Tag Archives: NESTA

It’s not magic

“The bigger issue, however, is that some of the hopes of a decade or two ago have not been realised. Social entrepreneurs claimed to bring a new mindset to business, along with radically improved results. But analysts have struggled to tie down what this means and whether it is true. Do social enterprises and entrepreneurs have a special ability to access resources, such as volunteer labour or unused buildings, or to combine assets in more effective ways? Is their advantage essentially about commitment and the ability to lock in loyalty? The jury is out on all of these questions.

This is the verdict of incoming NESTA chief executive, Geoff Mulgan, in an article for the RSA Journal on the current state of social enterprise (primarily) in the UK. While the overall message of the article is a positive one and reflects Mulgan’s long held enthusiasm for social enterprise, the quoted passage breaks the cardinal rule of New Labour-era social enterprise promotion, that those who excitedly claim that social enterprise is inherently better than other ways of doing things should not – under any circumstances – be forced to justify their assertion with empirical evidence (or even specific examples). Unfortunately, evangelists barely have time to pick themselves up off their beanbags before Mulgan delivers another blow:

“But the emphasis on individual heroes overshot and was, at times, almost comically oversold, particularly by certain American organisations, whose Oscar-style ceremonies and awards celebrated what some saw as a ‘club-class’ elite of social entrepreneurs, often with MBAs from western universities and privileged backgrounds. The language of magic and alchemy used to describe social entrepreneurs encouraged muddled thinking and action, obscuring the extent to which most successes depend on the chemistry of teams and places, not just individual brilliance. This is one reason why it has been harder than expected to replicate the serial entrepreneurs of business in the social world.

Some of us have been moaning about the cult of the social entrepreneur for quite a while. With hindsight, I’m more inclined towards Mulgan’s view than my own previously stated one –  I now accept that the idea that the UK’s major social problems were going to be solved by the individual brilliance of business-schooled dynamic self-starters was comical rather than actively bad. The idea may have helped turn some people in the voluntary sector against social enterprise but, in many cases, those concerned also have plenty of other objections.

And, of course, in reality most successful social entrepreneurs in the UK have got on with building teams and responding to local needs rather than worrying about whether or not they had the tub-thumping rhetoric to prove that they themselves were the great leaders that the world had been waiting for. What larger numbers of social entrepreneurs in the UK have believed in is the ‘magic and alchemy’ of social enterprise.

Mulgan is right that at least part of the advantage that social enterprises do have over public sector and private sector organisations (in particular) is based on ‘commitment and the ability to lock in loyalty‘: having staff who know what they’re doing and why, and really enjoy it. Within smaller social enterprises, which is most of them, the clear social mission often means commitment and loyalty can be maintained in the face of low pay, long hours and job insecurity.

Those who point out the wider possibilities offered by social enterprise are right to do so. Looking at my own organisation, our single biggest project is One in Four, a national magazine by and for people with mental health difficulties. If we were a conventional for profit business, we wouldn’t have launched the magazine because it’s never like to make a significant profit and if we were a charity we wouldn’t have launched it because it would have to promote the charity’s campaigning goals rather than provide a service to readers.

The mistake that social enterprise enthusiasts make is to suggest that taking an enterprising approach to delivering social change necessarily makes success (or even survival) easier. In most cases it makes it more difficult. For most of us, the magic – creating a sustainable business while delivering positive social change – is our ongoing aspiration rather than an in-built characteristic of the work we do.


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What learnings can we take from this?

On Monday I attended London’s NESTA Co-Production Roadshow, the frontline of the battle to turn the word ‘learning’ into a singular noun. What learnings did I take from the day? I took the learning that the leading advocates of co-production are still some way off articulating a clear vision of what co-production is and why it’s useful. But I haven’t just taken that learning and kept it to myself. I am now using it to co-produce this blog with you, the reader. Here you are, wallowing in the learning – obviously I am the one writing the blog post but together we are co-producing the experience of a blog post being written and read.

