We have witnessed numerous big ideas on community, regeneration, and place come and go with mixed and frequently transitory impact. The notion of the Big Society is the latest in a long line of such initiatives.
From the point of view of community enterprises and other third sector organisations, the Big Society – like many of the interventions that have gone before it – is characterised first and foremost by its top down nature. While the rhetoric speaks of communities ‘in charge’, the reality is that deeply embedded in it is the premise that ‘who pays the piper calls the tune’. The effect has been to reinforce the very idea of Big Government that it was designed to undermine.
From our perspective, at the root of the problem are two core issues. One is the apparent inability of government to devolve power and decisions about resources to communities in a meaningful way. Put simply, central and local government do not trust community-based organisations. Consequently, it falls back upon crude and decontextualised metrics to ensure ‘accountability’ with regard to public money, which many in the third sector find deeply frustrating.
A second is the reality of politics and political cycles. Government gets bored easily. Political horizons are invariably short, and incoming administrations are keen to discredit their predecessors and move quickly on to the next shiny new initiative. As a result, the landscape of community regeneration and enterprise seems forever in flux, stuck in a destabilising loop with one intervention continually superseded by another in a short space of time.
A new policy architecture for community enterprise?
So what might an alternative policy landscape – one that redistributes power and allows community-based organisations to function more effectively, sustainably, and innovatively – look like?
First of all community enterprises need stability, they need to operate within an overall policy architecture that gives them a degree of certainty as they plan for the future: patient policy and patient capital are required.
Second, we believe that policy makers need to be realistic about the realities of market-based activity in poor places. For community organisations, building and growing commercial ventures that generate enough revenue to subsidise community activities is hugely challenging: community enterprises tend to be ‘slow burners’ and privilege growing and sustaining jobs and services over quick profits. And Like many businesses, they can be fragile and fail. The provision of adequate support, advice and mentorship is critical.
Third, community enterprises operate in a local ecosystem. They need to collaborate with others across sectors if they are to be effective. But many community based organisations feel that they are less than equal partners in the current policy regime. Local economic development should be structured around local needs and priorities, and the voice of community enterprise deserves to be heard.
Finally, there is an on-going need for new and evolving models of community enterprise. This is not something that can or should be dictated by government, but government does have a key role to play in promoting and legitimating innovative approaches, some of which may involves alliances between the public, private and third sectors. Indeed, we strongly believe that community enterprise should not be the preserve of the third sector. In this regard, new models of community enterprise from the Global South, many of which have been developed through ‘design thinking’ principles, could serve as a template for innovation in the communities of the UK.
Written by Neil Stott and Paul Tracey.