Thursday, 16 September 2010

Nick Hurd, Ed Davey and the Big Society

Everyone has heard of the Big Society and this week I have heard both our Minister, Nick Hurd and Ed Davey, BIS Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs (that's a mouth full) on the subject. They are absolutely fired up and raring to go so this is something we all need to know more about. Like all new concepts, especially those born of conversations rather than published doctrine, its taking time for folk to work out what it means. Perhaps that's the point, it can and should mean what people want it to mean to them.

The gist is inclusivity, so those of us that include are off to a roaring start. The ethos is community, so another tick there and the plan is in the making, so let's hope the wonderful organisations whom have made it their life's work to include, empower and inspire get to play in the band too.

Nick was speaking at the Social Enterprise Ambassadors send off do at Coin Street on Tuesday. The stories were inspiring, my favourite being a super, and mercifully short speech by ECOBOOTHE MD Shane Boathe, who had the snappy strap line of "putting the green back into clean". Sitting patiently through the speeches and presentations, Nick got to address us. He very kindly opened by giving SEL and me a name check, remarking at the chocolate and condoms we handed out at our pre election hustings, and adding, hilariously I thought, that the shelf life of the one considerably outlasted the shelf life of the other. He then went on to outlline his commitment to social enterprise, the Social Enterprise Coalition and heart felt support for the vision and purpose of the Big Society. He was passionate, saying that Government were determined in delivering this heightened form of community empowerment, that they wanted to enter into a dialogue with anyone who supported the concept because this was a Government, and I am quoting here, that wanted nothing less than to change the very culture of Britain. Wow.

This is Big stuff. So I was pleased to be able to pick up the discussion with Paul Twivy CEO of the Big Society Network when we met at his club yesterday evening. Despite it being a very noisy venue we managed a good chat and I have a clearer understanding of the network, and indeed the vision for #bigsoc as those of us that Tweet tag it. With my new found insight I trotted along to meet my friend Cliff Prior at UnLtd where together we worked up the idea within the context of our own work and then off to BIS where Ed Davey was Chairing a #bigsoc roundtable. I came into a facinating debate about the efficacy of accessing risk capital within community based business models, which I cheerfully waded into even though I was disgustingly late, because we the debate was in danger of concluding that shared ownership or social enterprise models could not, ever, be vehicles for signifigant investment. Whilst that is often true, it need not be the case, and Government is in a position to address that difficulty.

Ed asked me if I was challenging Government to resolve a process for social enterprise development within the public sector, and I said yes, having stuffed my oar in again to say that for those of us who have been picking our way through this minefield for years, the truth is, there is, as yet, no process. I thought the debate was a good starting point and again both Ed and Lord Nat Wei, who was also an enthusiastic contributor to the discussion, Big Society is the theme that underpins Government's approach to these issues. Take note here people.

So having had quite a #bigsoc week I was left wondering about the challenge we face. I have just had a meeting with Jeremy Robinson, CEO and John Stutchfield from Clarity, one of my absolutely favourite members (not that I have favourites of course) described by Nick Hurd as 'a pioneer of Big Society'. Clarity is a social enteprise that produces cleaning and personal hygiene products whilst also providing good jobs for a workforce with primarily sight related disabilities. I was cheered at how well they are doing in the market but I have to say outraged that they are still struggling to supply Government and large companies with highly developed CSR policies, because big entities won't unbundle their contracts. If we are to encourage Clarity and social enterprises like them who use business to address profound social need, then we really have to get a lot smarter here people.

I have sent a few emails tonight to senior folk I have met  recently who assure me of their support for social enterprise. I think purchasing your soap and hand wash at a commercial rate from a supplier like Clarity would be a fine place to start, don't you? The trick is to tell your facilities manager or cleaning contractor to seek out ethical products. Not only do you get a good product at a commercial rate, you contribute to your own social impact and you buy British. Now that's #bigsoc, isn't it?

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