Thursday, September 11, 2008


I went to a charity shop in Bury St Edmunds this week and bought a an old copy of Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper from 1988.

It was in near-perfect condition and after putting the kids to bed last night I sat down and immersed myself.

One article particularly made me smile. It was about this biscuit factory in Kazhakstan which was turning out biccies that nobody could eat because they were so foul.

The article earnestly spoke of the waste of resources this entailed and listed what needed to happen. There should be proper monitoring of quality, targets set and penalties for enterprises whose biscuits didn't meet them. Individual plant managers should be named and shamed. Possibly made to eat their own repulsive products! This would sort out the problem. It didn't of course and we all know what happened to the Soviet Union.

But doesn't this list sound familiar? You will find it in any report you read about Britain's failing public services. Just replace biscuits in Kazhakstan with MRSA or people with learning difficulties being killed by the NHS.

Thankfully all the parties now realise that you don't get change by exhortation, targets and bullying. Everyone now realises that you get better hospitals, schools and social services in the same way you get better biscuits. By empowering the customer not with platitudes or focus groups but by giving them hard cash to spend as they choose between competing suppliers.

In one magical stroke this does away with the need for phalanxes of regulators and quota-chekers. All you need is people talking to each other about what working best for them. Word gets around. Even, dare I say it, among poor people, most of whom are not as thick as the Guardian-reading intelligencia think they are.

These people (among them many readers of Social Enterprise) worry too much about the implications of smashing up public services and just giving people the money to make their own decisions. And the the cleverer ones among you make some very convincing-sounding arguments about postcode lotteries and the poor losing out etc.

But the truth is that the poorest and most marginalised have most to gain by financial empowerment. We have seen it in the personal budgets pilots in social care. Those who have had the dog-end of public services see the biggest improvements. It is the middle classes, who've always found ways round the system (the timely house-move, the first-names relationship with the Director of Social Services or editor of the local rag) who have most to lose.

And here's the challenge for social business people: ARE YOU GETTING ON THIS BUS OR NOT? Are you willing to get your hands dirty and try to deliver better public services than the state has tried and failed to do? Those that bite this particular bullet will add to the choice and diversity in public services for all people.

The rest, I predict, will just be consigned, along with Pravda, to the dustbin of history.

So which side are you on?

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