Posts Tagged ‘public services’

I didn’t want to write about the riots. It seemed somehow too opportunistic but there are things that have been whirring around my mind, disturbing my sleep and creating a growing sense of frustration.  I feel compelled  to start any contribution regarding the riots with the prerequisite condemnation of violence and  and assertion that there can be no excuses. My failure to do so on my Facebook updates led to some pretty angry comments. I naively thought that it went without saying that there are no excuses for such destructive actions – that now said,  we sooner rather than later need to move the debate on. We have to go beyond righteous indignation and the language of feral youth, rubber bullets and army interventions if we are going to change rather than simply contain these destructive types of behaviours. There are causes that are deeply engrained within the society we have created.  We have created in our towns and cities  communities of young people that are hopeless – lacking in hope. A generation that believe that they can only command dignity, self value and the  respect of their peers by what they are able to wear and consume, a generation that has aspiration but no belief in their abilities to achieve the celebrity  lifestyles that are so aggressively marketed to them, represented across our media in magazines, sports pages, advertising, news, film and tv. The traditional mechanisms of achievement – working hard, relevant education and contributing to our communities are no longer perceived to offer the opportunities to succeed in life.  Many that exist within these communities  have a belief that greed is good and taking what you want by whatever means is acceptable, is perhaps the only way to get what we’re told we need. A view that is too frequently endorsed and echoed across society and by adult role models everywhere – everyone’s on the take and so why don’t we just take it. Expenses scandals and the banking crisis have only served to expand and mainstream these notions. Popular television programmes like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den perpetuate the principle that it’s money that matters above all else. Our power to buy and consume defines us and is the only relevant measure of success.

Our political leaders have been complicit in this messaging. Money and the ability to buy what we want whenever we want is all we apparently want. Peter Mandelson was entirely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich, the current administration and indeed the shadow cabinet seem to demonstrate that money is a critical factor in achieving a good education, good prospects, power and success. You’ve probably got more chance of winning the lottery than of ‘making it’ if you’re from a poor background, have useless parents and attend a sink school.  And the evidence is flooding in that cuts are hitting certain people with disproportionate ferocity; the young, the poor and the black communities are not faring well, although they are by no means the only ones that have very nearly lost it all.

When at Sunlight I worked with lots of young people some of whom who would frequently be labelled as ‘chavs’ – a miserable term for young poor people. One young guy, just 17,  had absent parents, no qualifications, a drug, drink and thieving habit and no permanent home. He was heavily criminalised – peddling stolen stuff, drugs and was happy to risk everything by robbing and dealing because in his view he had nothing left to lose and no real opportunity to get what he thought he wanted from life. This lad is now an FA-qualified footie coach and runs 4 weekly football teams. He’s now a responsible father of 2 children and an influential role model, a community leader and a friend to scores of young people in a very challenged, highly deprived community. He plays the role of parent to many. Well he does now, but won’t be able to in just four weeks’ time. The contracts he had through the extended schools programme, his employment through his local development trust, bits of additional funding he sourced through a patchwork of small grants that paid for kits, match fees and transport are all evaporating bit by bit, leading to the closure of the project and the end of his job. The temptation to return to less productive ways of living will not suck my friend back into his old ways but I can’t be so sure that the same is true for those who rely on him.

Today I visited one our members in Harlesden NW London. What Jennifer and her crew at Bang achieve is astonishing, hundreds of young people engaged in projects that meet their individual needs and talents. Jennifer is constantly having to use her creativity to crawl through the hoops and processes that her customers and funders create. It gets in the way of meeting the needs of young people. She and her team are expected to transform lives within the contracted 30 hours of contact which they get. Not 30 hours a week, not 30 hours a month but just 30 hours. That 30 hours of funding is expected to take a frequently cynical, beaten, unmotivated young person lacking in basic skills and develop them into a work-ready, reliable, purposeful person. Jennifer describes many of the young people with whom she works as people born without any known reason for their lives.

It’s easy to feel sad and pessimistic. But Jennifer asked me to do something. She asked that I search for funding that will enable young people from within our most disadvantaged communities to set up their own social enterprises. “If we all work this way in the future then we’ll be alright, if we continue to work like the banks and normal businesses then we won’t,” she says. “The good thing about setting up a social enterprise is that you can’t lose. Even if your business goes under then you still haven’t lost. You’ll have business skills, social skills, connections and you’ll understand you have a purpose and a reason for your life – I set one up  because I knew I couldn’t lose.”

The government needs to be radical – they need to link social and economic policy, we need to move away from business as usual because business as usual has failed our most challenged communities for decades and has more recently shattered our economy for good.  A more balanced and plural economy with social enterprise at its heart will not only radically improve the way public services are delivered but could create the opportunities and most importantly, hope. Opportunity, mobility and hope offer the only real solutions to what the recent violence has highlighted – social dysfunction on a grand scale.



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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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Celebration in the SEC offices this afternoon! We have just heard that the ‘Public Services (Social Enterprise and Social Value)’ bill secured enough votes in the House of Commons today to pass through to committee stage – an outstanding achievement.

