|'Hot housing" at the Westminster Hub|
This week I spoke at a fascinating debate with the complex title of “The Social Hydra; the practical emergence of the social economy and the challenges it builds for public good and private profit” at the Westminster Hub.
The debate was introduced by the prolific Indy Johar the man responsible for the success of the Westminster Hub, a vibrant resource for social entrepreneurs right in the heart of the Capital. Indy is one of those people recognised as a thinker who trained as an architect but now works across the policy spectrum wrestling with the big questions. In this instance Indy opened the debate with a challenge, which was he wanted us to think about the real nature of social. What did we think social meant, where was it being stretched and twisted and he wanted us, the contributors, to make ourselves vulnerable by sharing with the audience our worries about where we felt we were struggling with the concept.
Gulp I thought, sometimes I have been accused of being a little too academic in the way I approach some subjects but this was a full blown theoretical discussion complete with an audience who quickly indicated an appetite for gritty debate.
In fact the twitter sphere was alight with some great comments that I tried to follow on my phone which probably made me look like a gambling addict monitoring my progress on an online bingo site as I kept glancing at the screen, pressing a few keys then having to put it down to keep up with the high flying debate.
Many thanks to tweeps @devinfoster @timahrensbach @SteveBomford and @00alice all of whom were prolific during the debate producing a constant feed picking up some of the definitional debate, and questions we all posed about the real nature and value of Corporate Social Responsibility which to my knowledge is going through some radical changes.
The other speakers were my old colleague Jim Brown, the Venerable Bede of the co-operative and social enterprise movements, Simon Willis md of the on-line platform for consumers, Purpose Europe Edit, Jas Bains ceo at the Birmingham housing association, Accord, Dominic Campbell of FutureGov and last but by no means least the very game Jonty Ollif Cooper who is Director of Policy and Strategy at A4e.
Given the large number of speakers I relaxed too soon thinking I could enjoy listening to the debate and chip in when I was good and ready. Imagine my consternation when Indy framed the debate by saying the topic came out of a discussion he had with me which got him thinking and inspired him to set up the panel to tease out those things he and I had talked about together in a coffee shop on the Strand a few months earlier.
Frantically I tried to remember what exactly it was we had talked about, which if memory served was my rationale for setting up the Transition Institute, in that without study, understanding and emphasis the social value of public services will be lost as new providers enter the market and such a place of study needed to be independent of preconceived ideas of the inherent virtue of any given governance model. Social was not found in only in ownership but impact, essentially.
Still when Jonty said he had never heard a discussion about social value that he didn’t think was wooly I wasn’t surprised. Why would an organisation that described itself as a social business by virtue of providing services to the unemployed be interested in social value analysis? By the same token the pilloried G4S could call itself a social business because it works with offenders or Thames Water could do the same because water is an essential service and human right? So cutting straight to the heart of the matter, what make a social business social?
To be honest, as much as I enjoyed the debate I am not sure how far we got with that one. There was some discussion around governance models with Dominic looking forward to the rise of social enterprise within increasingly outsourced public services and Jim declaring that social enterprise is a concluding Blairite project that has run its course. I felt sad when he said that and I worried that I had egged him on to do so by saying that the definitional debate in social enterprise has been so much hot air. I thought about all those places in the world I had worked in like South Korea where social enterprise is better known and forms more a part of the vocabulary of the public sector than it does in the UK. I wonder if they put Korean social enterprise down to Tony Blair or indeed thought their movement had reached its high water mark?
My highlight was when Jim said that what we needed to do was introduce more love into the workplace. What we needed was to build the concept of love and focus on creating jobs where people would not only feel valued but could express their feelings of self-worth and mutual understanding. It got Jim a well deserved round of applause and was a courageous thing to say. I have always believed and said that everyone wants to do a good job, we just need to help people make that connection and Jim’s starting point of asking about love seemed as good a place to start as any.
Listening to Jonty I quickly realised how frank his analysis of A4e was and how committed he was not only to the organisation but also to helping them think through how they could bring substance to the assertion that they are a social business. I am not in the least bit threatened by that claim, it shows intent and if that is backed up by action that has to be a good thing.
In the meantime the Transition Institute is working with public sector innovators to distill the alchemy of social value, give it substance for commissioners and create public awareness through examples of best practice. Long live the debate on social but we must get the public involved as only service consumers know what social means to them.