No social value under the bridge in the Big Society

Charities or social enterprises should be the main contractors for the work programme. No one can doubt their motives and they should be given a chance to prove their efficacy.”

That’s the conclusion of the Red Tory, Phillip Blond, reflecting on the possible lessons to be gleaned from what’s now being called the ‘London Bridge incident’, in which private security firm Close Protection UK provided unemployed ‘volunteers’ with the ‘opportunity’ to sleep under London Bridge and get changed in public before doing a 14-hour shift stewarding for the Queen’s Jubilee.

The potency of Blond’s suggestion that the incident proves charities and social enterprise should be given a chance to deliver the Work Programme is possibly slightly reduced by the fact that this character-building communion with the elements was the result of placements set up by by the charity, Tomorrow’s People – whose CEO, Debbie Scott, is a Conservative member of the House of Lords.

Earlier in his piece, Blond argues: “… the big contractors are not fit for purpose. Welfare to work requires a wider ethos and a more localised approach. Payment-by-results is not conducive to augmenting people’s skills because the emphasis on “duration” of employment detracts from the “quality of outcomes”; the current incentive is to put people into low-wage jobs that lack prospects.

Blond is certainly correct in his claims if we assume that the purpose of the Work Programme is to provide unemployed people with the support they need to get back into work. Unfortunately, the problem – one that affects the government’s wider Big Society agenda as a whole – is that it the Work Programme is, at best, a mish-mash of conflicting purposes and at worst, a scheme devoid of any meaningful purpose other than short term cost-cutting.

Point 8.20 of the recent Big Society Audit – published by Civil Exchange – notes that: “On the one hand, the Government is seeking to give more power to individual people in their communities, for example, through the 24 free schools already opened, and on the other there appears to be an implicit bias toward large, and therefore mainly private sector businesses in tendering processes.

Adding that as a result: “There is a need to revisit commissioning practices in the light of wider Big Society goals to ensure that they give fair access to every type of organisation, including the voluntary sector, so that those that genuinely provide the best value can win.

Unfortunately, the decision about who offers ‘the best value’ is based at least as much on the values of the people or organisations making the decision as it’s based on ascertaining unambiguous facts. If the government decides – as it currently is deciding – that the best value option for the public is back-to-work provison that saves money (on back-to-work provision, if not unemployment benefits) in the short term, big private contractors are entirely fit for purpose. They’re the only organisations in a position to take a short-term hit while waiting to profit-handsomely from the significant payments-by-results on offer for co-ordinating lengthy supply chains of poorly-rewarded (or, in some cases, unrewarded) sub-contractors.

But as Blond points out, it’s the way the contracts are designed that’s the key issue. Amongst my many concerns about the current agenda around social investment, is the apparent implication that what social enterprises need is the capital that will enable them to compete with the likes of private sector back-to-work providers, A4E and Ingeus on their own terms.

It’s likely that some social entrepreneurs have spent so long wallowing in their own rhetoric that they assume that if only we had social enterprises at the head of the Work Programmes payment-by-results supply chains everything would be all right. In reality, a social enterprise prime contractor delivering the Work Programme in its present form would be under just as much pressure as a private company to focus its resources on getting those unemployed people needing the lowest level of support into (at best) low-paid jobs but more likely zero-hours contracts and volunteering opportunities.

And the fact any profits generated from the activity would be ploughed back into enabling that social enterprises to bid for more contracts to deliver on the same basis would probably be of limited consolation to the people on the receiving end of the service. There is very little positive social impact to be gained from a greater role for social enteprises in executing bad ideas that don’t work.

In a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph, Social Enterprise UK chief executive, Peter Holbrook, pointed out that: “By employing private companies, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Work Programme has seen social enterprises elbowed out of the way – despite a track record of helping people back to work and supporting individuals and the economy.

He’s right but while the fact that the DWP’s Work Programme awarded most of its prime contracts to large private companies is a bad thing, the bigger problem is the programme that it’s employed them to deliver. Hopefully the greater prominence of social value in public sector commissioning promised by the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 will mark a move away from short-term thinking guided primarily by the desire for short-term cost savings. If it does, then not only will social enterprises hopefully get more contracts but all contracts, including those delivered by private companies, will be more likely to deliver positive social impact.


Filed under Uncategorized

8 responses to “No social value under the bridge in the Big Society

  1. jeffmowatt

    Interesting you should bring this up David. Just a day or two ago I responded to the suggestion by New Philanthropy Capital that the Jubilee feelgood factor might offset possible riots this summer. I pointed out the disenfranchised represented by those at London Bridge were more likely to be rioters than the flag wavers and I might be among them this time.