The private members bill was tabled by Chris White MP (Conservative member for Leamington Spa), as a direct result of input from SEC members and supporters into SEC’s manifesto: as such this is ‘our’ bill. True to our principles and values it has been co-produced and co-designed by our movement.

And it is down to everybody’s hard work that both the government and the opposition have supported this bill. We know that MPs from across the UK have reported large volumes of correspondence from constituents and that has led to increased awareness and support for the bill. We know that MPs have become more confident in supporting the bill because of the number of organisations that have supported it directly.

I am also hugely proud of how the wider social enterprise movement and our friends in the community, voluntary and charity sectors have rallied together to support this piece of proposed legislation, and particular thanks to those who helped Chris White in the working up of his bill.

I send my sincere gratitude to you all for the work you undertake on a daily basis; this has led to our efforts being recognised at such a strategic level. Whether the bill succeeds or not, I‘m sure that we will begin to see a cultural shift in commissioning and procurement which has so often been an impenetrable barrier to thousands of smaller social enterprises.

The bill attempts to put a duty on commissioners and procurement officers across public services to take into account added social, environmental and economic value when assessing tenders to deliver goods and services. If successful it could become one of the most important pieces of legislation for social enterprise in a generation.

I also want to say congratulations and thank you to all of you who took part in the Social Enterprise Day campaign yesterday. I think we enjoyed the most effective and impactful Social Enterprise Day yet.

We had wide media coverage including in the Sun and the Daily Mail and the Social Enterprise Coalition was quoted in the lead article of yesterday’s Guardian newspaper. We had 10 ministers visiting social enterprises yesterday from right across Government. Thank you again to all those who opened their doors. Hundreds of social enterprises welcomed commissioners, councillors and private sector business leaders. We’re hearing great feedback from both sides, and we know that opportunities have already come out of the visits for some social enterprises.


And the team at SEC

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My last blog had a bit of a Johnny Cash theme. This time I’m continuing with the theme of artists that have influenced my life and this week I’m going with Billy Bragg.

I saw a member of the union UNITE wearing a t-shirt emblazoned on the front with the message “No to privatisation through the back door” – so far so good. I was gobsmacked to see an altogether different message on the back… “No to social enterprise”.

Trouble is brewing, and I think it might be more than a storm in a tea cup. It seems to me that a couple of the large unions fundamentally misunderstand the premise of social enterprise. I’m keen to meet union leaders to sit down and explore their fears and concerns, and establish our common ground.

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to share a stage with a senior union official. Before we took the stage we chatted and I was pleased to hear that she had no ideological issues with what our movement sought to achieve, or indeed our growing role in the delivery of public services. Empowering and putting ownership into the hands of staff and the communities that services are meant to benefit we agreed was in the shared interests of us all. The origins of many unions are to be found within the values that we as social enterprises are proud to share: mutuality, co-production and co-operation.

Fast forward a few months as I left the Lib Dem conference. On the train I sat opposite someone who looked vaguely familiar. It only took a couple of moments before I realised it was the very same union rep. She was clearly on the phone to a journalist and was animated as she rightly outlined the potential implications of outsourcing all manner of public services to the private sector, whose legal obligation is to maximise share holder value, otherwise known as profit.

But then they got onto the involvement of social enterprises in delivery and as I listened I grew increasingly concerned by the number of inaccurate comments I was hearing. These included a suggestion that most of the social enterprises which have spun out from the public sector have failed, and that adopting a social enterprise model leads to cuts to staff terms and conditions.

I sank into my seat and decided we must have a meaningful debate with union leaders and must do it immediately.

We need real engagement with the unions to avoid an unnecessary public battle that will divert all our energies from the real issues we face. In simply defending the status quo the unions and their membership will miss an opportunity to actively shape and influence the debate and the direction of travel. And they will miss the opportunity to deliver massive benefits to their own members.

The political ideology has shifted across all political parties. Business as usual is simply not an option.  Nor should it be. Beveridge recognised towards the end of his life that he had failed to recognise the power of active participation in the design and delivery of public services and of the welfare state in his earlier publications. Creating opportunities for workers to have a greater stake, a greater say, is surely an opportunity rather than a threat. We need the unions to make sure that the necessary transformation of public services benefits both staff and the end recipients of whatever is delivered.

And besides, thousands of union members are already working within social enterprises, large and small. I know from talking to many that leaving the employ of the state was not the disaster that some unions seem to be implying is inevitable. Many talk of liberation, about being able to make a real difference, of a renewed sense of purpose. I want those unions to see the opportunities social enterprise offers workers, communities, and disadvantaged groups. And at the very least they must see that social enterprises can offer a far better option than the alternative; PLCs delivering and designing services with only profit in mind.

Together we can ensure that their public sector members are provided with the information to make the right choices about their futures and that models of social enterprise maximise staff and beneficiary ownership. They can help ensure that the new markets being created are benign for new social enterprises to trade in and have the very best chance of succeeding.

Like Billy Bragg: ‘I’m waiting for a great leap forwards’.

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