Thursday, 3 February 2011

Big Society and social enterprise, best buddies or bad news?

I am having a very Big Society week not least because I met up with Lord Nat Wei for tea at the House of Lords on Monday to talk about our Transition Institute. Lord Wei, is the man tasked by the Government to promote Big Society by explaining to folk what it is and encouraging people to get involved. Back at the cosy Members Bar, sitting at the table next to the imperious Lord Mandelson we had a lively discussion, and after some very searching and challenging questions, Nat seemed really enthusiastic about the group and has signed up. He shared my sense that there is a real need for a support structure to bring best practice and promotion to the independent delivery models that are emerging out of public services.

Whilst Lord Wei and I met to talk about Transitions, after our meeting, I could not help but think about the relationship between social enterprise and the big society. It has seemed to many, myself included, that the Big Society narrative of a more dynamic relationship between the state and the communities it serves has a great deal to do with social enterprise. Long before it was easy to say so, I have been advocating social enterprise as a real improvement to statutory service. Every day of my working life I have the privilege to work with companies that are very clear about their social impact without having the sense of entitlement than those operating in a mono-market can often develop.

So is there a problem? Well there might be. You see social enterprises are businesses, without profit there is no social impact. They can only achieve the excellence and innovation that excites consumers as in the case of Bikeworks, cycling shops that gives everyone, regardless of ability or means, access to cycling, if there are contracts in place to provide the service. Products can and are being sold to augment the companies profitability and volunteers are always welcome, but I do not know of any social enterprise that predicates its business model on volunteering. Indeed any entity that did, would not, by most people's definition, including mine, be a social enterprise. So profitability and community engagement yes; volunteering, no.

Furthermore as I tweeted only today, we were having an interesting time explaining social enterprise in the first place, adding Big Society adds another layer. It can hardly be a surprise that folk are struggling, so more needs to be done to clarify what we are about and more needs to be spent on helping people get with the program. If its possible, I can see us identify with the ethics of a big society, but volunteering aside because that's the voluntary sector's gig and not ours.


  1. Allison,

    I think you're highlighting the fact that there's (at least) two different threads to Big Society thinking.

    I see a lot of possibilities for the strand of Big Society that's about groups of socially enterprising people in communities getting together to tackle social problems, support each other in areas where state provision is either not there or ineffective, and also to just got on and do positive things things that they and others in the community think are worthwhile.

    Whether or not the organisations formed are always called social enterprises, a socially enterprising approach is key to making this stuff happen - partly supported by some public funding and partnerships with state agencies.

    The less positive strand of Big Society in social enterprise terms is the over-emphasis on volunteering in terms of replacing public services.

    Volunteering is a good thing. I help to run a small community centre and sit on three charity/company boards on a voluntary basis but, as you point out, there's big problems with the idea of volunteers rather than paid staff being responsible for professional service delivery.

    Not because it never works for anyone but because it will work a lot better in some areas, and for some people than others. And it actively reduces the already very limited power and influence of the least well off.

    It would be highly regressive to move to a situation where social needs are either met or go unmet based on the often unfulfilled promise of altruism. And for work to deliver social change to be delivered only by people who can afford to do it for free in their spare time.

    It's vitally important that we make the case for a socially enterprising Big Society rather than this less positive version.

  2. Dear David, as you would expect, I agree. The challenge is to create an environment where socially enterprising approaches can be deployed willy nilly. At present the chances that the right advice and opportunity converge with willing investment are remote. My hope is that as Government explore what is meant by Big Society this latter strand of community engagement will grow in appeal and strategic foresight. What do you reckon the chances are?

  3. Well, I think the chances will be improved by socially enterprising people continuing to engage pragmatically in the discussions.

    The challenge is to continue to make positive cases to government (councils and others) about what could be done with the right support.

    I'm cautiously optimistic about the long-term possibilities but worried about what's going to happen over the next six months or so.