Having returned from Estonia (of which more soon), SSE launched straight back into the deep end with a breakfast roundtable discussion at Demos on ambition, social enterprise, the third sector and public service delivery. Luminaries attending included senior policy people of NCVO and ACEVO (Nick Aldridge, soon off to be CEO of MissionFish), Ben Metz from Ashoka, Cliff Prior from UnLtd, and Stephen Sears from ECT.
Once coffees were downed, people clicked into gear and the debate began, albeit with relatively few sparks flying. In fact, reading between the lines, there was significant agreement between those present. Diversity, and government understanding of, was one key theme: that it is impossible to decide whether "the sector" should a) aim to deliver a greater percentage of public services or b) transform capitalism or c) innovate at the grassroots or, indeed, d) all of the above…..rather, each organisation decides what it does to achieve its goals, giving a complex, diverse, rich picture.
There was also significant agreement about the need for more thought-through commissioning (an old and well-worn chestnut…if you can have a well-worn chestnut), that it should be outcome- not sector-based. This is very much in line with our feeling that, increasingly, the boundaries between sectors are becoming blurred and what matters is the quality/value/impact of activity, and how transparent an organisation is about the way it operates (and in how it communicates).
A social enterprise or charitable structure doesn’t guarantee quality, particularly if what differentiates them (aka the values/mission at their heart/inception) is no longer there…which is a possibility if organisations are formed to respond to sector-based commissions. The powerhouse that is ECT started as a small voluntary community transport organisation by people passionate to see that need to be met.
There were some interesting points about innovation too: I made the point that social enterprise was meant to be about new solutions, risk, innovation etc, but that it was difficult to commission innovation or procure entrepreneurship. And that social entrepreneurs, particularly in their early years of activity, are responding to what is NOT being met, rather than aiming to deliver a public service that is already recognised. The ramifications for funding, support, devolving power and money are clear. Nick A. added that research had shown that the sector was involved in more incremental innovation now, rather than "disruptive" innovation, and that this was to be welcomed.
Further interesting points came around user-led services, whether it will make a difference if Cameron/Brown get in (general feeling: not really, though we won’t know until either of them do, and they’ll both have less money to work with…), and how Ben/Ashoka will bring down capitalism. Or something. ;0)
Best of all, a roundtable discussion that didn’t attempt to define social enterprise or the third sector once: marvellous.