- Geof Cox's Blog
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- What would a social enterprise economy look like?
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- Where does social enterprise fit in postcapitalism?
- Can social enterprise save public services?
- Greece, France - making enterprise more social...
- Small is the new big!
- Social impact is no longer an option for big brands
- What on earth is Social Enterprise UK doing?
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- Copyright infringement is NOT theft
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- Social Investment – or the Emperor's New Clothes
- Such a definitions mess that NOBODY can now clear it up?
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- Does the social enterprise movement lack leadership?
- Business models based on greed and exploitation
- Not many jokes...
- NHS Social Enterprise Spin-outs - the real story
- Will tendering ever work for social enterprise?
- Learning from the Open Source Movement
- The Guardian & Social Enterprise
- The focus on a few kinds of social enterprise is blinding us to a bigger picture
- What do social enterprise and chocolate have in common?
- From Albania Again
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- A conflict common to many co-operatives...
- Social Enterprise in Albania
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- What is social enterprise?
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- Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 2 - Rybinsk
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- Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 3 - Moscow & Aleksin
- Ostashkov Conference, October 2008
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- Джеф Кокс, информация на русском языке
Can social enterprise save public services?
This reminded me of a public service transformation I worked on exactly 20 years ago this summer.
In January 1995, Newcastle Council made a £240,000 cut (84%) in its instrumental music teaching service. The Musician's Union sent me in to help the teachers facing redundancy to save the service. We quite explicitly wanted to blend a public service ethos with the dynamism and flexibility of a business. Together, we set up the North East Music Co-op (NEMCO) - which in its first year grew from the initial 18 teachers to 33, and approximately doubled the number of pupils taught.
How on earth did they do this with just 16% of the former budget?
The answer to this question holds many of the answers to the bigger question of whether social enterprise can save public services.
On one level – predictably – we 'saved' the service by charging for it. But it was not as simple as that. Previously, the Council had indeed provided a number of free hours to each school, but then charged for any additional hours. Schools, in turn, were free to charge parents for all hours, or to meet any additional costs themselves through school funds, or indeed to pass on the free hours and charge for additional hours. The 100 or so schools in Newcastle each did things differently. NEMCO introduced a simple hourly rate – for every school, for every hour – but, crucially, below the rate the Council had been charging for additional hours. The Council's system had produced some bizarre distortions – for example, the more pupils classroom music teachers encouraged to learn an instrument, the more their school paid out, while schools less committed to music got everything free. With NEMCO, while some complications remained - some schools still chose to meet some of the costs out of school funds, while others passed on all the costs to parents - classroom music teachers generally liked the simplicity and uncomplicated incentive effects of the new arrangements. Some schools and parents – those that put most emphasis on music – actually saved money.
The specialist instrumental teachers were also happy - because they were now in charge. Within the Council, teaching was almost entirely limited to orchestral instruments. Now the teachers were free to introduce entirely new options – electric guitar, steel drums, music technology – things that inner city kids actually wanted to learn. That's the main reason why the number of hours taught DOUBLED in the first year. And this, of course, started to make the whole service much more cost effective – and further hold down prices. It was in fact an object lesson in what is often wrong with public provision, and what the creativity and flexibility of social enterprise can put right.
Did anybody lose out? Sure, we could see that some kids who had some free hours before now had to pay from the start – but we tried to mitigate this by setting up a fund for bursaries for hard-pressed parents. Nobody believed this was the prefect solution – it introduced, in effect, an element of means-testing – but overall my judgement was, and remains, that we not only 'saved' the service, but greatly improved it. I don't believe you can really argue with the fact that far more children have learnt to play musical instruments, and far more musicians have been employed as teachers, because of what we did those 20 years ago.
There are some post-scripts to the story too...
- 20 years on NEMCO is still going strong - so much so, in fact, that at one stage, when times had changed, the Council tried to take it back in-house!
- The Musician's Union asked me to write a guide to the development process, which they called Are You Ready For A Brand New Beat?
- This was followed by a number of other music teaching services across the country. One of these, the Swindon Music Co-operative, was led by David Barnard, who has recently rewritten my old guide for today's music teachers.
So what does this mean for the big question of whether social enterprise can save public services?
As with many big questions, it depends on what you mean by each of the terms. One crucial perspective is to see 'social enterprise' not as a noun (a kind of organisation), but as a verb – something that can be done by any kind of organisation, or within part of a larger organisation. This is crucial, because it helps us start NOT from the question 'how do we spin this service out?' (as I'm afraid some advisers do), but with the more important question 'how do we improve this service?'
Sometimes – often, I would argue - when people seriously follow through this question they will conclude that 'spinning-out' will indeed enable some of the solutions. With NDTi I'm currently working with a number of social work departments trying to embed their work in local communities. For most, moving out into a separate community-led organisation is a crucial step along this path – but not for all. At least one service, for legal reasons, must remain within the Council. Can they become 'social intra-preneurs' – bringing key aspects of social enterprise within the Council itself? I'm not sure – but I know it's important to try.
The question 'can social enterprise save public services?' is of course a deliberately provocative formulation, even perhaps implying that social enterprise might replace the public sector. Well it can't do that - nor would anybody actually want it. There are many things that the public sector should do directly, or can do better than any independent organisation. But if we mean 'are there some public services that can be sustained, and improved, by making them more social-entrepeneurial?' then I'm sure the answer is a very clear 'YES!'