The Big Society and the Life of Brian

It was a great pleasure to be part of a lunchtime seminar for Defra civil servants on understanding social enterprise in a Big Society world run by Defra's...

It was a great pleasure to be part of a lunchtime seminar for Defra civil servants on understanding social enterprise in a Big Society world run by Defra’s Social Enterprise Strategic Partnership. My colleagues dealt with explaining about Social Enterprise and then left me to explain the Big Society connection.

I said that I approached this with some caution as most presentations I heard from organisations to Government on the Big Society reminded me of the crucifixion scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Namely, that wonderful moment when Brian doesn’t hear the Centurion ask who is Brian as he has been given a pardon. So when the Centurion asks who Brian of Nazareth is, Brian’s neighbour replies “I’m Brian.” Then the person next to him says that he is Brian and so it goes in, ending with the wonderful claim “I’m Brian and so if my wife.”

So I decided not to join the throng of claiming that we were the true Big Society, but set out instead where we did play a role. Rather than trying to reinvent it, I took the three main headings of localism, volunteering  and philanthropy.

The challenge of Localism remains that it means different things to different people. As Steve Wyler of Locality has said, for some it ends at the Town Hall door. We engaged with Big Society when it reached actual communities. Social enterprise generated sustainable enterprises which have the potential to unlock community energy today and to continue to deliver for years to come. Defra needed Localism to be strong at the community level if it was to progress its own objectives.

Promoting volunteering was not easy in a time of austerity, but the time had come to end presenting it as the amateur option. Big Society thinking already challenged the traditional thinking that separated the public sector and enterprise. Social enterprise also was able to combine enterprise with volunteering. For instance, community-owned village shops were highly stable enterprises, but used over one million hours of volunteer time. Supporting such crossovers between volunteering and enterprise was an opportunity for Defra.

Philanthropy was the least attractive of the three words for social enterprise, but still relevant to us. We often challenged grant reliance, but our alternatives tended to be about unlocking resources from a range of places, not just traditional philanthropy. Community shares, equity investments, bonds and social impact bonds were all examples of social enterprises bringing new resources to bear on solving problems. Whilst we had changed, Defra needed to think about how it might support such new funding approaches.

If Big Society was a priority across Government, it was a real opportunity in Defra. Many of its priorities could only be made to work through Big Society approaches. Social enterprise alone was not the Big Society, but a Big Society without it would be a much poorer place.

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