This post Stop fiddling while Rome burns! by Liam Black has prompted a fair amount of attention over the last few days: many supportive (it seems from the re-tweets on Twitter + the comments on the piece) with a significant minority agreeing with the bulk of the analysis but asking what the actions or solutions are.
I think I find myself in the latter camp. Anyone who’s been working with social enterprises or entrepreneurs over the last 12 months knows the reality at the coalface: the Big Society rhetoric is far removed from the reality of what cuts mean for civil society at the frontline. Funding, investment, capital, income: whatever we call it, there is less money around, and accessing it (or competing for it) is more difficult than ever. And where new opportunities are meant to be arising with initiatives like the Localism Bill, Big Society Bank, Apprenticeships and more, they are either coming too late, are too small, or not relevant for the majority. And existing opportunities are either disappearing completely or, due to scale or cost, disappearing out of reach.
But, as Jonathan Jenkins said in an article recently, “Spelling out the problems which are currently being faced locally is the easy bit”. We all know, to use Liam’s metaphor, that Rome is burning. The question is what to do about it. Liam’s solution is clear:
“And where the bloody hell are the leaders of the so-called ‘social enterprise movement’ whilst all the hard won gains made over many years are being wiped out on the ground?…Dare they publicly take on a government which still pays most of their bills? Seriously, they need to before they have no-one to lead.”
There is definitely a need to be clear with government about the realities on the ground, and the realities that are flowing from some of their policies. But, as David Floyd points out in his response to Liam, leaders like Peter Holbrook and Allison Ogden-Newton have been speaking out on such issues. A quick glance at SEC’s recent press releases and published letters shows that they’ve strongly critiqued the white paper, the NHS reforms, the approach to the Regional Growth fund, the Big Society Bank, and the government’s approach to welfare. A press release on the latter topic says that unless government changes things on the frontline: “…Big Society risks going down in history as nothing more than hollow words.” Surely not a million miles from Liam’s words?
So then it becomes about the way you do policy work, the way you advocate and where you place your emphasis. Some have less confidence than others in the behind-the-scenes policy conversations and realpolitik that continue alongside the public pronouncements; but hectoring can lose you a seat at the table. And leadership isn’t about who shouts loudest.
And, if Rome is burning, social enterprise should not just be standing there shouting ‘Please don’t burn! Stop lighting fires!’, but also trying to put the fires out, supporting those who are suffering from the effect of the fires, building fire exits and sprinkler systems, keeping their own organisation from going up in flames, and, as Sarah Dunwell puts it pragmatically in her blog, pitching for the rebuilding work. The challenge for social enterprise leaders is to try and meet all of these needs, not just the important one of fighting social enterprise’s corner by taking on the government: to protect work, prevent damage, and prepare for the future as best as they possibly can.
Where I do strongly agree with Liam is about the cult of the ‘digital’ social entrepreneur; I’m no Luddite, and am fully aware of the potential for new technology to change things for the better in new ways: to connect, to mobilise, to communicate and so on. Indeed, I have promoted and advocated for the use of new technology in every organisation I’ve worked in. But in the social and political spheres there is a current fetishisation of new technology that gives it undue prominence over the frontline, face-to-face work. People seem to continually forget that Kiva works because of the microfinance organisations on the ground; that a volunteering app only works because it links to real volunteering opportunities created by real organisations; and that crowdfunding needs something to fund. When Rome’s burning down, the digirati and slacktivists aren’t going to save it from behind a computer screen; though at least we’ll be able to crowdfund the rebuild, and visualise the new city layout on our iPad 2. :0)
Finally, a very unsexy point, but we can’t base policy work on anecdote and personal experience either. As an evidence geek, it will be interesting to see the effect of the last couple of years on social enterprises on the ground, and how this shows up: in UnLtd and SSE’s evaluations, in Delta Economics’ research and in SEC’s State of the Social Enterprise survey. Are things as bad as it feels (or about to be that bad), and it does feel bad to me, or will the research say something different? That research won’t make a difference to those losing jobs, cutting back work, and feeling the pain in reality right now. But it does matter to those leading the movement, and for those seeking to judge whether they’ve been effective in their work.