Thursday, 20 October 2011

Why social value is more important than 'social enterprise'

Allison Ogden-Newton finds that social entrepreneurs are relaxed about changes to Chris White's public services bill
Allison Ogden-Newton
Allison Ogden-Newton, chief executive of Social Enterprise London
If, like me, you have been referring to Chris White's public services (social enterprise and social value) bill as the social enterprise bill, after this week you will have to think of something else to call it. We now know that mention of social enterprise – that bit that many consider as the radical element of the proposed legislation – is to be removed, leaving only reference to social value, which strikes me as a touch of "don't mention the war".
I have to confess that Greg Clark, the minister for decentralisation and cities, told me in December that the government intended just such an amendment, so I was slow to realise that this was news. In truth, the bill is doing better than any of us dared hope and, as to be expected of all private member bills, it has been subject to extensive amendments – but a social enterprise bill that no longer refers to social enterprise has to be a joke, right?
To find out I spoke to June O'Sullivan of the London Early Years Foundation, an organisation that delivers early years services targeted at the most deprived families in five London boroughs. As ever, she cut to the chase. June told me, "What I want from any kind of bill is a level playing field. Local authorities are looking for the best service they can afford and while the social enterprise element of what we do interests councils, when we get feedback from successful contracts, it's all about the service we provide, nothing else."
I asked June what she would like from the legislation and she told me that anything that removed procurement barriers like a mandatory £20m turnover to tender, and added, "getting the concept of social value into their [local authority] heads wouldn't hurt".
This idea was echoed by Mark Sesnan of GLL, a company that manages 100 leisure facilities promoting community health and youth employment, making GLL probably the UK's most successful social enterprise delivering public services. Mark told me: "Having social enterprise in there was powerful, but removing it is not terminal. We welcomed the bill because it asked for government to look for more than just price in contracts. If it still does that then that's great, continuing to describe such activity as social enterprise would have been the icing on the cake."
Mark and June work closely with cuts-ravaged local authorities, which gives them a profoundly pragmatic view. Sarah Richards, director of sustainable environment and enterprise at Essex county council, told me, "We are really interested in social enterprise and its inherent social value and while we might have struggled in response to mandatory legislation, we genuinely welcome any support to our growing relationships with Essex's social enterprise community."
As for removing references to social enterprise, it is my view that as long as our community continues in its struggle to agree a definition of social enterprise, that was always going to be tricky. The impact of what we do, the difference we make to vulnerable people's lives remains the real show and, as for language, June said it best when she told me: "It's not a battle worth fighting; if we try, it will lose us the war".
Allison Ogden-Newton is chief executive of Social Enterprise London
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1 comment:

  1. Allison, There was for me something deeply ironic in the news this week that Big Society guru Philip Blond had been dipping into the coffers of Respublica to fund his lifestyle.

    His advocacy for capitalism that serves all came soon after our seminars on the same subject at Sumy State University in Ukraine.

    For us as practitioners, this means as a social business, distributing no dividend and investing all surplus in our work to raise social and economic conditions in Ukraine, such that among other things, they might eliminate the sex tourism that blights the international image of this country. It will likely increase next year due to the Euro 2012 football competition being held there.

    In stark contrast the think tank Respublica distributes dividends to fund a lifestyle which involves meetings with an Ukrainian woman. That could be seen as the difference between 'being the change' and theorising about it. The difference perhaps between authentic social enterprise and Big Society.

    Friends in the Femen activist group may well be waiting to greet Mr Blond should he venture into their territory. It's difficult to understand why there's so little interest, from women in social enterprise in the work we've been doing.