    The localised approach Blond suggests if familiar, it derives from our 2004 business plan and advocacy since 1996 to stimulate wealth bottom up in local economies. The strategy that was so successful in Tomsk.

    Has Blond done anything other than “talking about a revolution”?

    When it comes to being elbowed out of the way, Peter doesn’t know the half of it. Consider what happened to us

    A leading mogul who our work had identified as the cause of many of the social and economic problems we were trying to resolve , became a “children’s champion” in an Sunday Times article 5 years later. I began to wonder why and the unpleasant truth emerged. We were being airbrushed out of the picture by the Tory PR machine while Blond built his reputation on his borrowed vision and the British Council elbowed us out of 12 years investment.



    • jeffmowatt

      A lot of ‘elbowing’ going on in the media. Today John Elkington is saying

      “At exactly the moment that world leaders are heading to Rio de Janeiro to assess progress on the agenda, one of the world’s leading management gurus seems determined to elbow sustainability aside and replace it with Shared Value.”

      This, i understand, is the doctrine the Transition Institute embraces. in support of rolling out public services.

      At what point does elbowing become ignoring someone to death?

      ‘The term “social enterprise” in the various but similar forms in which it is being used today — 2008 — refers to enterprises created specifically to help those people that traditional capitalism and for profit enterprise don’t address for the simple reason that poor or insufficiently affluent people haven’t enough money to be of concern or interest. Put another way, social enterprise aims specifically to help and assist people who fall through the cracks. Allowing that some people do not matter, as things are turning out, allows that other people do not matter and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to rectify that problem, if only because letting it get worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand that “them” might equal “me.” Call it compassion, or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned self-interest. Either way, we are all in this together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves what it means to ignore someone to death, or not. ‘


  2. “Unfortunately, the problem – one that affects the government’s wider Big Society agenda as a whole – is that it the Work Programme is, at best, a mish-mash of conflicting purposes and at worst, a scheme devoid of any meaningful purpose other than short term cost-cutting.”

    Is anyone really surprised that this is how things have turned out?


  3. jeffmowatt

    Broadening this issue, i.e. whether acceptable or not to profit from social innovation a conversation (perhaps) with Mark Kramer who defends the case for corporations to profit in addressing a social problem. My stance is that rather than make a profit, profit could provide the means help resolve the problem:

    If I’m pushed into playing my joker, I have a Pope up my sleeve:

    ‘This is not merely a matter of a “third sector”, but of a broad new composite reality embracing the private and public spheres, one which does not exclude profit, but instead considers it a means for achieving human and social ends. Whether such companies distribute dividends or not, whether their juridical structure corresponds to one or other of the established forms, becomes secondary in relation to their willingness to view profit as a means of achieving the goal of a more humane market and society’ – Caritas in Veritate 2009


  4. Hi David, Pains me to say it but I am not sure the SE or third sector has the bandwidth – or quality – to take on the volumes required. Went for a walk today with a consultant colleague who does evaluation work with third sector orgs. He’s thinking packing it in because it’s destroying his belief in the sector’s value-add. All this money and so few orgs delivering. Mainly piss-poor management and lack of professionalism. He’s a Green this guy so hardly a privateer or anything like that. Perhaps it’s crapness that is endemic, whatever the sector?? BTW – are you going to do me a free of your book so I can review it??? C


    • jeffmowatt

      Well Peter Holbrook seems upbeat today in the Guardian. Flying the flag for social enterprise being exported overseas.
      He seems to have skipped over a large part of Eastern Europe, where we’ve been exporting social enterprise since 1999.

      “Well, the Lone Ranger and Tonto
      Were ridin’ down the line
      Fixin’ everybody’s troubles, everybody’s ‘cept mine
      Someone must’ve told em that I was doin’ fine”

      (Bob Dylan’s Blues)


    • Beanbags admin


      Will do. In terms of back-to-work schemes – of which the Work Programme is just the latest and most absurd – it’s true that all sectors have a track record of failure.

      This may be partly because there’s some bad management it all sectors but the biggest problem is contracts based on the political needs of government rather than either the needs of the people receiving the service or, in fact, any evidence-based consideration of (or even serious interest in) what might happen as a result of the policies being enacted.

      Government gets to look tough by getting contractors to take on contracts they can’t deliver. Contractors take on contracts they can’t deliver on the basis that the government can hardly fire everyone and have no service. And the unemployed just get fed to the tabloids.


  5. Pingback: How sharing are you values? « Economics for Humanity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s