1500 Voices

The biggest Voice 11 so far took place yesterday in the chilly surrounds of the O2 and the enthusiasm and openness of the delegates was only slightly marred by the temperature, thanks to copious amounts of free coffee from The People’s Food Company.

So, it was a lively, inspiring, useful and fun day, as always provided by SEC , but from a policy point of view what did we learn?  Well, the government still thinks that social enterprise is great and that they want more social enterprises to be able to run public services. Beyond that, I’m afraid we’re not really much the wiser.

The Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley spoke early on. His speech and announcement on the Right to Provide – allowing any group in the NHS to spin out to form a social enterprise or mutual – was trailed beforehand. The extra £10m for the Social Enterprise Investment Fund seemed new, though there’s no word about it on the websites of either DH or The Social Investment Fund.

He continued by hailing social enterprise as a cure for the maladies of the NHS and predicted that 10% of community health services would be delivered by social enterprises.  The only real policy detail was his statement that ‘we will not give preference to incumbent NHS providers’ and refining the position on any willing provider to ‘any qualified provider’. As always, the devil will be in the detail and in this case, in the getting qualified.  This will not be as easy as it might seem, given all the issues about procurement that we’ve been grappling with for years and the emergence of GP commissioning consortia who will be entirely new to this. Office for Civil Society’s National Programme for Commissioning will have useful lessons here. Sadly, Cabinet Office’s website is so rubbish I can’t link to anything useful.

I have to confess that I did not listen to the speech of my former boss, Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, choosing instead to hear David Fairhurst of Mutual Ventures and Miaa Chambers of P3 talking about commissioning for social value. Miia was good value, as always, and made good points about the responsibility of charities to be market shapers, and the importance of collaborating with larger providers. I also took part in an interesting panel discussion on Localism – but more on this later, I hope.

The SoS for Business, Dr Vince Cable, provided the closing address, and, I’m afraid, looked pretty disgruntled with his lot. He did not cover himself in glory in his speech which seemed to consist solely of a list of organisational forms a social enterprise could chose (missing out Company Limited by Guarantee, the most common legal form for social enterprises), and getting his facts wrong on the Big Society Bank. He was game enough, though, to pose for a photo with a group of young social entrepreneurs who showed their enterprising spirit by using their question to ask whether he wanted to buy one of their eco-bird feeders. I wish I could find the photo – please let me know if you have!

The only question for Vince Cable that got a round of applause from the audience was ‘Why is social enterprise located in Office for Civil Society not in BIS?’.  My own view is that this is a bit naïve, there is no way that social enterprise would have the Ministerial attention and internal profile within BIS as is does in Cabinet Office. The number of other massively high profile projects and powerful stakeholder would squeeze any good intentions to nothing.

So while the Start Your…, Grow Your…, Move to…, and Young… Social Enterprise zones provided an excellent range of practical sessions for those wanting to learning more about the day to day stuff (and I went to a really useful session by Uday Thakkar of Red Ochre and Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa of Catch 22 Magazine), and the social enterprise movement is never short on vision and inspiration, we’re still lacking detail of exactly how the government intends to support social enterprise in achieving its ambitions in health care and in ‘doing business with government’ more generally.

The challenge for Peter Holbrook, Claire Dove and others – including POPse! a pop up think tank on social enterprise policy running in May – is to push government further on putting flesh on these bones.

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