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.