Where next for public services?
Social Enterprise and the Big Society
Is the Big Society just a big con, or the catalyst for change?
By Diana Coman, July 2011
Is the debate about what the Big Society means stopping us harnessing the opportunity to change the way we deliver public services?
The Conservatives (or rather David Cameron) came up with this notion leading up to the last general election. At the time it seemed difficult to define it, and the debate about what it means continues. But in the heat of political point-scoring are we missing the chance to open minds to the opportunities that social enterprise has to offer?
Social enterprises are businesses which exist to meet a defined social or environmental need. Incorrectly described as ‘not for profit’ they are, in fact, commercial organizations, not only delivering profit, but social and environmental outcomes – described as a multiple bottom line.
A well known social enterprise is ‘Fifteen’, the restaurant in which Jamie Oliver has an interest and which takes disadvantaged young people and offers them training, personal development and a door into a new career.
Around the country there are an increasing number of companies working with a commercial ethos but also delivering social value. These organisations go beyond the corporate social responsibility programmes promoted by some of the bigger business names. They support, through their trading activities, defined social objectives.
But talk enterprise in the context of public services and a cry of ‘privatisation’ goes up, with the threat of international conglomerates taking over, wholesale, state services.
The emphasis on bringing efficiency into the delivery of public service through private enterprise has been woven through much that has come from central government for decades, but little, till now, has been made of the role social enterprise can play.
However, go back a century or so and enterprise and philanthropy were at the heart of some of our major social innovations. Health services and schools were not originally constructed by the State, but led by individuals and organisations.
So are we facing a swing of the pendulum from the private enterprise agenda, promoted during the 80s and 90s towards social enterprise, as promoted through the Big Society agenda?
The establishment of a Community Interest Company model has provided a way of locking social responsibility within a commercial setting. This new governance structure, opens the door for public services to be delivered in a way that still keeps the focus on social investment, whilst freeing organisations to operate as businesses. But this is not the only model and some other, more traditional, operating structures can be adopted by organisations/businesses to deliver a social agenda.
I attended a debate recently on The Big Society, involving mostly the voluntary sector. What was interesting listening to the debate amongst them was the dependency that some appeared to have on the State providing them with instruction. Many people in the voluntary sector talk in terms of waiting for the local authority to fund, inform, or decide, all required before the organisation could act.
Many were dependent on State funding (usually local authority), some entirely. A suggestion to look to business to help was not received as a prompt for organisations to take on a more business-like model, perhaps to develop a service that private enterprise could purchase and thereby support their social objectives, but to turn to business for a hand-out.
So, why is it that many organisations (certainly the majority attending this Big Society debate) are so dependent? Has the citizen, and by extension the organisations they are involved in, lost confidence in their ability to do things for themselves? Have we been too controlled by governments since the second world war so that we collectively lack the nerve to just get on with it?
The Big Society need not be a free-for-all, where the strongest survive; nor does it need to be an open door for big business. It can be an opportunity to unleash our dormant enterprise and creativity.
There are risks, and high-profile business failures clearly make people nervous. However, the State does not have an unblemished record when it comes to failures in the delivery of public services.
Transparency, accountability and good governance along with proper structures for public consultation and scrutiny will provide organisations with feedback necessary to deliver good public services and meet their social objectives, and the citizen with the confidence that the organisation can be held to appropriate account.
© Coman Communications and Tamarind Chambers July 2011. You may copy distribute or transmit this work, or parts thereof, provided that it is reproduced accurately and not used in a derogatory or misleading way, is not used for commercial purposes and is attributed as the work of Diana Coman, Coman Communications and of Tamarind Chambers, 25 Orchard Road, Sutton, SM1 2QA. firstname.lastname@example.org