Sunday, 13 February 2011

Big Society - no money, no comment

Oh its all about the Big Society this week. This morning I have thoroughly enjoyed watching my friend Sir Stephen Bubb hurtling around the news TV studios this morning, keeping his end up ...
He told me he didn't even have time for breakfast. My letter, published in the Evening Standard on Thursday 10th and Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maud's response to the issues raised in it on the BBC Politics Show this morning is, as you would expect, something I would like to discuss.

In my letter, I said, "WE wholeheartedly endorse the philosophy behind the Big Society. The issue is wether the right environment can be provided for the community organisations - without sufficient investment, the concept will struggle. It was disappointing to hear Francis Maude point to the Government's work Programme as providing opportunities for social enterprise when organisation's required £50 million reserve to bid for the contracts, and only one charity secured one. The abolition of the Futurebuilders fund has meant limited borrowing for our 2,200 members and limited growth for the 12 months the Big Society Bank is taking to set up. In the context of the £5.1 billion of income New Philanthropy Capital estimates charities face losing, a far more intuitive policy is needed to boost community engagement through more outsourced contracts, to enable social enterprise to make a Big difference. "

Since I started writing this post Francis Maude, has been asked about the Work Programme on the Politics Show, where their figures show of the 37 contracts awarded so far, only 2 come from what could be termed Big Society organisations. Put to him, he said that 'they' would be watching to make sure that social enterprises and civil society organisations would get substantial contracts to deliver this work even if they were not the prime contractors.

This would be very good news if you didn't know much about the process, which I do. Under the programme deliverers will get an initial payment at 26 weeks for supporting a client and the majority of the cost of supporting them to get back to work at 52 weeks. That means that unless the 35 private sector organisations that have won the prime contracts are willing to pay delivery agents even though they are not getting paid themselves(!?) you will have to be able to operate at risk for a minimum of 25 weeks, which you will not get paid for if the client leaves the programme prematurely. Don't rush all at once people.

So 'they' can watch, and many social enterprises and charities, including my own, will try, but if we fail and God forbid, are bankrupted by the programme, don't blame us for lack of effort or inefficiency. In the meantime I would ask the Big Society czars to please point to some other initiative as an opportunity to deliver Big Society as, in fact, the Work Programme is the most private sector driven, back to work initiative ever put together by any Government at a time when civil society has never been better placed to do the work.

I think if Government wants to illustrate Big Society hard at it (which is a good idea if the amassed contradictions can be ironed out) it should avoid examples where economies of scale have been maximised, and stick to programmes that have germinated and been nurtured at grass roots level, if they haven't been cut.

One of the most helpful things I have heard this morning is ResPublica's Philip Blond the leading economist largely credited for substantiating Big Society, saying on Sky News that the cuts had hurt and that what we needed was an economy for Big Society.

I absolutely agree and if you were asking me this is what I would do:

1. Mandate all local authorities to develop a case for proportionality which would encourage them to look at off-setting cuts directly with investment such as asset transfer and outsourced contracts to civil society organisations.

2. The Transition Fund which Mr Maude told us this morning had been oversubscribed by about £70 million already (but apparently most of that was illegible), should be extended and linked to other programmes such as the one suggested above to ensure the investment leads to growth and not just a putting off of the evil hour.

3. All Government initiatives should be road tested for inclusion. No more sneaky nods to the big private sector while Big Society is writ large. Economies of scale do look like quick fix savings but the failure to create social impact has a much greater long term cost. 

4.  A measure needs to be introduced pronto pronto that builds on the fantastic work of the Future Jobs Fund, providing real opportunity for civil society specialists and more importantly gives all those wonderful, desperate young people who ring our offices every day looking for work, a chance to enter the tax paying economy.

5. Get the Big Society Bank out there pdq with as much money to lend as possible, but not take the pressure of the high street to be more forthcoming. In the meantime invest in organisations that enable civil society companies to become investment ready (like SEL), and continue to look for whatever financial products are necessary to finance this social revolution. Don't be afraid of alternatives and a mixed market because no money, no comment.

No 3 is highlighted because it is my favourite and I think the root of both the problem and the solution. Getting Big Society back on track the social enterprise way, easy.


  1. This is a really interesting blog that brings out some of the challenging contradictions that exist in and around the big society rhetoric. I also agree that point 3 is a critical one, although this government is not the first (and won't be the last) to create procurement rules that exclude all but the biggest players. However, if as a government you continue to say that social enterprise should step up and get involved, there has to be a playing field on which we actually can get involved.

    In terms of young people, it will be interesting to see if the Work Programme does draw on any of the lessons from successful schemes of the last few years. My area of interest is graduates, and graduate unemployment has risen significantly. Above and beyond that, graduate underemployment is also an issue as it results in graduates not reaching their potential and other people being shut out of the labour market by underemployed grads. Paid internships in small businesses are the key to unlocking this. We have seen an 85% conversion rate of paid internships into permanent graduate jobs under our scheme (incidentally with no wage subsidy support), which shows that when given a chance graduates tend to demonstrate their ability to deliver.

    If Big Society is to work, we need to see the creation of an environment where the opportunity to deliver exists, both for young people and social enterprises.

  2. Martin, I couldn't put it better myself. Organisations like yours have innovative solutions that will avoid the creation of the so-called 'lost generation'. The economic and social cost of workless young people is unacceptable, so we can only hope that Government listens.

  3. Surely "Big Nullity", "Big Social Injustice" and "Big Bunkum" would be better appellations

  4. , We could not place it much better personally. Companies such as your own possess revolutionary options which will steer clear of the development from the so-called 'lost generation'. The actual financial as well as interpersonal price associated with workless young adults is actually undesirable, therefore we are able to just wish which Federal government listens.

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