Can’t see the fig leaves for the smokescreen

To Northampton last Monday for Seminar 1 in a series of seminars collectively known as Reconstructing Social Enterprise. The aim of the series is: ‘to establish a multidisciplinary group of international academics and practitioners approaching the field of social enterprise from a critical yet sympathetic perspective’.

Alongside a series of interesting academic presentations, the practitioner contributing to the seminar was Andy Benson, Director of the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA) and his presentation ‘Social enterprise as a smokescreen for the Privatisation of Public Services’ did something at least roughly approximate to what it said on the tin.

Benson provided a considered and articulate outline of the view that the privatisation of public services is a bad thing in general, and the involvement of the voluntary sector in marketisation of public service delivery is particularly bad for the voluntary sector itself, as well for the people who depend on it. The NCIA, he explained, encouraged resistance to state co-option of the sector and ‘private sector entryism’ into public service provision.

Although, Benson began by saying his response to the term social enterprise was “I spit on it”, he went on to explain that he had no problem with many socially enterprising activities including: local communities running shops and pubs, charities carrying out trading activities to fund their work, commercial businesses delivering a social benefit (I imagine with some form of social ownership) and private sector businesses with a social purpose.  He did object the Big Society idea that public services could be cut and replaced by local people providing services on a voluntary basis – a position many people in the social enterprise movement share.

Ultimately, the only type of actual social enterprise activity Benson was objecting to was – unsurprisingly –  social enterprises and large charities delivering services previously delivered  by the public sector. He slammed big charities such as Turning Point who had “morphed from grant receivers to trading and contracting enterprises”. He also laid into umbrella bodies (in general) for “promoting business values as an alternative to public services” before going on to describe NCVO specifically as an “absolutely outrageous turncoat organisation”, partly because it has organised a workshop called “how to turn a free service into a paid-for service”.

For Benson and the NCIA the proper role of the voluntary sector was primarily about campaigning and innovative local activities which, if they successfully became a service, could be taken on by the public sector. And the overall conclusion was that the Big Society was “a fig leaf to obscure the message of giving up on public services and public subsidy” and that social enterprise was “a smokescreen to describe the outsourcing agenda”.

Clearly this is a world view that benefits from being uncomplicated:

  • Who should deliver public services? Public sector agencies employing public sector workers.
  • Who should be able to use public services? The public.
  • How should public services be paid for? Through taxes. Public sector agencies are not businesses, they are bodies that are given money and then spend it on doing good.
  • What public services should people get? What their national and local elected representatives decide they should get.

This world view also benefits from being grounded in compassion, the belief that the role of the state is to ensure the people have equal access to services that meet their social needs.

Unfortunately, it’s a policy position that doesn’t really lead anywhere other than a defence of the public sector status quo, whatever that may be at the time. The fact that a service is currently being delivered by a public sector agency is not, it itself, a strong argument for it continuing to be delivered (a) at all or (b) by that public sector agency. With or without cuts, people’s needs and priorities change. A group of people with mental health difficulties who need somewhere to meet, don’t necessarily need a day centre staffed by council staff.

Few of us in the social enterprise movement would argue that a reduction in social spending by the state is a good thing in itself but many of us do think we need a different kind of state. Based on the conventional shareholder capitalist model, markets often fail to meet what most people in the UK regard as fundamental social needs. But having accepted that starting point, there’s a philosophical and practical divide between those who believe we should respond to market failure primarily by eliminating markets, and those who believe we can and should respond to market failure by making conventional markets better and creating different markets.

Andy Benson and his colleagues at NCIA may not object to the elements of social enterprise that are about making conventional markets better – by building and supporting businesses that build in social value, by creating jobs for people who’d otherwise find it harder to get them or, in the case of co-operatives, actively sharing wealth amongst workers and customers.

But many is social enterprise also see a role for markets in the public services – through bidding for contracts, personal budgets or through starting organisations that both tackle social need and work as businesses, or a voluntary organisations that aren’t dependent on ongoing state funding. The latter definitely isn’t easy to achieve but the aspiration that groups of people – either locally or based on shared needs – should find ways of solving social problems or managing ongoing social needs is a positive one.

Amongst the options for meeting social needs not met by the conventional market are:

  1. a public service delivered by public sector workers
  2. no service
  3. a public service delivered by outsourced providers
  4. finding alternatives ways to meet that social need more effectively

Realistically, in the current climate, all these options are going to employed to some extent in the UK over the next few years. Social enterprises and social entrepreneurs will have some role to play in delivering option 3 but, hopefully, a bigger role to play in delivering option 4.



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2 responses to “Can’t see the fig leaves for the smokescreen

  1. Sounds like Benson and I are thinking along the same lines. Though we have reasoned at some length for reducing the state burden.
    An interesting and very recent development is the concept of predistribution, which sounds on paper. very much alinged with the human rights driven approach we practice.


  2. Pingback: Complicit? Sock it to ‘em? | Beanbags and Bullsh!t

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