Big society – can we have spin-outs without spin? The chief executive of Social Enterprise London worries that presentational issues will get in the way of encouraging new models of public service delivery
As seen in the Guardian online today.....
"Big society" is big news. But what does it mean? If so-called spin-outs from the public sector are all part of this headline policy initiative, has big society helped or hindered?
My recent experience would suggest that rhetoric aside, David Cameron's big society has mainstreamed social enterprise, which, contrary to popular belief, has helped.
We work a great deal with people who want to spin out public services into social enterprises and with those who have successfully done it like the leisure trust Greenwich Leisure Ltd (GLL), and so have been part of this process from the very beginning.
That work is gathering momentum, largely, and regrettably, driven by cuts as well as the emergence of a political leadership that considers independent providers within public services a good thing.
But interestingly, when local authorities approach us to help them, whether they are Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative, no one mentions big society. So while big society has got people talking about social enterprise, and the cuts have mobilised support for alternative models of delivery, the pursuit of those models is not being done in the name of big society.
Why does this matter? Well in many ways it doesn't, but it should inform government strategy. If you want people to deliver what is essentially the big society agenda, let them get on with it. Focus on the results and resist the temptation to spin it.
Through our work with public services we have learnt that the politics of a local authority does not give an indication of its commitment to social enterprise. Boroughs who have become clients come from right across the political spectrum. We have also realised that the services they hope to outsource into social enterprises are not easy to predict. Libraries seem obvious, but children's services are just as popular.
Having launched our Transitions document that outlines how local authorities might spin out services into social enterprises or mutuals, and subsequently organised training for 14 boroughs and three quangos, we have been overwhelmed by people's creative energy.
Even if it was the cuts that gave the green light to their political lords and masters to go down this route, the people that need to get on with it are keen. It's not just a case of taking to the lifeboats because the ship is sinking. Participants in our programme have been thinking about setting up as independent service providers for some time.
Their motivation is usually because they know they can do it better, and they want the freedom to focus on the client.
So if spin is unhelpful, what works? All government initiatives should be road-tested for inclusion to maximise the opportunity for services to be delivered as effectively as possible. Without a prioritisation of the social values writ large in the big society and crystallised into contractual social clauses, we are in danger of squeezing out these values-led, fledgling social enterprises and of ending up with the private sector running our hospitals, schools and children's services.
The recent government Work Programme is a case in point. Of the 37 prime-status contracts awarded so far only two went to civil society organisations, because bidders had to have a £50m reserve. Now government is saying, "never mind the prime contracts, we want to see social enterprises and charities deliver the work as sub-contractors".
But under the programme payment rules, deliverers get an initial payment at 26 weeks for supporting a client and the majority of the cost of getting people back to work comes only after 52 weeks. That means deliverers will have to operate at risk for a minimum of 25 weeks, and will not get paid at all if the client leaves the programme prematurely. This in effect kicks smaller, community based organisations into touch, which I genuinely believe was not what the government had in mind.
So what did government want? If the headlines of big society that talk about a new economy in public services populated by employee, mutuals and community-led organisations are to be taken at face value, then we can deliver. But careful prioritisation of social value is a must. Organisations that utilise public contracts, deliver social services and engage community activists are popping up all over, but they won't last without genuine opportunity, with or without the spin.