Reconstructing Social Enterprise

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Said Business School


The coalition government in the UK has promised SE a major role in the restructuring and future delivery of public services, and legislation has been promised to in order that SEs can better compete against public and private sector organisations. The UK policy focus on SE is being replicated across much of the world. However policy support might be somewhat premature. The limited evidence base concerning SE as deliverers of public services is mixed. Most existing research has used descriptive case studies or anecdotal evidence to 'demonstrate' SE's potential to address a wide range of social problems. Others have generalized these iconic success stories to the wider population of SEs (Vasi, 2009). Despite the existence of counter-evidence (Bull, 2008), there is widespread belief that SEs are able to successfully combine social and economic goals to develop social cohesion, civic engagement and democratic renewal while delivering high quality public services (OTS, 2009). Basing policy on uncritical assumptions risks setting up SE for failure, and in the longer term, preventing SEs from developing an alternative, more inclusive model of society (Craig and Porter, 2006).

We propose this seminar series to bring together academics from across the world with practitioners and policy makers in the United Kingdom in order to stimulate dialogue and reflection and to establish a critical research agenda informed by, and accessible to, practitioners. Given that critical inquiry draws upon a range of approaches our seminar series invokes those already employed in the field of SE research. On the most elementary level this comprises collating further the evidence base on SE so as to bring into view not only its promise but also its dangers and limitations. On a more explicitly critical note, we invoke different perspectives from Critical Theory and Organization Studies to construe SE as a new language (neologism) whose meaning has shifted away from the radical discourse of democratic renewal espoused by practitioners in the late 20th Century (Teasdale, 2011), and been captured by policy makers and elites espousing a withdrawal of the state from the direct delivery of public services and the marketisation of those (civic) areas of life traditionally predicated upon self-help and mutual aid (Dey, 2011 forthcoming).

The first two seminars involve the deconstruction of the dominant SE discourse by demonstrating how prevailing forms of thinking impose certain limits to our understanding of SE. First, we draw upon a range of academic research and practitioner experiences to delineate the political and ideological 'making' of SE. Second, we draw upon a number of empirical reality tests (i.e. 'myth busting') to unpick taken for granted assumptions of SE. The second half of the series begins the task of reconstructing SE in a more radical and democratic light. Our third seminar explores the use of normative theory to offer a value based democratic alternative to the dominant managerial, rational choice model. The fourth seminar seeks to recast the democratic renewal of society based on the voices of SE practitioners and counter posing the language and meanings of these practitioners with dominant policy discourses.

To permit genuine exchange between theory and practice, each seminar includes presentations from practitioners operating at local and national levels, all of whom have been involved in the design of this seminar series from the start. Our final seminar, which is chiefly concerned with co-constructing a prospective critical research agenda into SE, will aim to give apt weight to practitioners' viewpoints through an innovative 'open space' format. These will be collated to develop an internationally focused research agenda around SE and democratic renewal.

Planned Impact

This seminar series has been explicitly designed to have a direct impact on practitioners in the SE field and to policy makers concerned with the delivery of public services, social cohesion, civil and civic engagement and democratic renewal.

Users of the research outputs can be divided into three main groups:

1. Third Sector Organisations and Social Enterprises
Third Sector organisations have been involved in the design of this seminar series prior to the bid stage, and will continue to play a role in organising and presenting at seminars, co-constructing a future research agenda and disseminating outputs to a wide audience. Our seminar series has relevance to a wide range of third sector organisations and SEs including co-operatives, small scale community organisations, voluntary organisations delivering public services, and more commercially orientated social businesses. Each of these forms of SE are represented by national membership organisations, including respectively Co-ops UK, Community Development Foundation (CDF) and National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA), The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), and the Skoll Foundation and Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), as well as large number of regional bodies. Representatives from each of these organisational types will be invited to the seminar series (see Pathways to Impact).

2. Public Sector Organisations
There is particular interest in SE as a vehicle for the delivery of public services among the Coalition Government. More generally, the Social Enterprise All Parliamentary Group has an interest in the potential contribution of SE to increasing the effectiveness of public services, and also in their economic contribution to the UK's competitiveness. While there are no plans to develop new research in this area in the short term, the second seminar will explicitly aim to collate existing international research into SE's social and economic contributions.

The Public Services (Social Value) Bill is a private members bill supported by the government which has recently passed through committee stage. The aim of the bill is to better enable SEs and other third sector organisations to deliver public sector contracts by recognising wider social value within the procurement process. Our seminar series will have direct relevance to commissioners of public services as it will draw together existing evidence on the potential and limitations of social enterprise in delivering public services (seminar 2), and more generally seek to develop understanding of the wider social value which different forms of SEs might promote, particularly democratic engagement (seminars 3 and 5).

3. Private Sector Organisations
Private businesses have a particular interest in social enterprise. Indeed the majority of the supposed 62,000 SEs in the UK take a private sector legal form. Additionally our seminar series has relevance to private sector organisations with a particular interest in SE, such as Price Waterhouse Coopers (Co-sponsors of the SPARK Challenge fund for SEs in the homelessness field) and the Federation of Small Businesses (with a particular concern that SEs may be given an unfair fiscal advantage through policy).

Given the wide range of potential beneficiaries of our research, most will not be able to attend the seminar series. The pathways to impact section details our dissemination strategy designed to ensure that as any as possible potential beneficiaries are engaged.


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Description This seminar series was explicitly designed to have a direct impact on practitioners in the social enterprise field and to policy makers concerned with the delivery of public services, social cohesion, civil and civic engagement and democratic renewal. Building upon his paper presented at the Sheffield seminar, David Floyd of Social Spider CIC (partner organisation of the seminar series) was awarded a grant from Esmee Fairbarn Foundation to explore how the government's approach to social investment can be made more accessible and relevant to a wider range of charities and social enterprises, in order to bring about positive social change. This Alternative Commission on Social Investment launched in October 2014 and held seminars and events across the UK to gather the views of a variety of stakeholders. The final report will be launched on 27 March 2015. Andy Benson of the National Coalition of Independent Action (NCIA) was invited to speak at the first seminar in Northampton. During 2013 and 2014, NCIA undertook a major project to describe and review the landscape occupied by those voluntary and community organisations that deliver services in local communities. NCIA commissioned les Huckfield (who presented at our second seminar in Sheffield) to build upon his seminar presentation and write the third working paper for the NCIA Inquiry into the Future of Voluntary Services: The Rise and Influence of Social Enterprise, Social Investment and Public Service Mutuals which was published in July 2014. While it is too early to claim a direct impact on policy it is expected that the seminar series, and particularly these two impacts deriving from the grant findings, will help shape the future of the public services and social investment landscapes in the United Kingdom over the next few years.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services