To parliament on Tuesday for the latest meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Enterprise (APPG). The mood was upbeat with Chris White MP, the new chair of the group, discussing the success of his Private Members Bill – The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which obliges public sector commissioners to consider wider social value in commissioning and procurement.
White was clear that the Act, which will be implemented in January 2013, is ‘one step on a journey’ towards commissioning that takes full account of the extra positive social change generated when public bodies buy services from social enterprises, pointing out that ‘the hard bit comes now’.
Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, agreed with that assessment saying “you’ve got to keep holding our feet to the fire”. He also outlined government plans to set up a commissioning academy which, along with guidance on the implementation of the Public Services (Social Value) Act, will support commissioners in making more informed decisions.
Having heard both White and Hurd speak several times, it’s clear that they’re both sincere in the their support for social enterprise, and that their knowledge and understanding of the issues goes well beyond the usual bluster and platitudes. Whether or not you’re a supporter of the Conservative Party, these two are the good guys when it comes to social enterprise.
What left me feeling slightly less upbeat than some of the others at the meeting on Tuesday is that – in terms of the Coalition government’s actions so far – I don’t believe that the good guys are winning. The Public Services (Social Value) Act is a potentially important piece of legislation but there are more direct ways that government can supporting commissioning for social value if it wants to.
One of the most of obvious is, in situations where central government is the commissioner, it can commission for social value itself. New contracts for back-to-work services provided a great opportunity for the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) to do that. Instead, the Work Programme took an approach so anti-social that DWP ministers will be relieved that the Home Office is abolishing ASBOs – with massive contracts dished out to massive private companies, including those with a track record of failure, and charities and social enterprises left with inequitable sub-contracts if there were lucky or the expectation of that they’d provide services for free if they weren’t.
The Health and Social Act 2012 also provided an opportunity for central government to demonstrate its support for social value and social enterprises somewhere within the incredible collage of overlapping commissioning process that health secretary, Andrew Lansley and his Liberal Democrat coalition partners expended over 18 months of political energy creating.
At the beginning of the process, Lansley memorably pledged to create ‘the largest social enterprise sector the world’ but it turned out this apparently just meant that he wanted more health services to be provided by organisations that weren’t the government – irrespective of whether or not they delivered additional social value.
Ultimately, the government’s overall direction of travel in terms of public services over the past two years has been primarily down the route favoured by the organisations Chris White described as ‘Megacorps’ – large outsourcing specialists that make huge profits from taxpayers money and pay their directors £multi-million salaries.
Big Society Capital’s stimulation of the social investment market may or may not enable significant numbers of new social enterprises to start-up and scale up to the point where they can deliver more but, for those who are delivering what would otherwise be public services, there isn’t going to be some other magic source of revenue that will enable them to work as businesses if public sector agencies don’t buy their services.
If the government – as a corporate entity – genuinely supports social enterprise and public services that generate additional social value then spending ministers have got to maintain that position when it matters.