Thursday, 4 February 2010

Former Canadian PM pleads for UK social enterprise leadership

I am at this year’s Guardian newspaper public service summit. Obviously the talk is of cuts, up to 23% in the public sector according to our Chair, David Brindle, Public Services Editor of the Guardian, and people are wondering about the changes to come. I am here to talk about where social enterprise fits in.

I settled in to hear our key note speaker the Rt Hon Paul Martin, former Prime Minister of Canada who told us how, when he was Finance Minister, he and Treasury colleagues began the process of sorting out Canada’s rising deficit literally on the back of an envelope. He told us it was arbitrary and cold, but the fact was after 30 years of rising spending and accumulated deficit he felt it was absolutely necessary. He gave each member of the Government target cuts, allowing individual Ministers to appeal but refusing to budge on the overall bottom line.

I liked his line that when you are a finance minister it is better for everyone to hate you, rather than a few people. I wonder if that’s true for all those who have unpopular jobs to do?

I was really interested in this very bold approach but imagine my delight when he said that, in considering what the UK has done 'right', the answer is social enterprise. I was all ears.

He described it as a marriage of left and right, compassion and social entrepreneurship. He, not I, told the conference that business entrepreneurs can tap markets but social entrepreneurs cannot because they will always be hampered by their social aims when it comes to borrowing. He told delegates that the UK is leading the way with innovations including Community Interest Companies, which he wished they had in Canada.

He said 'if you can build on this growth in social enterprise, you will be ahead of everyone'. Upping the anti he told us that social enterprise improves quality of life, when ill health is often the collateral damage of the free markets. He repeated the point that in social enterprise you will be ahead of everyone, Canada, the US... in fact everyone.

I was dancing in my seat, it was all I could do to stop myself cheering. It was wonderful. He set a tone which meant that every subsequent speaker had to comment on social enterprise, building a debate that grew exponentially.

He posed the following question: “I would ask, why would the state not provide incentives for social enterprises?” He told us that the great recession of 2008/9 has done its work, it was and remains the perfect storm that has rendered getting Globalisation to 'work' the great challenge for our time. It's important to deal with it now, he told us; 'cut the deficit, regulate capital, and create Global solutions to this Global crisis'.

Leaping to my feet in questions I asked Prime Minister Martin, if he had social enterprise in Canada when he was PM, what would have been his vision for it?

He responded that his vision for social entrepreneurs now is that they really 'have a go' at capital markets. He said that in his view there are people who are social activists that are every bit as entrepreneurial as capitalists. Finally he said, “my remarks to you are almost a plea. A lot of us are looking to you for leadership in this area, we in Canada have not gone far enough, the US has gone further, none of us have gone as far as you have, we are all looking at the UK to show us the way.”

In response to ACEVO CEO Stephen Bubb's question around the need for increased social investment he said, "I think a social investment bank would be good, but to be honest access to the capital market is what you want. If the Twitter people had to go to a grant agency they would never have got money. We have a third world in Canada, Aboriginal Canadians who have a strong entrepreneurial leaning but no one will lend them money. Mezzanine financing is perhaps the answer, maybe Government should be taking a role in supporting initial investment? But what social entrepreneurs really need is access to the market.”

Finally he told us to get the public on your side, much as Philip Blond of ResPublica had told us to do at Voice on Tuesday. It was a wonderful speech.

Next up we had Rob Whiteman, CEO of Barking and Dagenham Council, who told us, that in the last decade we in the UK have improved things by investing in them and in the next decade we will have to improve things by spending less.

He told us that professionals should be on tap and not on top, that you need advice but don’t let it hamper your innovation. He mentioned working with social entrepreneurs running services such as libraries. Incidentally I have always thought public libraries are a natural home for social enterprise.

Simon Godfrey director of public sector strategy, business development and government relations at SAP, the IT and infrastructure giant was concerned that the private sector will outstrip the public sector very soon, as the population ages we need to understand that technology is key in delivering a quality life style to the aging population.

I was up next with Sir Andrew Foster, Chair of the 2020 Public Services Trust, Dame Julie Mellor, Partner at PwC in a session chaired by David Brindle.

Sir Andrew painted a picture of moving us from 'public services to powerful public' Dame Julie mentioned the work SEL are doing with PwC on dealing with the fiscal gap through social enterprise.

I had to abandon my planned speech as everyone had already mentioned social enterprise and my job was to pick up their points. I told them I was not an advocate of cuts but that I was an advocate for change. That the current crisis, described by Sir Michael Bishard, director of the Institute for Government as a burning platform, would offer change and that I felt that had to be an opportunity for my members.

I told them Government had to be a better shopper, that thinking it can both procure services and supply them efficiently was odd, that we were not services on the cheap, we were just better and therefore less costly in the long run, that social clauses in contracts are not in contravention of European law, that social enterprise blurs the line between public and private and that like the internet we are spontaneous, compelling unstoppable and of the moment. I concluded that opting for social enterprise was not a difficult choice, it was the only choice.

I was delighted when most of the subsequent questions were on social enterprise. I fielded concerns that community initiatives might lead to a post code lottery, that social enterprise might not be real engagement, or that it might be seen to be middle class (ask John Bird about that.)

I have since been asked to talk to so many delegates that I shall be busy for months getting round them all. That would be the job then.

I have snuck off to give you the heads up, both Stephen and I are blogging this one up a storm. Patrick Butler, Head of Society, Health and Education at the Guardian came up to me at lunch and said, you must be pleased. I congratulated him on organising such a good conference on social enterprise. Well done Guardian.

I will head home at the close of play today and not stay for the Gala Dinner as this is my second residental conference this week and I haven't seen the family much. This weekend I'm going to be doing some more burning and mulching at the allotment, perhaps putting in some broad bean seeds if the warmer weather holds.

I need to start thinking about our lawn. My husband is chuffed that the chickens have started laying again but I fear it is at the expence of my lawn which they have scratched to buggery over the winter. Bad chickens.

Socially speaking it should be a quite weekend with only my mate Julie popping over to debrief me on a speech she is giving to the law lords tonight on privacy law and the recent case involving a certain footballer. Julie is International Editor of a well known celebrity magazine so I should imagine they are looking forward to hearing what she has to say. She on the other hand is dreading it. She told me yesterday that's she'd rather interview Madonna. If making speeches isn't your job its hard to take in your stride. Still, to be honest, at most conferences I'd rather be in the garden. But not today, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. A great conference, and I'm looking forward to my little chat with Prime Minister Martin, we both seem to have it bad for social enterprise.

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