Thursday, September 24, 2009

Handle with Care

I sometimes get asked to do talks at local events on the social enterprise agenda. This is what I said at a recent on I did in Suffolk:

We have an opportunity – Suffolk County Council will have a quarter to a third less resources within 5 years – but the same amount to do. It cannot afford to do it.

They are talking about growing social capital as a solution. I am not sure most Tory Councillors could tell you what social capital was, let alone how they are going to grow it to levels that take up the slack of an over-expanded state. In truth there will be a hole where services used to be and a bit of money to fill it. We could be part of that solution and still do OK I believe

However,we need to be cautious about the public sector. Suffolk grew from 18,000 to 31,000 employees during the boom years. They looked after themselves. Other sectors grew too but not nearly by so much. Rather than put new business out to other sectors they took it on themselves.

Now that crisis is here the business isn’t there for them – and they want to find others to help them.

Fine, but I think you can see we’re dealing with an organisation with interests. Therefore we need to take care. If they want us in, they need to share risk and be a banker to risk-taking if necessary.

We also need to push them on the bits of business they would like to keep (the ones with safe Government money attached, I would predict).

What about social care management? What about children’s homes? Fostering services? Children’s centres? All expensively lodged in the public sector. We can do it better, cheaper I am sure of that.

But we cannot take all the risk or be taken to the cleaners – as Councils will tend to do once you’re off their generously funded books.

Finally, we are a tiny barely understood sector and need to develop alliances. The public don’t know who we are. Councillors think we are just part of the third sector. So too do most businesses. We are not significant players.

Therefore we need to build alliances with other sectors – especially business whose strengths tend to offset our weaknesses. Not all businesses are the same and we need to be sensitive to that.

To expand into what are currently public services will require working across sectors and not being precious what whether or not something qualifies as a social enterprise. Look at Serco and Turning Point if you want to see the shape of the future of public services.

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