What is the role of social entrepreneurs in the Big Society?

SHINE-logo_372616a [copy and pasted from the live Independent blog that accompanied Shine 2010; see David Floyd's write-ups for more on Shine]

The Shine Unconference started with the launch of a new report from ResPublica about the Venture Society, looking at ways in which the support structures that already exist to support social entrepreneurs can be scaled up to meet the significant challenges that lie ahead. There was also a representative from the Big Society network which, as an idea closely associated with the Conservatives, got a fair old kicking during the election campaign.

While it's interesting to debate the reasons why the Big Society idea has been pilloried from both sides (in brief, the left saying it is a smokescreen for savage welfare cuts; the right that it is unclear, communitarian or even Fabian; some have even paraphrased the famous Thatcher quote to say that "there's no such thing as big society"), it's perhaps worthwhile reflecting that this is as much a debate about top-down versus bottom-up as it is about left versus right. Part of the critiques of the Big Society idea was that it appeared to be aspiring to be a bottom-up network or movement….but that's a difficult position to pull off when you're announced in a top-down political party kind of way. The network has since been working away to emphasise that it is in listening and engaging mode.

Whichever your position, these are uncertain and fascinating times for social entrepreneurs. No-one here underestimates the challenges ahead, but there is also a tension or excitement at the opportunities that may also become available. For the social entrepreneurship movement, it is also a time to weigh up the possibliities. It is a time to seize opportunities, but not only be replacement public service deliverers; to be pragmatic and resourceful, but not stray off their original mission; to not lose their innovation and reach, but also look at the chances to scale interventions that work; and to work with government where it works, but be straight with them about when government funding is required. Rob Greenland has made similar points on his blog here, saying "Now the hard work begins…." As Michael Young used to say, it is a time to really be sure of the balance between hard-headed and high-minded.

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2 thoughts on “What is the role of social entrepreneurs in the Big Society?

  1. I’m slightly confused about the relationship (or lack of one) between the Big Society policy – some Tory ideas about a greater role for civil society in achieving social change – and the Big Society Network, which seems to be a specific project to create a large national mutual organisation.
    The general idea of Big Society, particularly as explained in Respublica’s The Venture Society, seems to have a lot going for it in terms of enabling social entrepreneurs to engage in positive local activity without being held back by bureaucracy. And general support for local community organisations is a good thing, even if many of the specifics are still to emerge.
    I’m less clear on the point of the Big Society Network. It seems to be based on creating a massive national organisation to support the idea of local change, which suggests an unusual understanding of both local change and the reasons why people join organisations.

  2. Yes, I know what you mean David. I guess it will need a bit of time to pan out as well, over the coming weeks and months. Will try to keep an eye on it + keep informed.