Posts Tagged ‘big society’

There was something quite delicious in seeing a social enterprise newspaper (for me the Guardian with its ownership sitting with the Scott Trust is a social enterprise, however they describe themselves!) be value led, tenacious, committed, and ultimately seek to protect democracy and ensure that the laws of the land are applied to all, no matter what their position in our society.

I know the rolling news can become repetitive and as a result a wee bit tiresome, but let us never forget just how serious this piece of news is. It’s not about celebrities’ right to privacy being infringed. It’s not even about the appalling and unbelievable decisions made to invade the lives of families affected by dreadful crimes. It’s about a private company having vast influence, verging on control of our democracy, having been exposed.  Well done to The Guardian, Chris Bryant MP, Norman Fowler MP and Tom Watson MP – all of whom were under all sorts of pressure to back down and go away.

But whilst the story keeps unravelling, other pieces of news have been almost entirely lost. The ‘opening public services’ white paper emerged yesterday with more of a whimper than a bang. We were all mightily frustrated. We worked hard to make the voice of social enterprise be heard; we were even lined up be on Radio 4 Today, then the PM programme, but the story was dropped at the last minute as more News International revelations emerged. One might say a good day to bury bad news.

The white paper (though actually positive in parts) poses as serious a threat to our public services and to the vision of a more plural economy in which social enterprises can grow their contribution to economic and social recovery – and demonstrate that Big Society isn’t just about volunteering.

I’m concerned that these proposed reforms will create an unequal playing field in which social enterprises are unable to compete with large private sector providers for public sector contracts.  In too many instances we still struggle to find the capital required or do not have the scale to compete with big private businesses in public sector markets, where the commissioning process favours the big – and by design excludes the small and the medium.

The frustration of government that a public sector monopoly stifles efficiency, innovation and value will not be resolved by replacing a public sector monopoly with a private sector oligopoly. It hasn’t worked in transport deregulation or the introduction of competition following the privatisation of our utilities.  And the risks of getting it wrong in other parts of the public sector are very, very serious.

Yes reform is necessary, but these plans must protect our shared interests in public services, not put them at risk.  Without the necessary safeguards, these proposals will allow big private providers to dominate public sector markets.  Taxpayers’ money will flow into profit seeking organisations that exist only to satisfy the needs of their shareholders.  Public services must operate for the communities and people they serve, nobody else.

The Government’s plans to extend Payment by results will put private sector organisations at an automatic advantage.  They’ll simply use their stronger balance sheets and ability to attract private investment to win contracts.

We only have to look to the Department for Work and Pensions Work Programme to see that when markets open up, large private sector providers move in and squeeze out smaller organisations.  A tiny proportion of the contracts went to social enterprises despite it being hailed by Government as a boost for the Big Society. What happened to the WISE group in Scotland was scandalous and had their whole value been considered within their tender they would surely have romped home to victory.  Their smaller size and access to capital was their downfall, NOT the quality, design or track record in delivery – all of which I know were outstanding.

A You Gov poll carried out for us shows that people do not want the private sector to run public services.  Our research was carried out before the Southern Cross debacle and there’ll be even more cynicism now about big corporations and their involvement in our national treasures.  It is encouraging that the majority of those surveyed said they wanted public services to be run by social enterprises.  We hope the politicians are taking note of this public opinion.

The important question now is how serious is the Government’s want for social enterprises and mutuals to play a bigger role in public service delivery.  The country’s policy makers need to lever in investment and infrastructure to ensure that there are enough of them in the marketplace able to deliver.  But the £10million support programme announced by ministers last year to do just that, has not yet materialised.  It’s an anxious waiting game.

