In a state

“over the last two years you and everyone at Social Spider have been an inspiration – and part of the inspiration to make a move out of local government”

I received this email from a departing council employee who we’d worked with in delivering one of our contracts. He was thoughtful, energetic and good at getting things done. If working with our social enterprise helped to encourage him to quit local government with those qualities in tact, then that’s a good thing, both for him and for the voluntary sector organisation he went to work for.

It’s not so good for local government – not least because the person in question worked for a relatively well-run council that delivers pretty good services for local people. But the experience is fairly typical. Too often, people working for the councils become ground down by systems and structures, while community groups blame ‘the council’ for everything it does or doesn’t do – as if, rather than being a collection of people trying use limited budgets to satisfy a wide range of needs, councils were god-like entities with the ability to make eveything ok if only they cared enough and stopped spending money on biscuits.

Bearing that in mind, I can understand many of the sentiments expressed here by Dave Clements. He explains that: “I was made redundant a couple of months ago and, perversely given the implications for my own situation, I felt like one of the lucky ones.” Before noting that: “The funny thing is that for all the official plaudits, nobody dare mention the apparent indifference of the supposed beneficiaries of public services. The institutions borne of the welfare state are far from “cherished”, as the leader of the opposition would have us believe. If anything, they are endured because of the lack of an alternative.”

Clements goes on to conclude that: “It is not so much that the state is a drain on private enterprise; it is more that the political culture it gives expression to inhibits social enterprise. It crowds out – to borrow a phrase – the social action on which a healthy society is dependent.”

Clements is definitely right that both public sector workers and members of the public are disenchanted with working for and receiving many public services. He may or may not be right that the state is too big but that analysis leaves some bigger questions unanswered. Some public services, such as the NHS, are currently more popular than they’ve ever been before.  As my colleague, Mark Brown, suggests in the comments below Clements’ article: “There’s a division in the public mind between public services that are seen as resources that are drawn upon (NHS, public libraries, the fire service etc) and those parts of the public sector that just seem to ‘be there’, like council departments. The services that we see as worth cherishing are the ones that we feel we can, and will draw upon when and where we chose to. The ones that we don’t value are the ones that seem to be foisted upon us.

He adds: “I think that the discussion about the growth of the public sector is actually a debate conflating two separate and distinct questions. The first is the question: Are there more efficient ways of meeting the current needs of people? The second is: Which of people’s needs does the state have a responsibility to meet? And how should it do so?”

Hopefully the emergence of the set of ideas that is, for the moment, known as The Big Society will give us a chance to consider the second question as well as the first. At a time of growing need and reduced resources we need to be more realistic about what we do and don’t expect the state to do. One example of changing needs is that we have five times as many people aged 85+ in the UK now compared to the 1951 figure.

Unfortunately, the opposition Labour Party’s critique of the current government’s spending cuts so far, to the extent they’ve been able to communicate it, has been a heady combination of ‘stop the cuts’ and ‘stop the cuts to things people like’. That’s no more useful than the (hopefully not prevalent) thread of thinking on the government benches that the state can just withdraw public services and wait for previously sleeping armies of volunteers to turn up and pick up the pieces.

Far from inhibiting social enterprise, as Clements suggests, over the last ten years the government has been paying for a lot of it. As 2009’s State of Social Enterprise Survey (the most recent available) showed, 49% of social enterprises receive at least half their income from the state – and plenty of others who receive a smaller percentage might not survive without it. But if the social enterprise movement offers a vision of social justice that worth having, it’s got to mean more than being the most cuddly, efficient receptacle for public money.

Some of the question were facing are about finding the right ways of spending government money, and there’s is a role for social enterprise there. But others are about if and how we can meet social needs without government money. It’s possible that social enterprise might offer some ways of doing that, too, but that’s not a question that either politicians or the social enterprise movement has got many answers for so far. It’s something we have to begin to consider and, in the process, we might be able to decide what the public sector shouldn’t or can’t do – and what it shouldn’t and can’t pay for.

That might be the first step towards greater satisfaction with what it does do.


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One response to “In a state

  1. David, Several things come to mind as I read this blog. First, that in 2004 the vision of social enterprise I presented to government went much further into the need to address poverty, deliver living wages in accordance with the International Covenant on Economic Social and cultural rights, with the International Bill on Human Rights as a fundamental policy guide. Above all, it set out a self-sustaining ‘community interest’ approach which had demonstrated proof of concept with a poverty alleviation initiative in Russia. It went into some detail about how this approach could be capitalised, starting with community broadband as the initial revenue stream.

    When, early in 2005 I wrote to Baroness Thornton , describing these efforts I got no reply. I can see now why she couldn’t reply, they were creating their own version which hadn’t considered many of these issue.

    Experience with the local council has not been good. They have no social enterprise policy yet I was told. They wouldn’t write that, but told me by telephone. Neither it seems does the county council for Gloucestershire. I’d offered help when it came to setting up a healthcare SET and was kept at arms length. In hindsight, fortunate for me as it ended in disgrace and an auditors investigation into the use of public funds. £250 had gone mostly to a consultant and the SET never traded.

    I’d been making the point about community owned broadband as a key part of local economic development and last year got invited by a council’s Economic Development Office, to join the broadband task force being formed to look into local performance issues. No fees involved, I volunteered to give our time and experience as a social enterprise might.ed I seem to have been bumped off of that without explanation and along with me, any consideration of a ‘community interest’ approach to local broadband. A few days ago, the project to trial major suppliers was announced. Likewise DCMS recently issued a PIN suggesting contracts for around 500,000 users – “wholesale broadband networks at a county, multi-county or regional level”.

    Local government, by which I mean politicians not staff, have involved themselves in this in a way which contradicts so called ‘Big Society’ in that community organisations are far from welcome.


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