Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The End of the Beginning

The Guardian has been getting all lefty today over the failire of Central Surrey Health to win a massive contract in its own backyard. This probably have doubled the size of the organization and would have been a feather in the cap of David Cameron’s Big Society.

But it didn’t happen. The private sector won it. They had a big ‘reserve’ - £11m to CSH’s £3m and all the backing of a big global brand. You could say CSH never stood a chance.

However, I say let’s reserve judgment for a while anyway. We don’t know about the bids. Nor was this CSH’s main contract. I admit, had this been their core contract the headlines would, quite rightly, be about the death of the mutuals agenda before it got out of the starting-block.

Let's remember, however, that it was a big new contract which would, I imagine, have been a big stretch for CSH - though probably an achievable one for a well-led organisation. CSH will surely bounce back from this setback. But setback it is. Just as it would have been for the private firm if it hadn't won.

Two things need to be remembered here. The first is that social enterprise doesn’t always win. There is only one system with a guaranted winner – and that is the monopoly that the NHS once was. To be successful as a business, the possibility has to exist that you might one day lose. It keeps all businesses – including social ones – honest and focused.

The second is that we need to be open to the idea that social enterprises may themselves need to partner with organizations which can access high levels of capital. There is a tendency in some quarters to view social enterprises as simply NHS Mk 2, a 21st century version of Bevanism, with the an accompanying sense of entitlement.

This is to miss the larger point that social enterprises need to be the very best and have the commercial prowess that allows their strength in culture, relationships and community to shine. There’s no point on being good on all of these things but hopeless on costs, growth and profit. Social enterprise means being first-rate at both.

Today's set back is not, as some might say, the beginning of the end for spin-outs - but the end of the beginning.

Being a social enterprise means being like any business - but just one better.

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