Monday, 14 February 2011

Social enterprise is still a good news story

I wrote a piece for Social Enterprise Magazine today, featured on their homepage, which highlights an issue I think people need to hear about at the moment ...
 that of the positive work being done in local authorities up and down the country to support social enterprise development through public sector outsourcing. I wrote this last week, but my energised meeting this morning with yet another council confirmed for me everything I argue in the piece.

If you missed it, it reads as follows:

Most social commentators assume social enterprise spin outs are an initiative driven by central government, and that local authority staff are either unenthusiastic or opposed to the move.

But Social Enterprise London’s (SEL) experience of the last few months tells a very different story. While issues such as TUPE, pensions, risk and asset transfer remain potential deal breakers, at the forefront of the minds of our dramatically increasing number of public sector clients is a positive, forward looking optimism about the opportunity social enterprise represents.

For nearly 15 years SEL has been working with local authorities and it was obvious early on that demand was growing from the grass roots for a new type of service. Since then things have changed beyond recognition, with the initial slow trickle of interest turning to what is now a heavy oversubscription on our Transitions training for social enterprises coming out of the public sector giving as clear an indication of demand as you are ever going to get.

It’s important to note that the local authority staff who are signing up for our training are not being made to do it. This service manager from a London borough told us: ‘it was an open, inclusive, inspiring and upbeat workshop that empowered attendees right from the beginning’.He, quite clearly, did not have a gun to his head.

Similarly, Transitions the document we produced in partnership with London Councils late in 2010 has exceeded everyone’s expectations both in terms of its take up and its reception. We have been overwhelmed with comments like this from Chris Bates, assistant director for corporate policy at Hounslow Council: ‘It was a pleasure to read your report, it is so well written and easy to understand.’

It is so encouraging to know people's enthusiasm seems to go deeper than taking advantage of a political trend. As evangelists of social enterprise we would not have much to contribute to initiatives that forced people to act against their will.

This thing we want people to do is challenging enough when driven by enthusiasm, and impossible with anything less than full commitment. So knowing that the urge to take control of a service and design it to best suit the needs of service users is something most of our clients seem to have been thinking about for a long time, inspires us. The current political climate creates the conditions for social enterprise to happen, but contrary to the popular view, it’s not the main driver. The people who deliver those services and their drive to do it differently, are where the energy is coming from. This suggests that the spinouts we are supporting have more reason to be optimistic than if they were simply rushing to the lifeboats because the ship was going down.

Another group tentatively exploring the concept through our programme told us, ‘[the trainer] was very responsive to our requests and had produced a presentation that dealt with all our many anxieties! We had previously read Transitions online - it was the best we had come across. We have a lot more thinking to do before we make a decision about whether social enterprise is the best way forward for us but [SEL's] input was invaluable’.

In the panic over the scale of cuts, we mustn't lose sight of how important social enterprise has become to the future of public service delivery, in that it remains a good news story for the people who want their service to utilize enterprise and maximize community engagement.


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