The problem is not that co-production is bollocks, it’s that it’s proving difficult to turn it into either a coherent theory or a meaningful practical approach to doing stuff. I’ve read NESTA’s three lengthy reports on the subject and haven’t managed to discern anything significant beyond the fact that it’s attempt to promote an idea on the ‘user involvement’ spectrum that’s more involvement than consultation or volunteering, but less involvement than being paid to deliver the service or being co-operative/trustee owners of the project.

NESTA’s Phillip Colligan, Executive Director of their Public Services Lab, can and does express the idea of co-production in one, easily comprehensible sentence: “Let’s organise public services with people, rather than doing public service to people”. The difficulty is fleshing that out.

From the examples at the conference, co-production in practice meant:

  • Helping ‘problem families’ by first making an effort to understand what their lives are like, then talking to them about how they’d like their lives to be different – Swindon Council
  • Understanding the needs of people with brain injuries and enabling them to contribute to activities based on their skills and interests – Headway East London
  • Using social media to enable people to interact with local services – Future Gov
  • Commissioning services based on ongoing dialogue with voluntary sector providers and specifying outcomes, rather than outputs – Camden Council

I’m not opposed to any of these approaches. I support all of them. I think there’s useful ideas emerging that can be helpful in working out how we’re going to deliver public services in the future. What isn’t coming through to me is any clear reason – beyond think tank world – for trying to stitch these ideas together under the banner of co-production. At present, if either a public body or a charity announced it was going to ‘do co-production’, I don’t think the existing work really tells us much about what that would be likely to mean. It obviously wouldn’t be a monolithic top down service but there’s not many public sector bodies or charities that are keen to shout about the fact they are delivering a monolithic top down service.

Largely missing from NESTA’s current discussions is the area of the public sector where practical co-production has been most prevalent, youth work. There’s a strong argument that the late Connexions service (2001 – c.2010) is the closest we’ve ever come to a national roll out of a co-produced service. For those who missed it, Connexions was a bold plan to bring together all the services supporting 13-19-year-olds (other than schools) in a holistic approach to helping young people choose their path into the world of work, higher education (or something else).

Connexions (in theory) brought together careers services, youth services and – in the case of ‘hard-to-reach’ groups – housing and social services to deliver an action plan developed by the young person themselves working with their Connexions ‘personal adviser’. At its inception, the then DFES boldly pledged that all young people aged 13-19 would have their own personal adviser. Once it became clear that actually doing this at the level originally implied would cost more than the entire national education budget, the focus gradually shifted more and more towards solving the complex difficulties of young people described as NEET (Not in Education, Employment and Training).

When in 2009, former Cabinet Minister, Alan Milburn’s investigations into social mobility caused him to exclaim: “During all our proceedings and meetings and hearings, I have rarely heard a good word about the careers work of the Connexions service. I can only conclude that its focus on the minority of vulnerable young people is distracting it from offering proper careers advice and guidance to the majority of young people,” it was hard not feel sorry for those still trying to deliver Connexions.

I’d imagine most sensible people faced with the question of how a single service could simultaneously to effectively help Chloe and Benji decide between studying psychology or sociology, while also sending a minibus round to get an illiterate 18-year-old out of their hostel bed and take them to a CV writing course would probably respond with “I wouldn’t start from here.”

But the failures of Connexions were not primarily based on the co-produced bits of it. At least not the bits co-produced between young people and service providers:

  • young people themselves being responsible for shaping their action plans
  • local ‘shadow boards’ of young people that scrutinised the work of the local management boards and – to a lesser or greater extent depending on the local set-up – influenced the decisions and priorities of senior managers
  • young people sitting on interview panels for personal advisers
  • local Connexions settings where young people could receive advice and support outside a formal appointment based system
  • a focus on funding for locals projects designed and led by young people

Given that Connexions was a national service (at least in England), there’s plenty of learnings to be had from the people in both the public and voluntary sectors (and a few in the Private Sector) involved in delivering it. There’s also plenty of people who were 13-19 year olds in the 2001 – 2010 who might like to talk about their experiences of the service. NESTA might like to have a chat with some of them.

In the mean time, hopefully we can co-produce a few comments on this blog.


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