Public sector and new technology: oil and water?

It’s interesting to compare two approaches to using new technology in the public sector which were both covered in the paper on Wednesday. On the one hand, you have SSE Fellow Paul Hodgkin whose Patient Opinion organisation has successfully used blog/RSS/web 2.0 technology to, as he puts it, create a new citizen-state dialogue. He has some great examples of how hospitals and patients are starting to communicate through the web, through the Patient Opinion interface, and how a new language is emerging to help move us "towards a more nuanced public discussion of the thousands of micro
issues that arise in a complex and networked information society where
voice has been democratised"

Compare that to Labourvision (or for that matter, Webcameron) which is basically like having a selection of excerpts from speeches or interviews, and shows no understanding of the interaction which is key to new technology working (see a pithy take on it here). Or, to paraphrase Hugh at GapingVoid, an understanding of the continuity, authority and passion needed for blogs, podcasts and online videos to work. One of the few who seem to get this, in fairness to Labour, is David Miliband, whose blog is authored by him and, although he doesn’t often post comments, he clearly reads and replies to them where appropriate; and writes posts regularly: most of those reading the blog and commenting clearly view it as useful/value for money.

But, largely, he’s an exception, and perhaps this is a macro/micro issue: perhaps the top-down, large-scale nature of central government doesn’t lend itself well to these types of technology (see also the online petition fiasco), at least in terms of ongoing interaction. On a micro level, though, or for smaller constituencies (be they thematic or geographic), the kind of tools Patient Opinion is using are showing how real changes and differences can be made, and better communication emerge.

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The Long Tail of Social Entrepreneurship

Recently I’ve referred a couple of times to the ‘long tail of social entrepreneurship’, which has been an idea bubbling round SSE for a while. It essentially came out of a policy agenda we had been promoting (social entrepreneurship for the many not the few, democratising the opportunites for involvement, encouraging new entrants from all areas and backgrounds), combined with a reading and understanding of Chris Anderson’s now-very-famous Long Tail theory (see also the Wikipedia entry). Having discussed this with Rowena Young at Skoll, we agreed to do some investigation, start the debate, and work towards a joint paper.

Effectively, the Long Tail says that the internet has changed economics and culture by democratising the tools of production, decreasing the costs of distribution, and providing effective filtering via recommendation.

To use a practical example, an author with an expertise in Nepalese death metal might have wanted to publish a book on the subject. In the past, it is likely that a) this would have been expensive for him or her to produce, b) a publisher would turn him down because there’s a limited audience and because c) a bookshop would never stock it (limited shelf space and they want to stock books that sell) because, also, d) the limited audience might never find it (due to geography, limited channels to it etc.).

In the world today, he or her could start a blog on the subject for free very easily, get it published on demand by or something similar, get it stocked on Amazon, and reach his limited audience without incurring massive costs or several bottlenecks and barriers along the way. Why? Because the tools of production (writing/publishing), the costs of distribution/stock (Amazon effectively has unlimited shelf space) and the power of the internet to filter for an audience (Google/recommendations) allows it to happen.

And what does this mean for Amazon? Well, they can get as many sales from 6 sales of a million books as from (to take the Borders / Barnes & Noble / Waterstones bookshop model) a million sales of 6 books. The long tail, of niche products with niche audiences, can now provide aggregate sales on a par with the blockbusters and bestsellers.  And it also allows diversity to thrive, and  a greater variety of needs (eg. those of Nepalese death metal fans) to be met.

OK, so that’s my "long tail in a nutshell", although the pages above explain it better…and the article and book better still. What has this to do with social entrepreneurship? Well, imagine that instead of products (like books or songs) we were talking about social entrepreneurs and their organisations. And imagine that instead of sales, we were talking about social impact. Because a lot of talk or focus on this sector (be it definitions, venture philanthropy, investment types, awards etc) is on scaling, and the need to scale the social impact that social entrepreneurs are having in order to address the large problems we face. No disagreement there.

What this long tail argument points out is that this scaling of social impact could be achieved not only through a scaling up of a few selected organisations (who get big investment, high-end consultancy, media promotion, awards etc), but also through a scaling out of opportunities to many individuals. Effectively, to return to maths equations for the first time in twenty years, this is pretty simple:

small number (of social entrepreneurs) x large size (of activity)  = large-scale impact
large number (of social entrepreneurs) x small size (of activity)  = large-scale impact

So, the argument goes on, we need to give as much attention to scaling up the number of opportunities (support/information to graduates, long-term unemployed, people living in ‘deprived’ areas, retirees etc.) for social entrepreneurship, as we do to scaling up a much smaller number of what have been identified as successful and replicable approaches.

But it’s not that simple, of course. There are pros and cons to both approaches:

– The short head (scaling up a few) should be more cost-efficient, avoid duplication and reinvention, and be quicker in achieving larger impact; it is also useful as a point of entry (stars promote the concept to the masses)
– Meanwhile, the long tail is potentially inefficient, slower, and more expensive (duplication of admin and back offices of lots of small organisations etc.)


