Social enterprise: complex

31 Dec

As I log back into this blog, I clear the electronic tumbleweed away and say hello – it’s been a long, tough and challenging year; for most in the social sector, and certainly for many of our members over at SEUK. For some in Yorkshire & the North West, they will be entering the new year facing a significant  floods-created challenge too. The reference to the challenging year is also partly  by way of an apology for the increasingly long gaps in posts here…

What strikes me, looking back at the last 12 months and more, is how complicated and complex things are. Sometimes by our own hand, sometimes by their nature and sometimes by a mix of the two – or so it seems to me. So far, so banal…here goes.

For four years and more now, I’ve been working closely with a lot of the social enterprises who spun out of the NHS between 2008 & 2014. As you get deeper into that world, the complexity and interlinked nature of things is, at times, mind-boggling. Not to mention deeply frustrating and worrying. But rather than just list adjectives, let me give you some examples of what organisations have to cope with. A social enterprise that spun out with one contract was tendering for the same services – but now they were in 37 different contracts. Another social enterprise is sub-contracted by a hospital which is commissioned by the CCG – the hospital has just decided to (arbitarily) not re-sub-contract the social enterprise with no notice and no reason (the outcomes it has been achieving are first-rate); the CCG are supportive but won’t intervene, and no-one really knows who in the system is accountable for something that will a) reduce the quality of the service and b) actually cost the system more.

The systems are very complex, of course – we had the slightly strange occurrence in the comprehensive spending review of people celebrating an up-front settlement for the NHS. But social care remains under significant strain (even with a possible council tax levy) and public health spending has been cut substantially – and what removes stress and cost from primary health care system? Yes, that’s right, social care and (in the medium to long-term) preventative public health work. And while large swathes of the general public consider “healthcare” to mean “hospitals and A&E”, and until there is cross-party agreement on a 25-30 year plan, we remain trapped in a short-term cycle that makes the situation worse.

Another area where complexity has manifested itself is charities and their accounts (& other broader activities). Charity accounts are difficult to read and understand, making them prone to misunderstanding, as seen in the recent True & Fair Foundation debacle in which a manifestly flawed analysis was deemed to merit front page news in several papers. If it wasn’t so damaging it would be laughable – the True & Fair Foundation failed its own test in previous years; the charity the journalist tweeted about two days later failed the same arbitrary test – and both displayed a lack of understanding about charitable trading, restricted funding, endowments and much else besides. This felt like an area where, in a quest for clarity and better understanding, people leapt to the simple rather than the clear. But the complexity demands more transparency and better explanation from charities themselves.

Another simple phrase masking complexity is “social enterprise needs to go mainstream”, which – along with “what is a social enterprise anyway” and “I can’t find these social enterprises” – is probably the thing I hear the most. But a few quick questions opens up the complications: for some, mainstreaming means the concept being known about by everyone; for some, it means everything being a social enterprise; for some, it means greater influence and infiltration of ‘mainstream’ business to the point where its tenets are accepted; for some, it means more social enterprises involved in big scale public service delivery; and so on. All might be worthy goals, but all involve and require different strategies, approaches, risks and benefits.

For example, if you go down the public service delivery route, you are part of a ‘social enterprise industrial complex’ (see Pamela Hartigan here), doing government’s work and losing the entrepreneurial spirit; if you focus on awareness, you are a campaign, and awareness doesn’t necessarily translate into anything – everyone knows who Kim Kardashian is; if you go for influence and infiltration, you are tackling symptoms and accepting the (capitalist) system as it is…and so on and so on. And we further complicate by adding countless different versions with different titles – inclusive capitalism, a blueprint for better business, impact enterprises, social ventures, social business, B corporations, non-profits, not-for-profits, more-than-profits, responsible business, and more and more. It’s no surprise to me that our most successful work in recent years has been Buy Social. Easy to understand, easy to communicate, and clear – more please.

The other frustration with this complexity, particularly as it relates to systems, is that it tends to lead to an avalanche of analysis. Which seems, in turn, to lead to more analysis and no small degree of paralysis. Do we need any more research or surveys or commissions that tell us that local charitable and social enterprise infrastructure is struggling? We knew this five years ago, yet still the reports arrive – newsflash: writing another report isn’t solving anything (on its own) unless it is paired with action, be that advocacy or (better) practical help and solutions and partnerships. It’s been instructive to test out, and to try and find sustainable models to work with and support local and regional social enterprise networks in the last few years – recognising that we need to be better at the local, and that we all need to be leaner and more collaborative nationally. I’m deeply proud of our work on Social Enterprise Places, the Social Economy Alliance, closer work with our home nations’ equivalents, and different partnerships with regional bodies in the East and West Midlands – not all of it has worked perfectly, and we have got things wrong, but we continue to be committed to this work: doing, not writing about what we should do.

I feel slightly the same on systems more broadly – this seems to have been the year when ‘systems’ became the key word to use, I guess partly because of the complexity I’m talking about. So we heard about ‘systempreneurs’ (yes, really) and we had a rash of  reports about systems change. The problem with reports about systems change (as a topic) is that they tend to, inevitably, be very general. So you get banalities like “understand what your shared objectives are” or “relationships between partners are important”. Well, thanks for that. Actually, what makes progress is diving in, obsessing about detail, bringing people with you, tackling the thorny challenges, and doing all of that and more over a long period of time with a relentless focus on a) action and b) outcomes and c) openness. Weirdly, it seems there is more money available at times for the analysis rather than the action; deeply frustrating.

What does this all mean? I’m not sure, to be honest – I just hope that 2016 sees us not confusing clarity with simplicity, or action with analysis, or logo placements with partnership; and that we act in the long-term even when all the drivers push us towards the opposite.


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