It may seem a little mean-spirited to criticise good intentions but sometimes they can have hidden consequences. At last week’s annual gathering in Davos of political elites, celebrities and extraordinarily wealthy individuals, there were some interesting moments of tension. Amidst the many plaudits for their philanthropic efforts to eradicate world poverty and disease, one dissenting voice was heard. Dutch historian,, denounced the charitable foundations of these billionaire philanthropists as a fig leaf for massive tax avoidance and a tactic, cynically deployed, to obfuscate the case for taxing their wealth appropriately. And while on this theme of being leery of good intentions, a new breed of business is emerging in Scotland. Sometimes described as ‘mission-led’, these are privately owned, for-profit enterprises that are nonetheless distinct from mainstream business – distinguished by their social purpose. And what’s not to like about that? Very little, except that now some are arguing that these mission-led businesses are de facto social enterprises, and that it’s time for the old distinctions between what is privately owned and what is community owned to disappear. And there’s the problem. The two are fundamentally different. The explains why and we should be wary of ignoring it.
In the most recent briefing…
Pension funds hold vast portfolios of commercial property. Their primary interest is the book value of these portfolios which often bears no relation to market values – often with the result of pricing locals out of the market. A community bid in Dumfries to purchase some very run down property in the High Street was looking hopeful until the pension fund in question took fright and thought they could get a better price by putting it to auction. At very short notice, and after crowdfunding some cash, the team from Dumfries set off for the Big Smoke.
The call from Glasgow Caledonian University for donations to its growing archive of materials charting the history of Scotland’s social enterprise movement, has caused me some regret. At no stage in my career has it occurred to me that what we were doing might be of interest to others further down the line. Others may not have been so profligate with their old papers and if you have any sort of ‘collection’ which records your work, no matter how mundane or trivial the detail, you might want to run it past GCU’s archive team before switching on the shredder.
Last year Scottish Government and COSLA reaffirmed their commitment to community led health initiatives as a central plank of Scotland’s public health strategy. Unfortunately these national plans don’t always work their way down into local decision making. Pilton Community Health Project, Scotland’s oldest community health project, is facing closure after 35 years – apparently because it no longer fits new criteria and assessment procedures for a grant from the Council and NHS. 35 years of building trust and developing relationships and experience in one of Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities. All of that now at risk of being lost.
Large cities facing large scale challenges typically seek out solutions that fit the scale of the problem – and then implement them top down. And as cities get ever larger and more complex the task of delivering successful social innovation becomes ever more challenging. In Seoul, the Mayor has been committed to bringing about social change by moving his government closer to citizens through a process of collaborative governance. Social Labs have been established at a neighbourhood level where experiments are encouraged to find small, local solutions to city wide problems which are then implemented bottom up. Seems to work.
It was often said that the comedy series Yes Minister ran very close to the truth in terms of describing the finely balanced relationship that exists between those who we elect to run the country and those who do. Essentially the same nuanced relationship should, in theory, exist within our local authorities between the elected members and council officers. But as local government has evolved over the years so has this critically important relationship – and some would say not in a good way. A former chief officer shares his reflections on what has gone wrong.
It may not be in the realm of unicorn-chasing but the search for some reliable way of measuring the impact of our sector, particularly for small voluntary organisations, has certainly failed to deliver. Many tools and frameworks have burned brightly in the pilot phase only to fizzle out during the harsh reality of implementation. And no one can claim there’s been any shortage of cash invested in this area. For that reason alone (this one is free) and its simplicity, this latest one might be worth a look. Good name too – Impactasaurus
Last week saw the launch of Scotland’s 2 year open government action plan – part of an international initiative to promote transparency, participation and accountability across all government. The event was a sell-out – a fact that seemed to take everyone by surprise but perhaps reflects the growing concern that democracy is faltering around the world. With the rise of populism, the prevalence of fake news and so on, the time seems right to press even harder for truly open government. And these principles of openness and transparency should apply to every organisation – not just government.
Critics of Scottish Government’s financial support for the community ownership of land and buildings claim that it encourages an unhealthy culture of dependency. That line of argument not only turns a blind eye to the enormous tax breaks and subsidies granted to the private sector but ignores the fact that this is an investment in a long term and sustainable future for us all. And even when the best laid plans go awry, clawback clauses from funders are usually in place. So how come the high profile Hastings Pier (£14m of public investment) was sold into private hands for £50k? Could this happen in Scotland?