Voice 07: the verdict

Ok, so live blogging proved a bit ambitious, but here’s a bit of the lowdown on what went on at Voice 07, the social enterprise conference.

The night before the main event there was a drinks reception, with a bit of light networking and (for some) heavy drinking….and good to see lots of enthusiastic people ready for the next day.

The opening session of the main event was started by the chair of Social Enterprise Coalition (Baroness Thornton), who then passed on to the chief exec of the NWDA (the regional development agency, who helped fund the event)….The next two speakers were Ed Miliband and Tim Smit (of the Eden Project), which made for an interesting contrast…

The Minister concentrated on the "kind of people who work in social enterprise…and their can-do spirit", their "entrepreneurial spirit…with values". And it was good to hear that people-centred focus. He also made the (more political) point that the public services agenda was not about an abdication of responsibility, but enabling new approaches, and about "reshaping services around the user".

He was also honest about the social enterprise action plan not being the complete answer ("there is further to go") and made a clear plea for the sector to lobby on tax incentives……before moving on to outline his vision of government’s role as catalyst, customer and champion (the latter he connected specifically to the new ambassadors called for in the plan, who he termed "evangelists").

The main gauntlets thrown down were around impact and the need for hard evidence, and around voice. There seemed to be an widening of the remit here to listen to diverse and different groups of voices. Perhaps this is connected to his final point, which I strongly agree with, that this is a movement, "not just a sector". [See here for what was announced / Cabinet Office press release]

Tim Smit did his thing, which was pretty entertaining, and not a little inspiring. He started off by calling for utility companies and railway companies to be social enterprises, and followed that swiftly by saying that private companies did have lessons for us, but also many things to avoid. As an entrepreneur, he talked of innovation coming from "the confidence to trust your own instincts", about attitude combined with values, and the need for the movement to be more bullish about its potential. Yes, yes and thrice yes to those.

He trampled over the definition debates ("there is no definition of social enterprise" closely followed by "you’re all in love with hippy shit") before talking of the need to slow down and spend time thinking deeply about "new rules of engagement". Clearly he could have gone on more and more, but finished by talking about the fact that "innovation can’t be judged" (there’s nothing to judge it against), and the natural authority of people that are born to lead….all good stuff, and a good challenge to the stuffiness and stuck-in-the-detail of what sometimes happens at these events (in which I include myself).

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Tim and Ed were followed by Liam Black introducing four potential entrepreneurs, including SSE Fellow Nathalie McDermott. All four were pitching direct to the audience (and well done all, because that’s a pretty large crowd) for our "five pound vouchers"….or monopoly money as Oliver Letwin later dismissively described it.

– Nathalie’s project was i-citizen: a kind of "OurSpace" for citizen journalism online, encouraging ALL groups to use technology to their own ends.

– Next up was Andrzej, whose Primus Personnel organisation was working to act as a bridge between skilled migrant workers and potential employers, as well as giving migrant workers advice and support through the process.

– Jennifer Inglis was third with If-Food, which was about local sourcing + local food networks (combined with online ordering?)…

– And finally, there was Puppet Ship which was, as the name would suggest, a proposal for a puppet theatre on a ship: a floating arts venue that would also go out on outreach projects.

the winner was Primus Personnel, which I think (all SSE loyalties aside) was a worthy winner. Best of luck to all four on the entrepreneurial journey ahead; and well done to the Coalition for introducing this practitioner-focused part of proceedings…

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The break-out session I went to was about Communities in Control, which was pretty interesting: case studies from West Kilbride and Durham, and more overview stuff from the Plunkett Foundation CEO James Money-Kyrle, and Barry Quirk (from Lewisham local authority) who is overseeing the review of asset transfer of public assets.

The Plunkett Foundation is now thinking of itself as a "rural community change agent", and emphasised that the thing that connected all their activities (across retail outlets, labelling etc) was the people. to quote directly, "the people are the assets" not just bricks and mortar. We made a similar point in our response to the Comprehensive Spending Review that a sustainable resource base has to include human resources….

I was impressed with Barry Quirk as well, particularly when he spoke about the need for recipes rather than blueprints, for things emerging from communities, on facilities being a means to an end, and on the need for community empowerment. Inevitably, as someone overseeing a government review, Barry got most of the questions in the discussion, which covered how to pitch to a local authority, avoiding being transferred a liability, and on getting payback for everyone from the investment.

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In the mid-event plenary, we had Jonathan Bland chairing Oliver Letwin and Rita Patel from the Peepul Centre in Leicester. Two more different speakers it would be difficult to imagine. Oliver Letwin referred to social enterprise being driven by the "huge efforts of people", but focused on the need for investment….and the availability of capital as a barrier. His three "great lines of thought" (!) were 1) investment vehicles for a different scale of private (and public?) money to be available; 2) a helping hand and a champion; and 3) relieving the constraints of regulation. Which is all fine, if nothing really new or concrete perhaps.

Rita Patel basically told her own inspiring story as a social entrepreneur, and it’s quite a story. There were some great quotes ("we called it community action; the government called it riots") and pearls of wisdom ("understand the system you’re dealing with"; "remain determined and focused")…an amazing woman, and an amazing achievement. One thing that stayed with me was the need for champions and networks which can open up doors that had previously been closed. She also made the important point in the short discussion that "you can’t start an entrepreneurial organisation on risk-averse funding"….

One other thing that made me think was when she exhorted the crowd to believe in their potential and ability to change things ("you all have passion" as practitioners and social entrepreneurs). But actually, most of the room was filled with second and third tier organisations and agencies. Obviously, I confess to adding to that number, but it just made me wish she was speaking to a room full of social entrepreneurs and leaders who would have really identified with her story, and channelled the lessons and inspiration into their work.

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At this point, a confession about leaving early/missing the last workshop occurs; my defence is a meeting with our Fife SSE representatives, and the need to prepare for the next day for our new Liverpool SSE. But there were some announcements in the final session that made it to my inbox, and which can be found on various websites. [see the government link again]

The main one that people picked up was Ivan Lewis announcing £73m for developing and supporting health and care social enterprises. There was also £200k for investigations in how to get more private money into the movement (entrusted to Charity Bank and Community Innovation UK), and some progress in the DTi and DfES….

Congrats to SEC for organising: seemed to go without a hitch to me, and the event is always worthwhile, not only for the networking and refreshing of relationships, but for what is sparked off from different conversations and presentations….

The thing that stood out for me was how many speakers emphasised that this is a people-centred, people-powered movement….but much of the focus is on finance and structures and curricula. That is surely the next challenge for the movement in the coming years: to find, encourage, develop and train the individuals who will found, lead and populate the social enterprises of the 21st century.

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