Beyond social enterprise growth – part one

On Tuesday (8th) I’m speaking at Reality Bites – the truth about delivering public services through social enterprise, this year’s Guardian social enterprise conference. There’s an impressive line-up of speakers and I’m speaking in the early afternoon session ‘Growth, innovation and risk – what’s stopping social enterprises from scaling up in the public sector?’.

It won’t surprise The Guardian to hear – in fact, I imagine this is why they’ve invited me – that I take issue with the implication that a key goal of the social enterprise movement should be to have as large a percentage of public services as possible delivered by large organisations describing themselves as social enterprises.

On the other hand, unlike parts of the trade union movement, I don’t necessarily regard that scenario as a nightmare. The issue is not whether more public services are delivered by companies calling themselves social enterprises but the extent to which socially enterprising approaches to public service delivery are delivering positive social change.

As stated on the Social Enterprise UK website, a decent summary of why many of us are involved with social enterprise is:  “Social enterprises use business to tackle social problems, improve communities, improve people’s life chances, or protect the environment. They create shared wealth and give people a stake in the economy.

It’s instructive to look at the transfer of council housing to housing associations – an ongoing process that got going in a big way in the 1980s – as a precursor to the possible shift in public service delivery from state agencies to social enterprises. Without getting into the political arguments about whether or not this was a good idea in itself, it’s clear that the results have been mixed.

Some housing associations are socially enterprising organisations that are serious about tenant participation, accountability and improving local communities, some are massive corporate behemoths that have all the inflexibility of local authority housing departments but without the democratic scrutiny, others are somewhere in-between. What organisations are does matter but it doesn’t, in itself, dictate the nature of the service they deliver.

While the debate about the ability of social enterprises to compete with large private sector outsourcing companies is an interesting one, it’s vitally important that the social enterprise movement is also fully engaged with the arguments about what we want public services to be and do. It might well be possible for social enterprises and charities to win more large public sector contracts with a lowest common denominator approach to people who use its services, its staff and the wider community but it would be a fairly pointless exercise. As well working how to scale up social enterprise delivery of public services, we need to be clear about why we want to.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Beyond social enterprise growth – part one

  1. Thoughtful as ever David. And useful as I am chairing the discussion. To give notice of a planned question, do I take it by implication that you are comfortable with private sector organisations that take ‘socially enterprising approaches’ to the delivery of public services? And, down to brass tacks, what are we really talking about when we use terms like ‘socially enterprising approaches’? Do these actually guarantee the public or commissioner anything tangible that they can hold up and ask if they have been delivered? Aren’t social enterprises, for all their faults, at least the nearest they are going to get to a commitment to ‘socially enterprising approaches?’

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  2. Beanbags admin

    Well, the reason I’m using this broadbrush terminology is that it depends on the services involved. In the field of mental health, it’s a shift from services that do stuff to people, to services that support people (or groups of people) to live the lives they want to live.

    At the other end of the spectrum, while advice on household recycling is useful, I’m not so fussed about the need for rubbish collection services that support and enable people to throw away the rubbish they want to throw away. The customer just wants an efficient, reliable service but within that there’s still potential for socially enterprising approaches in terms of training and job opportunities and in terms of what happens to the rubbish once collected.

    In terms of your first question, ‘yes and no’. No, in the sense that I think if in ten years time we see a public sector market with significantly increased front line service delivery by outsourcing conglomerates then public services will be worse – there’s no social value or innovation in slashing pay and conditions and delivering the bare minimum.

    Yes, in the sense that I don’t think organisations who’ve got expertise and good ideas should be excluded from delivering services just because of their organisational structure.

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  3. Peter Durrant

    It seems to me it’s rather like the NHS where we think about more glamorous and newsworthy examples of surgeons and others ‘doing good.’ As opposed to a more preventative-based approach which includes housing, decent employment, superb transport systems and a sense of public well-being. Equally, SEs, like vol-orgs but perhaps not like some housing assocs and socs, take a more reflective view of the world in the sense that we all need to work with, and not for, statutory bodies, not-for-profit orgs and the first two, as well as the, other two sectors as well. But the missing dimension is remembering not only the Black and other reports but that community develeopment theory and practice, i.e. pro-active networking as a real skill, the conscious transfer of wealth and equality, grass-roots upwards philosophies and the rest isn’t, sadly, an intrinsic party of our un-shared thinking.

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