Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Day 2 of GEW week saw me speaking at a Westminster Briefing to a mostly local authority and social enterprise crowd about success with outsourcing. They were a really interesting lot who challenged both the lovely Nick Temple, from the School of Social Entrepreneurs with whom I shared the platform and I, on what we thought the outcome of the election would be. It’s the first time I have been asked that outright and in public and it made me think. How do I feel? What do I think? Obviously no one has a crystal ball and the widely held view at this point is that it will be a very close race. That being the case it makes campaigning even more important as issues will have to be discussed and parties will have to work very hard for votes.

All three major parties talk about social enterprise although we are starting to see some differences. The Tories have been critical of what they perceive to be Big Government and want more local delivery. A good thing from the point of view of social enterprises many of whom operate at grass roots level, but the spectre of every local authority having to devise its own approach to social enterprise and design its own architecture for outsourcing is one that I question. Similarly although they say good things about social enterprise, the reality is that most of the support structures for social enterprise development come through the same regional development agencies and government offices that they propose to abandon. I think we will need central Government to have a plan, and to set the parameters of expectation into which regional and local players can feed their needs. As Vince Cable said in the Guardian last month, we need public services to be “locally commissioned to national standards.” My hope is that whoever wins the election, this is what we end up with.

Labour on the other hand, have a track record in supporting social enterprise. They introduced the first social enterprise department in Government, in the then DTi, and established the Office of the Third Sector which has been very vocal in its support of social enterprise. However, one of the things we have learnt through the introduction of social enterprise support units inside Government Departments such as Health, is the extent to which some officials and Ministers struggle to get behind the idea. So we will see whether or not it happens. As I said to my audience yesterday, I think the good news is that there will be more contracts out there and social enterprises will be encouraged to go for them. How much success is encountered if the opportunity is not married with enough understanding and support is something that remains to be seen. In any event agencies like SEL will be there to do all we can to maximise the opportunities for our members.

Talking of members we are getting up to nearly 1900 so the 2000 milestone is not long off now. We are starting to plan how to celebrate so watch this space. Already we have the largest social enterprise membership in the UK and 2000 is a number to really conjure with. I hope it helps people realise that behind the rhetoric and despite the recession, our movement is really growing.

Last night I went to the Minister for London’s reception for London’s leaders and had some good conversations with folk about 2012, cooperatives and working with local authorities. Tessa Jowell gave a rousing speech about how important we all were in helping London to be a world beating city and then promptly left. However I am still chuffed with her because she has come through on her promise to me last week to sort out a meeting between me and the heads for the remaining Olympic contracts to talk turkey on social enterprises and supply. The meeting is scheduled for the 30th and I promise to go out to members soon to ask them what they would like me to address. Top of my list at the moment are the patchy results social enterprises have had in bidding and the continued lack of excitement and understanding of the social enterprise offer.

This morning I had an emergency call about a member who had been chugging along nicely but has had a major local authority contract cancelled with a months notice which in turn has arrested their ability to make the next payment on a business loan they took out to grow the business. Did I know where they could get an injection of finance quickly? Speed is a controversial issue in any financial transaction as what is seen as the consequence of lack of planning puts lenders off. However contract cancellation is classic recessionary stuff as is the miserable domino effect it can cause. I am hunting about for them.

This evening SEL is hosting a fascinating event with The Philosophy Shop to look at the philosophy of social enterprise. The Philosophy Shop is a great social enterprise: they work to introduce philosophy to school kids that would otherwise not be exposed to it. I think that’s a wonderful idea as philosophy is a defining characteristic of a civilised society. Interestingly enough at my son’s school the Head Master teaches philosophy to every boy in the school at some point once every week. It has made my boys think and gives them some outstanding role modelling and a basis to build a belief in social responsibility. Social enterprise is a great topic for philosophical debate as frankly it is all about building a cooperative society that you either believe in or you don’t. The event starts at 1 London Bridge at 6, finishes at 7.30 and is open to anyone. There are drinks to follow and if you are interested just come along. After the kick off I will have to shoot as the Government’s Women’s Enterprise Taskforce, which I have been a member of the last three years, is presenting its findings this evening at the Department of Business Innovation and Skills. I must be there as maximising opportunities for woman is a top priority for me. However, being in two places at once is so characteristic of my week and probably a bit silly.

Its Social Enterprise Day tomorrow so I hope you are doing something fun! If you are part of an event do let us know so we can tell everyone what you got up to.

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