– the long tail delivers solutions that are local, niche and fit-to-purpose, empowers many people (allowing us to find new stars and new innovations), and delivers benefits through and within organisations as well as by the direct impact they deliver (for example, confidence and skills, diversity in leadership, local wealth and job creation, community participation/involvement, wellbeing & health, active citizenship etc.)
– Meanwhile, the short head risks delivering top-down generic solutions, being elitist, fewer new leaders and innovations emerging, and pressuring organisations to scale before they are ready/proven

There are also limits to how far we can apply the theory or lens of the long tail, but it does raise some interesting questions:

– what are the "tools of production" for a social entrepreneur, and how can we "democratise" them? (appropriate support, networking, information, skills, investment?)

– if the architecture of the internet, and large-scale access to it, made the internet long tail wag, what architecture and access issues are there in this field?

– filters allow us to find quality in the long tail (and help them move up it): what are they in this field? (the support organisations? people like New Philanthropy Capital?)

– the long tail needs a head to thrive (and vice versa in this model), so how can they interact and co-operate?

That is the gist of the paper we presented at Skoll (I’ve only cut the introduction to SSE and some of the findings from our evaluation out: these were there purely to illustrate that we’ve supported people in the head and tail, and that the wider benefits of the long tail are clear from our decade of work) and we ended by saying:

– this is not an either-or debate (it’s an "and-and" one), but the emphasis may be too heavily on the head/stars at the moment

– we need to understand how to best maximise the benefits of the long tail but mitigate the risks (duplication etc.) [most succinctly put by Hugh Morrow at our seminar]

– we also need (and put out the question to this effect) to view this debate, and get viewpoints, from different countries where the field may not be as populated as the UK

Finally, just a big thanks to everyone who contributed to this work whether through unattributed comment or through deep debate. Particular thanks to all those who came to the seminar at Skoll and helped shape the next stage of the work (including Charles Handy, no less). For those who might find it of interest, here are the key slides from the powerpoint, starting with our vision of social entrepreneurship (please note that ‘community’ can be geographical or a community of practice), before plunging into the world of the long tail. Feel free to disseminate, with attribution, and also feel free to give us your thoughts on all of the the above on this blog.


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Intelligent Kicking and Campaigning for Nurses.

Not content with feeling the wrath of Terry Wogan, SSE Fellow Dave Pitchford and Intelligent Giving are now busy riling Mourinho and Abramovich. See Chelsea play hard off the pitch as well.

That also reminded me, in a "footballers can be nice as well as nasty" way, that Noreena Hertz is running a campaign to get Premiership footballers to donate one day’s wages for nurses around the UK called Mayday for Nurses. The money raised will go into a hardship fund and, although it’s not going to change the situation in the long-term, it’s useful awareness and fund-raising work. Thierry Henry, David James, Ryan Giggs, Jermaine Defoe and the whole of the Fulham squad are already on board, amongst a total of 44 players.

Impressed that someone renowned as a writer and academic can also be such an effective campaigner and social entrepreneur.

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Little red branding hood

Hazel Blears, prospective Labour deputy leader, has released a range of branded goods to support her campaign. I confess that, if this had appeared nearer the start of the week, I would have assumed it was an April Fool.

The comment on the post above that suggests "Hilary Benn start wearing a bear suit and market himself as Gentle Benn" is also a stroke of genius….

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Social enterprise and entrepreneurship news round-up (April 07)

Lots to catch up on or bring to people’s attention, after time away:

– the Enterprising Solutions awards were launched….and it’s last call for the Edge awards as well

BIG Invest WLTM social enterprises seeking investment between £50,000 and £500,000

– the Office of the Third Sector are really kicking into gear on their various action plans: two more tenders announced recently; one for an innovation exchange and one to run the social enterprise ambassadors programme which was a feature of the Scaling New Heights action plan. SSE attended a seminar on the subject the other week…..

– Meanwhile, in Scotland, the executive published its equivalent to the action plan….called Better Business; the ever-reliable SENScot summarise it here

– Several SSE Fellows are running events or featuring in the media: see SoundDelivery, OnRoadMedia (workshops), Grandparents Plus (Radio 4 appeal), Faith Action (launch, featuring Campbell Robb, DG of the OTS) and Ann Cotton of CAMFED fame (Guardian); also, a mention for Ray Brown at Redesign Youth who has got a first big piece of work with a youth centre in Lewisham

– Having seen Muhammad Yunus (rightly) feted at Skoll, and much talk about the need to scale up, it was interesting to read an article about the problems it can bring, even for the best of us….see Bangladeshi phone row

– There’s an interesting article by Barbara Phillips in Social Enterprise Magazine this month (not online that I can see), using SSE Fellows as a means of demonstrating the diversity that naturally occurs through appropriate support and engagement

– Also, check out Third Sector’s new website which is a VAST improvement: wonderful. Already signed up to the relevant RSS feeds + watching the spangly new social enterprise section

– …which includes mention of the brand new Social Innovation Exchange website, with which SSE is proud to be involved from its inception; already, some of the international linkages and learning has been really valuable….

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