – it’s the one that central government has the least ability to actually deliver.
Cutting bureaucracy is fairly neutral. The actual process of starting a business in the UK is not very complicated and I’m dubious about whether people who are unable to do it are likely to be very good at running a business, even if the process of starting-up was made easier. Of course, running a small social enterprise would be easier if it was cheaper – as I’ve suggested before, maybe social enterprises could pay less employers’ National Insurance.
The Big Society Bank, as far as we know, is like to make a relatively small contribution to a niche area of financial demand.
The spinning out of public sector services into social enterprises is a definitely a good thing for the social enterprise lobby but (at best) it’s a distinctly mixed blessing for the movement as a whole. Most current social enterprises are small providers who often provide locally-focused and or specialist services fitting into gaps in public sector service provision. Social enterprises who find their local PCT delivery arm or large department of their local council has become a (possibly nominal) social enterprise are not going to find it easier to compete for public sector contracts.
These new spun-out behemoths will have most of the advantages of being a large public sector organisation – resources, contacts and understanding of commissioning processes – with the added bonus of theoretically being social enterprises. Supporters of high-level spin-outs would argue that social enterprise is about finding ways to deliver positive social outcomes and this may involve changes that cause existing social enterprises to struggle or go out of business. This a perfectly honorable position but not one that helps small social enterprises very much.
It seems that there’s at least three partially competing narratives in the coalition’s approach to social enterprise:
- The spin-out services narrative – that’s mostly about finding ways to deliver cheaper and better public services through new social enterprise vehicles, and offers little to existing social enterprises.
- The Big Society narrative – that mainly involves volunteers doing stuff for free to replace axed services with limited state support – and involves small social enterprises if they can develop effective business models that don’t require ongoing state support.
- The Centre for Social Justice narrative – that involves recognising the role of local charities and social enterprises in local service delivery and seems most conscious of the fact that while volunteering is important, existing local community activity is both vitally important and does cost money.
In terms of what’s happening so far, the first two narratives are currently the dominant ones. The social enterprise lobby has to balance the competing challenges of supporting new spun-out social enterprise to make sure they really do embrace the values of the movement as well as the social enterprise label while also defending the interests of the majority of organisations in the current movement who – from what we’ve heard so far – don’t stand to benefit from looming political developments.
Others’ thoughts on this much appreciated. Would be keen to hear from Big Society people on how existing social enterprises can get involved.