I am aware that social enterprises out there delivering public services share my fears. A few glimpses of the trends emerging from the forthcoming state of social enterprise survey – due early August – say they are.  We are all becoming increasingly uneasy if the opportunities promised by Government will materialise:

  • Social enterprises trading mainly with the public sector anticipate they will make half of all the likely redundancies within the social enterprise business community over the next 12 months.
  • Social enterprises doing most of their business with the public sector view the coming years with gloom, with markedly lower business confidence than their social enterprise peers trading with consumers and private businesses.
  • Of the social enterprises trading mainly with the public sector, two-thirds anticipate that their growth will come from diversifying away from working with the public sector (64%).

These are sombre findings in tough times.  But we won’t give up the fight.

Till next time.



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It’s Friday and another week has flown by (really, where do they go?!). There’s been some serious but exciting planning for the future at SEC HQ, productive meetings, a good time at the Guardian’s Public Services Summit, I’ve met some newcomers to social enterprise who are at the beginning of their journeys, and enjoyed the glorious morning sunshine that we were given in London earlier in the week as I cycled through the capital on my way to work. SEC also welcomed some amazing new members on board (thank you to those who came by our offices and said hello in person – lovely to meet you).

But that’s enough about me and SEC. Three announcements from within Westminster were made this week that are important news for our members and the wider movement.

The first is that ‘clawback rights’ are on their way out. They’ve been a huge barrier, stopping social enterprises from leveraging finance against their assets when public funds have been used to finance them.

The second is that a number of big banks are clubbing together to give £200million to set up the Big Society Bank. No, the sum isn’t huge, but it is an opportunity for social enterprises to show the banks what they can do. Here’s hoping the capital becomes available soon.

And the third is that a number of measures are being put in place to make sure that a quarter of Government business goes to SMEs, and that more contracts are won by social enterprises and charities. Definitely a good start, but we want to see (at least) 25% of Government business go to SMEs that are social enterprises. Fingers crossed Government gives our movement a more open door in the future so that those public spending decisions can go further in benefitting our people and our planet, rather than simply growing the profit margins of private sector businesses.

A big thank you to our members and others who fed into the consultations we submitted on these issues. We’re here to represent you and ensure your voices are heard.

Happy weekends to you all.

Ps. Enter to win free tickets to Voice11 every week between now and the event on 30th March!!

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We were not surprised by Francis Maude’s comments that Government funding should go directly to community organisations rather than social enterprise umbrella bodies (at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event organised by SEC and Demos on Sunday) because no-one expects to receive such funding for the same things they have always done when the landscape has altered so radically.

Any organisation that hasn’t been working hell-for-leather on its sustainability plan in recent months needs to take a look out of the window. Anyone who represents social enterprise needs to walk the walk. SEC is a social enterprise in its own right and has agreed major changes to its business model to ensure its sustainability. But our first objective remains to support and enable the social enterprise movement.

The social enterprise movement has never been in greater need of investment in its national infrastructure. The Big Society needs a much bigger social enterprise sector and upscaling this can only happen with the help of SEC and the other support bodies.

At the Conservative Party Conference we have seen huge enthusiasm for social enterprise from MPs, ministers and think tanks: a real thirst for the work we are doing to join up organisations across the UK and replicate some of the phenomenal results that social enterprises are already delivering.

A national infrastructure to support the growth of social enterprise is vital. Social enterprises need access to capital; public sector organisations need support to bring more social enterprise to the communities they serve. Small to medium-sized businesses – in and outside of the private sector – are going to get the economy moving and local enterprise partnerships need to know how social enterprise works, what it can deliver and how to support it.

In the wake of the economic crisis we cannot go back to business as usual. Social Enterprise can radically alter the landscape but the sector needs Government support to deliver on the promise. Luckily we have a Government that has signalled its support for the sector again and again.

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Johnny Cash, as some of you might know walked the line and eventually fell into a burning ring of fire… I have some sympathy with old Johnny Cash; we at SEC find ourselves constantly walking the line and trying to avoid a fall.  The team here at SEC towers have been having detailed ongoing discussions and grappling with the multitude of issues that have existed since some of our aspirations (and indeed our manifesto asks) were in part realised by the new coalition Government.

