The Social Business

My pledge on Big Society

We’re all getting very excited about Big Society, following yesterday’s Downing Street launch.

If you’ve got more interesting things going on in your life, and haven’t managed to keep up with all the ins and outs of it all, have a look at Patrick Butler’s excellent round-up in today’s Society Daily.

I’ve been having a bit of fun with it all on Twitter, but, of course, this all really matters. That’s why I made this pledge earlier:

I hereby pledge to engage with Big Society. I also assert my right to remain sceptical (not cynical) and take the piss where appropriate.

Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I know that plenty of people whose opinions matter read this blog. It therefore matters to me what you think about what I think. So the pledge is my tongue-in-cheek way of making a serious point.

I spend my life trying to work out ways to make society better. With fellow social entrepreneur Gill Coupland I’m currently setting up a social business which will work across sectors to help people and organisations to have more social impact. We’re setting that up with our money, at our risk, with our free time. We don’t expect big pats on the back for that, and I hope we’re rewarded handsomely and fairly as and when we make a difference and make some money. But I do want to make the point that we are setting up this social enterprise at our own personal risk.

So I think that my opinions count for something. And whilst that doesn’t mean I’m always right, it should mean that those opinions – particularly when they challenge the Big Society agenda – shouldn’t just be dismissed as cynicism. If anything has wound me up about Big Society, it’s the sense from some Big Society evangelists that those of us who aren’t fully convinced yet should just get over ourselves. One commentator suggested that I’m just annoyed that the left didn’t come up with the idea. Another suggested that I was far too quick to criticise something that was “clearly a social good”.

I believe that constructive scepticism – particularly when it is informed by years of experience – and constant reflections on that experience – is vitally important. If we just replace one dogma – that the State knows best – with another – that Big Society knows best – then I think we’re in trouble.

That’s why our new business will focus on working with people who want to make a difference – regardless of what sector they work in. I believe social enterprises have a big role to play in changing society – and I’ll continue to do what I can to help them to achieve more. But let’s remain realistic about what a more active civil society might achieve – and remain honest about some of the challenges we will face.

Categories: Social change, Social enterprise, Social entrepreneurs, Social Justice

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  1. I like the idea of creating your own credentials. Did you see Big Society Means Us

  2. Agree that constructive scepticism is this way. I’ve read most of The Venture Society pamphlet produced by ResPublica and feel generally positive about many of the ideas in there in terms of betters ways of supporting and developing social enterprise.

    I think there’s a big tension in the overall Big Society idea about whether civil society is seen primarily as an alternative social force to the state or as delivery agents for state-funded services.

    To some extent different bits of civil society can be either of those things but there’s major challenges for organisations that try to be both at the same time.

    This is an existing tension rather than a new one but it’s likely to become more of an issue as Big Society moves forward.

  3. Sorry to be annoying with this point but…

    The incoming government is committed to reducing the deficit in public spending that resulted from the bank bailout.

    These spending cuts will be more severe than those imposed by the IMF in the 70s. They will ammount to a contraction in the UK economy, a return to recession with increased job losses, bankruptcies and home repossessions – and the associated social problems.

    During the recession, all voluntary and charitable organisations suffered from falling donations and revenue generated from trading – a return to recession will make it difficult for the SE sector to grow as a social force.

    Though more public services will be contracted out for delibery by “Big Society” groups, this will be on the basis that costs can be reduced – biggest of all being labour. Established pay bargaining structures can be broken up, etc. Which is not going to make for a happy and motivated workforce…

    Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the huge value of civil society, the many voluntary and charitable organisations that exist. But though they might grow during an Age of Austerity their impact will be reduced. And I like social enterprise – but when I hear the phrase I think of co-operatives, credit unions, building societies, and employee-owned firms *in the private sector* challenging the traditional business models.

    When the Tories ran focus groups on the Big Society they found that it didn’t resonate. Of course millionaires like Clegg and Cameron are going to like the Big Society – they don’t depend on public services, they are never going to have to claim benefits if they find themselves out of work.

    The Big Society is a polite way of saying, “on your bike” or “there’s no such thing as society” – a way of making ordinary people pay for an economic crisis they did not cause.

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