Saturday, February 9, 2008

Why Social Entrepreneurs have been betrayed by Labour

Tony Blair started his job on the same day as I did.

As he entered Number 10 back in 1997, I collected the keys to our first office in a run-down community centre in Cambridge.

Believe me, as a new-starter I as excited as he was that day! As Blair left Number 10, I asked myself “Has he made a difference?”.

Well, one thing is for sure - he tried.

We have seen a decade of highly active government. And, yes, there have been achievements. A strong economy (31% bigger today than in 1997) has created ample resources to pay for a healthier, happier Britain.

Yet while there are clear, visible changes, there is a lingering sense of failure.

As social entrepreneurs, this failure, stares us, quite literally in the face every day. One in six UK adults of working age is on out-of-work benefits.

This rises to quarter in places like Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.

2.5 million of these people has been on benefits for five or more years, making them statistically unlikely to ever work again.

The most excluded are also the least healthy as clearly shown by Mencap’s recent report Death by Indifference.

This report tells the stories of six people with learning difficulties, all now dead, who Mencap says would all have been alive in a properly run health service.

This happened during a doubling in real spending over a five year period. According to the Kings Fund, three quarters of extra money has disappeared in costs, mostly pay, rather than treatment for patients. Productivity has gone down not up.

Until very recently, the way the NHS works has not fundamentally changed from its foundation in 1948, an era of food rationing and German bomb-sites. An active government has not acted in the right ways. And, as Mencap shows, it is our poorest and weakest citizens who are suffering most.

On a deeper level I am frustrated with the Blair government for its top-down approach to social problems. This has been a centralising government that has tried to solve problems from Whitehall.

Despite employing nearly a million extra public sector workers, the government has failed to improve the lot of the UKs most excluded people.

As a social entrepreneur, this grates. My life’s experience tells me that our country’s problems are more successfully tackled from the bottom up.

People working on the front line are far more likely to come up with answers to complicated questions of delivery. Just ask world-leading companies like Toyota, which runs all its plants in this way. Devolving power downwards opens the door to initiative, innovation and individual responsibility.

So, if the citizen is to step forward, the government needs, by necessity, to step back a bit.

Suspend your disbelief for a second…Let’s re-run the last ten years with a little twist.

Imagine what might have happened had the Government had paid for a million social entrepreneurs rather than the same number of new public sector workers! OK, very silly I know.

But the point is a serious one. The state paid itself to do the job The state hasn't trusted us, not in a true sense. They’ve listened to people but not empowered them.

The message at first was, “We’ve heard you but leave the action to us as a progressive government”. And though the language is now changing (“We are partners, so yes please do act,”) the real story in terms of the way money is spent is the same old same-old. Sorry, Gordon, not good enough.

So what about Nick and David?

Both clearly understand the need for a genuine step-change in the role of government.

Both know, in a deeper sense than either Blair or Brown, that government agencies can’t solve social problems any better than they could manufacture cars, steel or ships.

The result of 10 years of Brown's domestic central control has been as much of a disaster for society as the old British Leyland was for UK manufacturing.

The opportunity lost was for a “denationalisation” of responsibility and a wider sharing of government resources to solve social problems.

In this `lost decade', there would have been a key role for social entrepreneurs and charities. The government’s role would be to set the direction of travel then make resources available to those with the skills to interweave them with voluntary income, private money and community energy.

Public spending would then cease to be a single beam of light, often shone in the wrong direction, and become instead a single colour within a much larger rainbow of blended resources.

Social entrepreneurs are specialists at weaving these tapestries and would become key players in cities, towns and neighbourhoods up and down the UK.

But this will remain a dream until government gets back into its rightful place and enables society and its social entrepreneurs to do their work.

Although Blair is now history, I, for one, won’t be. I am still excited now as I was that first day with my new office keys.

I know I am one of a growing band of citizens confident enough to do change from the bottom up. For us, unlike Mr Blair, the best is yet to come.

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