Mutual benefits of social co-operation

A shared purpose offers real openings says Duncan Thorp
Social Enterprise Scotland. Picture: ContributedSocial Enterprise Scotland. Picture: Contributed
Social Enterprise Scotland. Picture: Contributed

THE public sector and social enterprise have a shared purpose. Scottish social enterprises have been working in partnership with local authorities and other public agencies for years. These relationships have been, and continue to be, mutually beneficial. Whether this is about opening up public procurement to social enterprises, joint events and forums or innovations like Public Social Partnerships.

Of course some relationships have their challenges too. Real barriers remain for social enterprises at a local level in some areas of the country and within Scotland-wide public bodies. Sometimes there’s a suspicion and lack of trust about what social enterprise is all about. There’s still a clear need for awareness-raising and education for local authority officers and local elected members, as well as for those working in the NHS and other parts of the public sector.

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Certainly there’s a responsibility for the social enterprise community to continue to promote our key messages, from the potential for saving taxpayers’ money, to flexibility and innovation, as well as to the wider community benefits of social enterprise activity. But it’s also in the interests of the public sector to reach out and work together with our business community on an equal basis, with a genuine commitment to fundamental reform and new ways of delivering services.

Central to this is a clear logic in working together, as we share the same values of public service, delivering quality goods and services to everyone and helping to make Scotland a better place to live. Our purpose is the same. Social entrepreneurs may not be working in the public sector but they very much practice public service, alongside their charitable heart and a commitment to rigorous business efficiency.

There are lots of examples of good work taking place across Scotland, with strong partnerships being formed. National developments include the Ready for Business programme, a social enterprise-led consortium delivering the Scottish Government’s Developing Markets for Third Sector Providers. The core aim of the project is to embed social value in the commissioning and procurement of public services and recognise and increase the role that social enterprises and charities can play in providing those services.

Ready for Business works with local government, health boards and other public bodies to promote vital mutual understanding between public providers and social enterprises and encourages equal partnerships to deliver services.

But we need to do so much more. Social Enterprise Scotland jointly founded the Social Enterprise Local Authority Group (SELAG), bringing together Council officers working on social enterprise development. There are also opportunities arising with the new Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, around transferring public land and buildings to community groups and social enterprises. These initiatives further enhance the working relationship.

We shouldn’t be afraid of radical public sector reform – and we shouldn’t confuse this reform with public sector cuts and sometimes damaging privatisation. Reform should be positive and should improve services. We must recognise that there are genuine, workable alternatives to a current trend that prioritises big, remote outsourcing companies. With their main purpose of shareholder profits, disconnected from Scotland’s communities and with targets more important people, these cost-cutting suppliers simply can’t deliver long-term, positive outcomes for society. That approach is a false economy.

It’s the diverse mix of social enterprises that can – and already are – delivering public services that put communities, people and our environment first. An enduring alliance between the social enterprise community and the public sector is the best way forward, with a relationship based on mutual trust. Social entrepreneurs hold out a genuine hand of friendship to all those working in our public services. We look forward to greater collaboration and to building the social enterprise alternatives together.

• Duncan Thorp is policy and communications officer for Social Enterprise Scotland