Amongst the deluge of (often anguished) reaction to last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review have been some interesting points from leading figures in the social enterprise world. For example, in June, Social Enterprise Coalition chief executive, Peter Holbrook, was sure that our time had come. Four months on, this view has now been significantly revised to something along the lines of ‘our time would’ve come, if only the people who might pay us to do stuff had the foggiest idea about who we are and what we do’.
Holbrook’s concern is that, charged with shaving millions from the cost of delivering public services, councils will act quickly to dish out contracts to established private sector providers rather than exploring social enterprise options that will ultimately offer a better overall impact.
Referring to local government commissioners, Holbrook told Social Enterprise magazine that: “Many don’t know about the social enterprise movement and could miss opportunities to commission better services or enable public sector staff to create social enterprises, and there is evidence that this is already happening,” and added that “Social enterprise must not lose out to the private sector simply because commissioners already know that private sector providers exist locally. The danger will be that social enterprises will not be considered or invited to tender, even though they are experienced and good at making savings while protecting the quality of services.”
Ok, fair enough. But then he calls on the government to step in: “Before local authorities make further cuts to services to satisfy the 7.1 per cent annual chop in their budgets, central government must take steps to remove the barriers that prevent social enterprise delivering services, otherwise they risk being pushed out of the market, which would be a disaster at this point.”
While I’m not known for my sympathy towards the lobby, I don’t think this is a wholly mistaken intervention. Holbrook is absolutely right to suggest that conventional approaches to austerity outsourcing don’t favour social enterprises (most of whom are fairly small). The question is what, if anything, government can or should do about the situation he describes.
My instinctive reaction, as someone who runs a social enterprise, is that if my social enterprise is capable of delivering a service but the people who might commission me to deliver that service have never heard of me, that’s primarily my fault. Maybe my company has been so busy fulfilling existing contracts or funding agreements that we haven’t had time to spread the word about who we are and what we do but, if that’s the case, that’s hardly an argument in favour of our ability to be able to take on additional business if it becomes available.
There are lots of barriers that make it hard to move from being a tiny company to a fairly small one and from a fairly small company to a medium-sized one – including being able to allot enough staff time to putting in tenders for the contracts you have been lucky enough to find out about – but is it possible (or right) for the government to intervene to make that process easier for social enterprises that it is for other hard-working business people.
What are the barriers that fundamentally affect social enterprises while not affecting other businesses of a similar size? And, if social enterprises are businesses competing in a market – albeit, I highly politicised one – on what basis can we demand that the market is distorted/modified (delete according to preference) in our favour? I have ideas but no fixed position on either of these questions. Interested to hear what others think.