“Never waste the opportunity of a good crisis”

So says Rob Whiteman, chief exec of Barking & Dagenham Council and soon to be head of the Improvement & Development Agency for local government (IDeA).

With a new government, a new prime minister, and a harsh new economic climate — public spending cuts as great as 30% according to some estimates — Whiteman must be seeing opportunities everywhere.  And in fact he is. With local authorities facing financial meltdown, he has a vision for new community-led public services in which, he says, his favoured model is that of the National Trust — one of the very biggest national charities, with extraordinary public loyalty and trust and an army of over 60,000 volunteers. In the future, Whiteman says, “running things…is probably going to be more like the National Trust, where we rely on interested parties, volunteers, communities, rather than employing everybody”.

David Cameron has spoken of a “radical revolt against the statist approach” of Big Government. Whiteman’s armies of volunteers taking on the running of libraries, parks, swimming baths and other facilities would certainly seem to chime with Cameron’s ‘big society/small government’ message.

But how does this square with the kind of agenda for social enterprise growth and opportunities that we have all been pursuing over recent years? I am beginning to feel that the ambitions for social enterprise in public services that we all to some extent shared may turn out to be something of a pipe dream. These ambitions were predicated on the development of a new social marketplace, one where delivery would create additional social value. This assumed there would be sufficient money in the system to drive that market. But in a ‘more for less’ environment (Whiteman’s words) where real money is leaving the system faster than it can be counted, to be replaced by voluntary effort, those ambitions look doubtful.

None of this is to say that greater community involvement and voluntarism are bad things. In terms of cohesion and active citizenship, for instance, the social returns could be huge.

But what does it mean for social enterprise?  Will we see a new emphasis on ‘classical’ voluntary sector and volunteering issues, for instance, at the expense of social enterprise?

For me, the key issue that distinguishes between these two approaches — voluntary effort vs. social enterprise — is that of employment creation. The underpinning assumption of social enterprise is that it has the economic potential to create employment; the underpinning assumption of voluntarism is that it has the potential to get things done for free.

I think in coming months we can expect to see priorities for and attitudes towards social enterprise (and the wider third sector) significantly recast. And as a consequence I think we will find ourselves facing a new dilemma: how to balance government demands for ‘free work’ with the pressure to create employment.

Peter Hetherington has a typically excellent piece about Whiteman and his ideas in today’s Guardian Society.

  1. Conor Barry Reply

    The biggest problem facing Local Government in this economic crisis revolves around “how LG will support its enormous pension fund shortfall” if Government makes cutbacks to its funding. Cutbacks in service were already in hand for this very reason long before change in Government.
    The voluntary and community sector have never used public funding in the way that Local Government has and ratepayers will be unhappy to make up the deficit. Furthermore its a bit late in the day to start telling us we are the best thing since sliced bread when for the last twenty years LG have told us to identify our value and cost our services accordingly (often to justify their own value). Iceland has more to answer for than just its Ash!

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