Some thoughts on ResPublica’s ‘The Venture Society’

In these very early stages of the new government it is hard to forecast what will have real influence in shaping policy and what will prove to be here today and gone tomorrow. Further to this earlier post, I do recommend reading at least the Executive Summary of the recent ResPublica report, The Venture Society because while much of it can be disagreed with, it contains some ideas that do merit closer consideration. And much of it is provocative and interesting — like looking at something you know very well but through a lens with an unaccustomed perspective.

It argues that access to appropriate support, including and especially finance, is key to the social enterprise sector growing, but it proposes locating this ‘infrastructure’ in locally-based ‘community labs’, where support, networking and even investment decisions can respond more closely to community control and local decision-making. If this is an idea whose time has come then I see a scramble amongst support providers and others to reposition themselves as community labs.

While New Labour did a lot to advocate on behalf of the sector, ResPublica concludes that it did not do sufficient to shape and form the marketplace. The old lot (that’s clearly what the report means) saw themselves as the ‘driver’ and this relegated ‘grassroots social entrepreneurs’ to being merely ‘a sub-set of grantees, charities or the state itself’, a group ‘deserving of support through welfare’ but not in control of either the marketplace they sought to build nor the state support ostensibly there to help them flourish (p.21).

The report also argues that there has been a ‘cultural failure’ in understanding social enterprise — that social enterprise is ‘a spectrum, not a sector’, and that lumping it collectively under the broad designation of ‘third sector’ (now a verboten term in civil society circles) was misguided. It also argues that ‘more nuanced attempts’ to recognise the diversity of the sector while well-intentioned were ultimately confusing. But here the report arguably falls into the very trap it is describing by offering a ‘typology’ of social entrepreneurs which includes ‘social activist social entrepreneurs’, ‘political social entrepreneurs’, ‘social entrepreneurs working with trade unions’, and ‘public service media social entrepreneurs’ (p.23). Trips off the tongue, doesn’t it.

The report is also critical of the Social Enterprise Mark, claiming that it merely regulates ‘form’ rather than ‘function’, and critical too of New Labour’s strategy of ‘capitalising’ social enterprise through contracting with them for the delivery of public services. This, it says, has created a ‘bad market’ in which the small cannot compete. It also criticises the Community Interest Company legal form as being inadequately demanding in terms of eligibility, and unnecessarily bureaucratic for those subsequently wishing to exit that structure in favour of another.

But just when you think the report can safely be written off as primarily concerned with rubbishing everything the previous government did in its efforts to support social enterprise, it catches you short — for example, in arguing that there needs to be a greater recognition that early-stage social enterprises should be judged not by the public services they can deliver, but rather by their ability to reduce  the demand on those services.

You see, the report does have some genuinely insightful moments, but you have to take these along with pure Red Tory gobbledegook such as ‘Leveraging pro-social and pro-entrepreneurship norms’… For those whose tolerance is limited I do recommend reading at least the inset box on p.12 — ‘creating the infrastructure for grassroots social entrepreneurship: evolving the Venture Society in seven stages’. It would be great to hear views from anyone else who has delved into this report.

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