Social enterprise is clearly at the heart of the Big Society agenda both in terms of sustainable community action and public sector transformation. It’s an ideology that we have campaigned for successfully over a number of years and now the agenda has finally arrived; vanguard communities, mutual pathfinders, co operative councils, the community right to buy, bid, build. We even have, thanks to a great pre-election campaign by SEC, Chris White MPs private members bill on Social Value and Social Enterprise which will be tabled in November. It’s like our Christmases have come all at once. Almost.

Because these are no ordinary Christmases; these are harsh Dickensian Christmases where you were lucky if you got three hazelnuts, a wooden horse and a shiny penny. Can the vision, that we have said we can create, be achieved during the greatest reduction in public spending in living history? Can we achieve the scale that we want with a modestly sized Big Society Bank, philanthropy, social impact bonds and loan finance? Is there the practical support out there for social enterprise to meet the demand?

We hear from a multitude of members great and small that times are tough, budgets are being cut, contracts cancelled and community centres, hubs  and other buildings that communities have had their eye on for years are being rapidly put up for sale by cash strapped councils as they try and prepare for ‘the cliff’ of  Mar 31 2011. Plunkett’s community pubs project having their modest £3M funding withdrawn was also a sign of the times.

So how do we walk the line? How do we effectively champion social enterprise, maintain our identity as an independent movement and both challenge and advise government? The rapid pace of change across nearly all Government departments is genuinely breathtaking; at SEC we have a great relationship with key civil servants and ministers and an opportunity to influence many of the policies that affect our sector. We will not, nor should not, give that up too willingly; influence is one of our greatest assets.

We need to be challenging, at times publicly, and also need to talk candidly with those in and those close to Government about our concerns, hopes and aspirations and provide solutions in order that current opportunities are not lost.

We must also remember that a good proportion of our members and indeed our sector operate in consumer markets and need us not to become entirely focused on the Big Society. Perhaps the real social enterprise revolution will occur when members of the public demand social enterprise solutions rather than just members of parliament.

So we at SEC walk the line between influence and protest, between consumer and public sectors, between start-ups and scale ups and between the very social and the very enterprising.

As a practitioner before taking the helm at SEC, I had my views on what it should be or could be and would ask ‘why doesn’t it…?’ Now I’m here I’ve got a much better idea – its bloody hard work walking the line.

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Ec + f2d *SE – bm =   Big Soc

Empowered communities + framework to deliver X Social enterprise – barriers to market = Big Society.

I have always passionately believed that we underestimate the skills and the talents that exist within our communities, and given my own experience, I know that this underestimation is no more evident than within areas of complex need and multiple disadvantage.

Over the years I worked in Gillingham at Sunlight Development Trust, peoples’ understanding, not only of the problems but also of the possible solutions, never failed to amaze and inspire me.  People knew, and at times instinctively, how services could be better designed and shaped to meet their needs more effectively and more efficiently. And frequently these people were in the midst of their own personal crises and tragedies.

But stepping forwards and choosing to take action was not always the way that things happened in Gillingham. Many people simply had the confidence that they themselves could create change within their communities knocked out of them. This normally occurred after finding no open avenues through which to influence the way that things are done, or being told that they had no role to play in delivering things; in some cases it took more than six months for a CRB check to come through, in other cases they were told that they did not have the requisite qualifications, language or experience to participate.   This kind of experience has forced many talented people to become passive recipients of what the state delivers because every attempt to become an active participant has ended in frustration.  Too frequently, people’s ideas and energies have been signposted to death and eventually referred, and then further referred, into a chasm of inaction, a vacuum of opportunity.

The fact that at Sunlight we were minded to offer opportunities rather than services created a genuine community driven movement. And the fact that during the ten years I was there, more than 60 community groups established themselves shows that the Big Society vision can become a reality.

