Friday, 13 November 2009

Just when I thought the energy around social enterprise had reached a high, things are hotting up. David Cameron in his Hugo Young Lecture on Monday night and Tessa Jowell, Minister for the Cabinet Office yesterday have said their parties will make social enterprise central to the very core of future Government service delivery.

Labour plans to encourage mutuals like Central Surrey Health and Sunderland Home Care Associates as replicable models, whilst the Tories intend a broader commitment to encouraging community groups to take control of key services. Labour refer to a ‘John Lewis’ style public service, with employee control at the heart.

All very encouraging; I have little doubt for example that had postal workers been owner employees of the Post Office this autumn, the strikes which crippled and conceivably destroyed our national postal service would never have happened.

However, many of these ideas still need to be worked through. Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, has also been discussing the idea of an “easyCouncil” as in a no frills service along the lines of EasyJet airlines. It’s worth noting that John Lewis is a social enterprise, and EasyJet not; at EasyJet the employees are certainly not in charge, and arguably the model would fall down if they were.

We know social enterprises can thrive when they work directly for Government, for example with leisure trusts, which now outrank the private sector in terms of their market share of public leisure service delivery. In that space we have market leaders like GLL big enough to compete to manage the Aquatic Centre at the 2012 Games.

But of course not everyone likes social enterprise. It appears some people really hate it. Unite leaders have been particularly busy lately publishing pamphlets trying to frighten workers with talk of social enterprise as the ‘Trojan Horse’, privatisation through the back door and the possibility of City style pay and bonuses for executives. This nonsense culminated at the end of last week with a printed ‘report’ that highlighting the salaries of some Third Sector leaders. My mum always warned me about the dangers of launching missiles from inside the green-house; with a combined salary and benefits deal of £308,374 the joint General Secretaries of Unite, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley should keep schtum in my opinion.

Actually when I read the Unite piece, I wonder if I was alone in thinking how poorly paid some of the CEO’s of some of the largest Third Sector bodies are. These organisations are highly complex with large turnovers, numerous staff, and important work with society’s most vulnerable people. Top jobs calling for top people, private sector comparisons are ridiculous and mischievous, no one is getting mortgage relief, and there is no bonus culture.

Social enterprise can do much to turn this sorry state of affairs into an opportunity. We can help people think about new and better ways of working. After years of targets and micromanagement we can offer people the hope of self determination and an ability to be creative in their work again. But we are not about exploitation, services on the cheap or privatisation through the back door. I was delighted that ACEVO CEO Stephen Bubb questioned David Cameron on Monday, on whether the Tories plans for the Third sector meant services on the cheap. Cameron said no, let's hope he meant it.

Social entrepreneurs need time and investment to build our capacity. We need Government departments to recognise where more research and investment needs to be made. This means following through on the long awaited review of the national economic development strategy, as public spending is analysed and rationalised they will need strategies to replace the current delivery modes, and with the right support and investment the third sector can really deliver.

I have nearly 1900 members all chomping at the bit to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in. Yes we need investment; you can’t expect social entrepreneurs to remortgage their houses (Although sadly some of them do) to finance companies they do not own, in order to deliver public services. The local bond is an interesting idea; for sure the tax breaks Government are looking at are long overdue, as is the Social Investment Bank, which will invest our vast reserves of unclaimed banking assets into social and community initiatives.

We need good, fair contracts that acknowledge the extraordinary social impact of social enterprises, like sterilisation products from the social enterprise Clarity, and we need unions that work with us, acknowledging that many of the people who set up and work in social enterprises are existing or potential union members, and many social enterprises.

I believe much of the hostility towards social enterprise is generated by confusion over whether it represents a John Lewis or EasyJet. Social Enterprise is the former, and with more research and further working through of policy, this will become very clear. Human beings aren’t good at change and there is a boat load of it on its way. In such situations so-called early adopters are the ones that thrive, and I know of no other community than mine with so many early adopters in its ranks. Public services run as employee owned mutuals will be the public services of the future, and it’s a future I want to be part of.


  1. Great news that John Lewis Partership has come out as a social enterprise!

  2. Allison, is your 'outing' of JLP as a social enterprise official? I know you've been talking to the employee-owned firms lately, so assume it's been cleared! If it's true, then it's very significant, not to mention that you've just added a billion or two of business clout to the identified movement in london. Still, I can't help but sigh about when JLP will come out as a co-operative, as many JLP-ers describe themselves. Guess it's that thing of co-operatives being a clunky-toxic social brand.