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Incubating the Big Society in local social lablets

Today in the Guardian Simon Jenkins says the Conservative’s central manifesto idea – the Big Society – has been moved off the Westminster political stage, and only the new secretary for communities and local government, Eric Pickles, can save it by removing the central cap on council taxes. This would free up their spending and give powers to allow localism to flourish.
I found a very different and more optimistic spirit last night at the launch party for today’s SHINE unconference for social entrepreneurs.
There people felt the solution would come from from local activists, and from gearing up the efforts of those already running the sort of social enterprises applauded in the Big Society. Government support is needed – but it’s not going to be the driver.

Explaining how this would work were Cliff Prior, chief executive of Unltd, Phillip Blond, director of Republica, and deputy director Asheem Singh, who I interviewed. More below on their work.

First up we has Paul Twivy, giving more details about the non-partisan Big Society Network that aims to develop a 15 million-strong mutual organisation to support local action – as I wrote here. The key anouncement – which you can read here – was the launch of “Your Square Mile”:

It will act as a collective voice of citizen needs and be a challenging partner to Government. It will be supported by Government policies but also suggest Government policies. It will work with and across every political party. It will particularly focus on areas where there is little social capital (everywhere has some).It will be a mutual: an organisation owned by its members and run for their benefit. Every citizen will be able to become a member by registering their social action, however big or small, as an individual or as part of a group, with Your Square Mile. In return for this, plus paying a very modest fee of a few pounds, they will receive benefits and dividends.

They will receive advice on how to tackle whatever local issue is their passion: putting a new pedestrian crossing in; setting up a Neighbourhood Watch scheme; saving a public park; helping older people; petitioning their council. The advice will involve first steps to take; case histories from across the UK and the World that might inspire them; links to partner organisations or other individuals interested in the same cause in their postcode; offers of help from Local Authorities.

Some actions will be simple and take a few hours and some will be complex and take a few years. People can take the first step up the ladder from disenfranchised citizens to active citizens and that first step should be fun, sociable and rewarding. Many will go no further but others, as they gather confidence , knowledge and resource, will become more fully fledged community activists or even social entrepreneurs.

It is an inspiring vision, if it supports, amplifies and builds on what’s happening already, so I commented on Paul’s blog item:

Thanks Paul – you’ll see from comments on another post there’s some goodwill now surfacing, but there will also be the inevitably “don’t compete with existing networks” “don’t re-invent the wheel” “don’t just focus on social entrepreneurs”. Fair points … but how to flip them around, rather than have to go into defense model again? My suggestions: help people tell their own stories rather than presenting case studies; aggregate and repackage existing howtos rather than Yet Another Toolkit; build relationship before setting up final legal structures. In all that use the brand to support activists and social entrepreneurs, not the other way around.

More detail on the way that support might work came from the next speaker, Phillip Blond, whose Red Toryism has informed some of David Cameron’s Big Society thinking. Here’s a sympathetic interview with Phillip on Transition Culture. Other’s aren’t so kind. Big Society discussions produce arguments and endorsements crossing traditional lines, which make them so refreshing.

Anyway, Phillip was launching a report by Respublica, the research organisation he set up after leaving Demos. It was commissioned by Unltd, the organisation supporting social entrepreneurs, and is part of their SocialFuture programme. Entitled The Venture Society,  and written by Respublica deputy director Asheem Singh, the report says that it is a blueprint for David Cameron’s Big Society.

The report calls for a radical new structure to support social entrepreneurs by developing a network of a ‘community lablets’ that would act as an incubator for new social enterprises by providing the basic infrastructure, advice and funding to dramatically boast the number of start-up enterprises.

The report recognises that key to the success of the lablets would be a strong connection to the local area and draws heavily on successful models in Denmark and the US.

It lays out plans for the community lablets to be supported by established social enterprises and organisations, like UnLtd, who would develop a set of specialised hubs or ‘Social Labs’ that would test, drive, and support innovation in the sector.

The large social foundations would crucially provide financial support and guidance to these new enterprises, which is still the major reason for failure of social enterprises.

And in a major change of direction the report recommends that regulatory powers are transferred to the Social Labs who would also get the power to approve new flexible venture-lite structures for social start ups funded by community lablets.

It also calls for the creation of a Bureaucracy Task Force that would cut the burden of regulation on early stage social entrepreneurs, which it concludes represents a major barrier to new social enterprises.

And calls for the establishment of a number of pilot virtual advisory boards, which would work with existing providers to lever in more funding into the sector.

The report backs the creation of a new fund and plan to support mutual, co-operative and foundation models, which can then make local decisions about venture priorities. And it calls for a switch in funding from existing programmes to provide greater support towards start-up costs and local infrastructure.

In the longer term, the report backs the development of a capitalised social investment bank, targeted tax breaks for new investment vehicles and a community reinvestment act. Formalise the process by which service delivering Whitehall departments pay for the demand reduction benefits of social ventures.

The report calls on the new Government to place the responsibility for implementing this ambitious programme and new structure of community lablets and social hubs with the Cabinet Office.

The report is a substantial piece of work, and I haven’t got through it yet. Fortunately I was able to get a quick overview from the people behind it when I chanced upon them at the bar … Cliff Prior, chief executive of Unltd, Phillip Blond, director of Republica, and report author Asheem Singh.

I’m now heading back to SHINE. Tomorrow at The Hub, Kings Cross, I’ll be acting as social reporter in a game designed by Cliff to simulate some of the ideas being developed in SocialFuture. It should help us tease out how Your Square Mile and community lablets might work in practice – hopefully with central and local government support.

The aim – to co-design the ideal support environment for supporting social and community entrepreneurs in a disadvantaged area. Swap experiences on the challenges you faced as a start up – and what helped most. Design the ideal support structure for social start ups from local up and from national down. Crowdsource the best ideas to set a priority list for the next Government.

Maybe we could offer to run a session for Eric Pickles and officials, with Simon doing the reporting.