Saturday, 27 October 2012

So when is social not social?

'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. 


  1. Interesting stuff. I think Jim Brown is right that there was a Blairite project around social enterprise - not saying that perjoratively, no reason why Blairites shouldn't have projects - that's either gone entirely or that's on the wane.

    That was a project which said social enterprise was primarily about creating a social market in the delivery of (frontline) public services - the Blairites were just as keen as the Tories to have Capita and Serco doing administration and project management.

    The idea never really made the jump from rhetoric to action and has now had its day.

    Despite the Public Services (Social Value) Act, the present government essentially supports an open market in public service delivery where social enterprises and charities can compete with large public and private providers for contracts.

    Some social enterprises will win contracts but there's now no realistic chance that social enterprise models will become dominant in public service delivery.

    On the plus side, in recent years the social enterprise movement seems to have rediscovered its interest in the wider economy beyond state services. So while there was a project, I'd disagree with Jim Brown if he was saying that that's all the social enterprise movement amounts to.

    Hopefully we're now well placed to reassert ourselves as an independent, pragmatic movement finding better ways of doing business.

    1. Thanks for that David, I have to say that in my experience, whilst there were Ministers under Blair who favoured a social enterprise led reform of the public sector they were a fantastic minority (2 that I encountered), the rest seemed to be shades of sceptical/opposed. Tony Blair himself did have a plan to create a market place within the public sector and was not as worried about the presence of the Capita's and Serco's as many of his cabinet colleagues many of who resisted any change, putting the brakes on social enterprise units set up in departments like health. You only had to watch the painful process of the first social enterprise unit trying to define social enterprise and their conclusion once the white smoke was seen above the chimney's of the then Dti that the Blair run government definition was of little use to those operating in the public sector, as with the best of intentions it set the movement off down its very own ideological cul de sac.

      You are absolutely right about the lack of impact of the Public Services act which we need to kick start before its kicked into touch, and its true about the dominance of social enterprises in the non public sector, which represent an estimated 90% of SEL's 3200 members. Though one should note that members in the public sector are on the whole much larger, employing far more people.

      Strictly speaking, I think Jim was wrong when he implied social enterprise is a busted flush, but I do think it is so altered by the pressure of a seismically shunted market that many commentators have kept struggled to understand how much the nature of social enterprise has changed since 2008 and their comfort blanket of idealised definitions bare little resemblance to the struggles today's social entrepreneurs are wrestling with.

      I share your hope that being pragmatic is the way forward, though I have found that pragmatism struggles some time when its mixed with idealism, like oil and water, something has to give and its usually the pragmatism.

      Still as I keep saying the market will tell us what social enterprise is, let's hope we continue to listen.

  2. I seem to have upset Jim Brown recently by referring to him as Jim Baker in my blog 'Social Enterprise is Dead' where I was drawing attention to how asocial social enterprise often is when it comes to controlling dialogue to exclude views external to prominment leaders.

    It was the Bairite culture which made social enterprise so difficult to penetrate, being told that we should approach someone else for support.

    As an illustration. Putting love and compassion into business, from a thesis to application is something few will know about:

  3. Dear @economics4humanity if its any comfort I can not imagine for one moment that Jim Brown minded being called Jim Baker, he is far too consumed with the "mission"of coops and all things social to worry what he is called.

    I agree social enterprise can be asocial, having operated at the dog eat dog level I have seen some of the best and worst behaviour. But like every movement the principle should never been confused with the application. I think Browning put it best when he said "A man's reach should exceed his grasp or what is a heaven for?".