I went to parliament yesterday for GlobalNet21’s event on Social Enterprise and Equality. Although, one of the speakers, Third Sector Research Centre‘s Simon Teasdale, did talk about current research into equalities issues in social enterprise, perhaps inevitably the bulk of the discussion from the other speakers and the questions from the (large) audience focused on the ability of social enterprises to grow and thrive in the current economic climate.
Of the other two speakers, Chris White, the Conservative MP who introduced the private members bill that became the Public Services (Social Value) Act – which obliges public sector commissioners to consider wider social value when commissioning public services – lived up to his billing as a hero of the social enterprise movement. There’s no shortage of politicians offering trite homilies about social enterprise but White really knows his stuff. He made clear that the passing of the Act was closer to the start of the battle to for wider social value in commissioning then the end of it. And that he was now doing his best to get the message out to commissioners and local councillors around the country.
On the temptation to commission services from large outsourcing specialists who offer short-term cost savings he said: “We need to make sure our elected officials understand that in the long term getting the quick buck is not the best for their communities.”
Equally impressively, despite his clear enthusiasm White also showed himself to be successfully inoculated against social enterprise bullsh!t. When one speaker from the floor asserted his organisation’s right to receive government contracts on the basis that “the difference is people like us because we offer a personal service”, he politely responded with “yes, but what does that mean?”
The other invited speaker, Miia Chambers, formerly of P3 and now working for Holy Cross Centre Trust, talked about her experiences of commissioning both from the social enterprise side and in a previous role working on the previous government’s on the Invest to Save programme. She emphasised that it was possible for commissioners to focus on social outcomes – rather than a narrow set of outputs – but that it was currently pretty rare.
The many contributions from the floor – mostly from people running social enterprises – had variety of starting points but most of them ended up with a view on what social enterprises and/or the government needed to do to enable social enterprises to get more business. The views ranged from claims that social enterprises deserved the government’s business on a moral basis, to the views that the most important thing is to be able to demonstrate social impact and that we need to educate the public about social enterprise, to the assertion that “only about 10% of my customers care that I’m a social enterprise“.
Chris White responded to the final point by saying: “The whole point of this mission is that you’re wrong. I fundamentally believe that people do care.” As members of the social enterprise movement we have to hope that he’s right in a broad sense but there’s no reason to doubt that the lady making the ‘only 10% care’ point was correct about the situation for her organisation.
The reality is that there’s not necessarily any direct connection between the needs of and challenges faced by an individual social enterprise and those faced by the social enterprise movement as a whole. Any more than there’s a direct connection between the needs of your local chip shop and ‘the business community’.
Unlike, ‘the business community’ most of us in the social enterprise movement have both an individual and a collective position. We want to see the growth of successful social enterprises doing more business because we believe this will make the world a better place but our primary concern is keeping our business growing (or, in many cases, going).
In some cases that means there’s a direct conflict in terms of what the government can do to help us. It suits (relatively) large social enterprises for public sector agencies to offer relatively large contracts with an emphasis on measuring social impact using mechanisms such as SROI. In the case of small, local social enterprises, they’re far better off competing for grants and small contracts based on a relatively simple set of outputs. Social enterprises that sell goods and services in open markets may have no interest at all in who gets contracts to deliver public services but may be very keen on the idea of social enterprises receiving tax breaks.
It’s not always a question of right or wrong – people and organisations quite legitimately have different interests – but as we strive to make both the publically-funded service sector, and the wider economy, more social enterprising, we need to recognise that there will continue to be a wide range of understandings of what that actually means.