From Third Way to Big Society

Speaking at the Westminster e-Forum on efficiency in Government, Tom was asked to talk about partnership working. He asked – ‘The Third Way talked about the balance between markets and the state – where was the community then?’ Here is his speech…


Ask yourself:

  • Why have Serco and Turning Point come together in a lifetime commitment to run a prison together, Belmarsh 2?
  • Why did Oxfam choose Marks & Spencer as a partner?
  • Why does Aviva spend £6m per year enabling street children across 28 countries of the world to engage in education or training, in a project which is delivered in UK through the charity the Railway Children?

Undoubtedly the answers to all these questions have got something to do with money (for the charities) and image (for the companies) – but these are the simple answers. They answer the question

‘why are these charities in a partnership with business (and vice versa)’

NOT ‘why are they involved in THIS particular partnership?’

It’s about values, values and mission.

These partners are committed to a common mission which can be better achieved by them working together than apart.

  • Turning Point and Serco together want a prison that reduces reoffending and produces better people at the end of the process than it took in at the beginning.
  • Of all the clothing stores that Oxfam could have chosen as partner –  the Green retailer of the year was the obvious one, with its commitment to ethical supply chains and their 180 ‘Plan A’ pledges to move M&S towards being the world’s first carbon-neutral retailer. (The £3.5M by which Oxfam has gained from the partnership is a bonus).
  • And Aviva’s mission is about looking to the future, for families; that’s what insurance should be for. In its ‘Street to School’ programme it looks after those who are otherwise thought to have no future.

Fifteen years ago it wasn’t like this. Private – third sector partnerships were rare indeed and in the public sector they were in their infancy.

There started to be pressures within the public sector – the need for flexibility, personalisation and cost-effective local solutions – of which charity partnerships were a possible answer.

So in 1998 the Compact was born, a memorandum of understanding between public and third sectors on co-working, reviewed in 2009 and again in 2010 for good measure.

Measures were taken to build capacity in the third sector so that it could manage services in a business-like manner – so don’t let Big Society enthusiasts tell you that third sector outsourcing and mutualisation are new concepts.

We’ve all heard about Sandwell Caring Trust but look at Oldham Community Leisure too, a trade union-led response to cuts and privatisation: since 2002 it has increased the services it provides whilst halving the subsidy, increasing the workforce by 50 per cent and reducing absenteeism, a well-managed and successful co-operative social enterprise.

Today companies face the same challenges as local authorities did ten years ago: some like Serco are actually delivering public services and looking to charities and voluntary organisation partners to deliver those same user-friendly qualities.

Other companies, like those founded by 19th century Quakers, find themselves with missions which commit them to working for positive social change.

Yet others recognise that companies with good CSR records do not just collect ticks in boxes. Corporate social responsibility leads to –

  • good employee recruitment and retention records,
  • a higher and more robust share price than their rivals,
  • greater productivity and higher employee engagement.

Following the banking crisis people actually want businesses to behave more responsibly. The business case for social responsibility is growing now exactly as the business case for green behaviour did in years gone by, and the tools to promote it are now being provided:

  • A new international standard on social responsibility, ISO 26000
  • The 2006 Companies Act with its requirement on businesses to report on that social and environmental as well as financial impacts
  • and yes, the Big Society, with all its faults and failings.

There is a risk of the public sector getting left behind and not just because of ‘the cuts’.

  • How many councils promote employee volunteering, payroll giving or a charity of the year? I bet it’s less than the number of companies of the same size
  • How many public sector bosses give managers time off for mentoring struggling charities and social enterprises like the best of the private sector do?
  • How many big charities give employees time off for volunteering for other charities, if it comes to that?

We are seeing big charities get smart in their partnerships: small ones getting smarter by forming consortia, sharing costs, building up bid-writing skills and winning experience.

I never thought I’d say this but when it comes to really helping bringing about positive, sustainable and real social change in the lives of individuals and communities there is a risk that the public sector will be left behind – and I would have said that even before this year’s cuts.

The problem with the cuts will not so much be the loss of money but the loss of contacts and networks. Too many charities delivering services already don’t know the name of their commissioning officer in the local council due to job losses and changes.

Current plans for Big Society lack structure and Francis Maude tries to make this a virtue! ‘If there was a plan,’ he said, ‘it would be the wrong plan’; but there must be protection to counter geographical and social isolation. Only local authorities can ensure that service provision, especially for the most vulnerable, is universal and universally appropriate. We must avoid ‘postcode lottery failure’ as another speaker put it.

And another thing – the cuts are happening far too fast for the worthy causes of social enterprise and mutualisation to get the investment needed to grow to scale and play their part in a genuinely devolved society made up of capable and caring communities. Experts say it will take 3 to 5 years.

A decade ago we were debating the Third Way, asking where the proper balance lay between the state and the market?

Where was the debate about the community then?

If Big Society brings communities and society generally into that equation then it will be a good thing.

The Big Society contains many threats, much reinventing of the wheel, much claiming virtue for things already happening and an awful lot of misleading hype – but it contains opportunities too: opportunities to provide services which are more focused, more flexible, more personalised and more devolved.

And if we miss those opportunities, through dogmatic insistence on doing things the way we always have done, then we will be in part culpable when it all comes crashing down around our ears – which it very well may yet do.