But for Big Society to achieve its ambition, we cannot underestimate the task that is required in overcoming the scepticism that has been created over generations. People will not simply rise up and begin to influence, create and deliver, particularly in the areas where neighbourhood cohesion is at its worst.

In Gillingham, the majority eventually got the message and began to believe, after years of learned cynicism -or perhaps for the first time -that everyday citizens could influence, develop and create solutions that would effect change within their communities, neighbourhoods and lives.

Existing catalysts will need to be resourced and new ones established that can rebut the cynical cries of ‘that will never work’ or ’we tried that before’;  we will need social enterprise leaders to raise aspiration and ambition and community development workers to facilitate ideas into action in a very local way . We will need access to assets, we will need to remove existing commissioning barriers and create new opportunities for communities to deliver themselves. Using social enterprise as a backbone, profits that are generated from service delivery will be able to seed the next generation of Big Society activity long after the Big Society Bank has invested all of its dosh.  However early signs are not too encouraging; the DWP’s one size fits all approach (and that size is XXXXL) is the antithesis of localism and the Big Society we’re promised; it contradicts so much of what has been promised to our communities, social enterprises and community groups.

Whether in health, community safety, youth provision, employment, training or elderly care,  if communities are given the opportunity to deliver as promised and are given the tools, resources and market opportunities to do so, I for one believe that the Big society vision, over years or perhaps decades can finally and sustainably be achieved.

But this is neither a short term nor quick fix to our recent fiscal crisis. This is about demonstrating an ideological commitment to developing resilient, sustainable communities that are healthy, empowered and flourishing. And for this to happen, such a commitment has to be shown right across Government, nationally and locally, and my guess is that it will have to be forced rather than simply encouraged.

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After returning from the world forum in San Fran I immediately took a long-planned break to get some guaranteed sun. (For those that have seen me since my return you may have noticed that I probably got too much).

Despite the best attempts of volcanic ash clouds to keep me in the sun, I eventually returned last week to an intriguing and rapidly evolving political landscape…the ash is now clearing (although it stopped me from being in Belfast today, sorry Northern Ireland) as is the fog of uncertainty that hung around Westminster for a few days early last week.

Brown is no more, Cameron is PM and the first coalition government of recent times has been formed. OTS is also no more and we have a new Minister for Civil Society which I guess is where social enterprise will sit.

I had lunch last week with the Finnish Minister for Labour at the Finnish Ambassador’s residence in Kensington. Minister of Labour Sinnemäki  is a green party politician working in a coalition whose main controlling party is Conservative. She was very relaxed about working within a coalition and perhaps didn’t understand the uproar that our own UK coalition had created in some areas of the media. It was an intriguing insight. But we weren’t there to discuss the UK’s political challenges; we were there to inform her of the ways in which government can help to create a blossoming and vibrant social enterprise sector.

The media has been rather unkind to Big Society but I know the new Government remains entirely committed to it and it looks like we will be hearing more about this later today. Participation is an essential aspect of a thriving democracy and social enterprise can provide a meaningful way to tackle our country’s social and economic challenges and offers a greater opportunity for our citizens and our communities to participate in the creation of those solutions.

SEC has a good relationship with those newly appointed ministers within the Cabinet Office. Nick Hurd has been a long standing supporter of our movement and Oliver Letwin was pivotal in the development of the Big Society vision. At least half of the new Cabinet have been on ‘seeing is believing’ tours of social enterprises organised by SEC over the last 4 or 5 years.

Additionally Liberal Democrat manifesto pledges demonstrate a deep commitment to our sector – wouldn’t it be great to have a minister for mutuals, co-ops and social enterprises?

Huge public sector spending cuts will no doubt create tough times for many social enterprises already being commissioned in the delivery of public services but we have big opportunities out there too.

We at SEC will be doing all we can to ensure that the new Government continues to develop its understanding of the true potential of our movement, and we’ll be ensuring that we are given as big a role as possible in helping to innovate solutions to move the country beyond  its current difficulties.

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