So here we are. Day one of a Tory – Lib Dem government.
What might this mean for social entrepreneurs, and the world of social business? We are likely to be given opportunities over the next five years to do much more, and to have much more influence over the lives of the people of this country. More public services will be outsourced to social enterprises. More public sector workers will be encouraged to set up social enterprises so that they can sell their services back to the State. Hopefully a new generation of social entrepreneurs will emerge, as people across communities realise that if things are going to change, they are going to have to change them. With big budget cuts, the State is likely to withdraw completely from the delivery of certain services, leaving, in theory, big gaps which social entrepreneurs could fill.
I’ve made no secret on the blog of my scepticism with regards to the Tories’ plans for Big Society. I’ve also explained how growing up in 1980s Liverpool means that I am instinctively hostile towards the Conservatives. Yet I’ve also made the point that one reason that I am involved in social business is that I’m not, and never have been, a party-political animal. My hostility towards the Conservatives has never been balanced by a great enthusiasm for Labour or the Lib Dems. Until the last 6 months, I’ve never really taken much notice of any of them. The financial crisis changed all that.
Here are my thoughts on day 1 of the new Government. I think social entrepreneurs – and I’m thinking in particular of those who deliver services to the public, on behalf of the State, have a great opportunity to make a difference to people’s lives in what are bound to be difficult years. But we need to balance entrepreneurial enthusiasm, and the desire to make a difference, with hard-headed assessments as to whether the “opportunity” in front of us is actually just a get out of jail card for whoever is cutting that particular budget.
All of a sudden public servants who have always believed that the answers lie with them, and them alone, will warmly embrace social entrepreneurs and enthusiastically invite them in to “do things differently”. This could be progress, but it’s not necessarily progress. We need to remember that there can be a big gap between need and demand – and that someone, somewhere, needs to pay for services. This is where the pragmatism of the social entrepreneur may need to overcome the anger and the passion of the social activist. At times there may be no realistic way to deliver a service, if the State isn’t going to fund it. They need to be told that – not given a two year period of grace whilst we try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
We also need to manage expectations. It takes time for new approaches to deliver results. At a time when every penny that is taken from us in tax will be closely scrutinised, there will be pressure to promise that we can deliver more, and more quickly, than is realistic. Years of mediocrity can’t suddenly be transformed into 5 star service.
Over the next few years, the real social entrepreneurs, and the real social businesses will emerge from amongst the ranks of the “me-too” organisations. It’s been sexy to be a social enterprise (or to at least call yourself one) since 1997. I don’t think it’ll feel quite so sexy over the next few years – even though it will be more high profile. But if you’re up for it, and if you’re serious about creating social change, then I have no doubt that there will be some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to really make a difference. But we’ll need to be hard-headed as well as passionate about creating change.