Well, possibly. Aside from the joy expressed by the Social Enterprise Coalition(SEC)‘s Peter Holbrook, there seems to have been a fairly muted in the social enterprise world to the (initial) passage of Chris White MP’s private member’s bill ‘The Public Services (Social Enterprise and Social Value)’.
My guess is that this lack of celebration says less about the event itself and more about the fact that most of us – whether working for social enterprises or support organisations – are so busy scrabbling around trying to ensure our organisations make it to this promised land of social value that we haven’t had time to celebrate its creation.
This bill is a positive step. It’s too soon to say whether (if and when it ultimately becomes law) it will have a significant practical impact but the principle that commissioners of public services should “consider taking into account economic, social and environmental value, not just price, when buying goods and services” is a good one.
It’s easy to forget that large scale outsourcing of public services in the UK is a relatively new thing. The fact that we’ve now reached a point where all mainstream political parties officially agree that commissioning of services can be a vehicle for delivering positive social change beyond what’s delivered by the services themselves is a welcome development for the people of the UK.
Although I haven’t studied the Bill in detail, from the report’s on Peter Holbrook’s blog and on the Social Enterprise magazine website, I’m slightly less convinced by Holbrook’s claim about the bill that: “If successful it could become one of the most important pieces of legislation for social enterprise in a generation.”
I suppose this partly depends on how many important pieces of legislation there’s been for social enterprise in a generation but I’m dubious whether the legislative insistence that wider social value is considered in commissioning will, in itself, lead to the creation of lots more opportunities for organisations that currently describe themselves as social enterprises.
My doubt is not intended as a criticism of SEC and others in the lobby who have campaigned for this Bill. Regular readers will know I’m often, possibly usually, critical of SEC but, in this instance, they’ve done their bit very well. The worry for me is around whether there’s many currently existing social enterprises that will be able to offer convincing answers to commissioners’ questions about the greater economic, social and environmental value they might deliver, while also being to deliver the service itself at a fairly competitive price (if not the lowest price).
The Bill, if and when it completes its passage through parliament, will deliver two positive outcomes:
- It will enshrine in law the fact that politicians want social enterprise to work.
- It will encourage providers of outsourced services, whether they’re social enterprises, charities or private sector companies, to put social value at the heart of service delivery
The second one of these outcomes is a good in a general sense. The first is an important milestone but it’s the easy bit as far as social enterprise is concerned. In part, the possible success Holbrook mentions depends on the response of commissioners and level of enthusiasm with which government encourages them to respond positively but it also depends – at least equally if not more – on social enterprises proving they’re up to the job. SEC’s next big challenge is to provide the practical support that will help them do that.