Social enterprise solutions for Scotland’s public services

Posted: 09 July 2021, in News

Social enterprises are already delivering public services in communities right across Scotland. 

There are many examples. There’s the Wise Group in employment and justice, Atlantis Leisure for health and exercise, Scotland’s many social housing providers and models like the NHS Lothian and third sector partnership. 

In England examples include the big HCT Group delivering bus services and the employee-owned social enterprise ‘spin-outs’ from the NHS.

Over the past few decades the UK has seen the privatisation of many public services. The use of big outsourcing companies, permanent subsidies for privatised railways, PFI/PPP and traditional privatisation have been an ongoing trend.

In Scotland we’ve been different in some ways, with the publicly owned Scottish Water, a rejection of many market reforms in the NHS and now with the announcement that ScotRail will be brought back into state ownership.

It’s welcome that the latest Social Enterprise Action Plan has a commitment to “Bring forward a programme to help improve collaborative commissioning and the role of social enterprise in the delivery of public services.”

There’s been a lot of hard work to reform public procurement and community asset transfer for social enterprises but how can we go beyond that? Why are social enterprises a better alternative to state ownership or privatisation?

Firstly social enterprises aim to live the best of both worlds. An enterprising mindset and an understanding of running a sustainable business is at the core of social enterprises. 

At the same time they have a specific social mission and are deeply rooted in their local communities, driving profits to their social cause. They seek to embrace inclusive fair work practices and they understand the true meaning of public service. 

It’s apparent that the public sector on its own often doesn’t have the knowledge, flexibility and innovation of business and can be tied up with regulations and centralisation.

In turn private sector providers of public services are mandated to prioritise profits and shareholders above most other considerations and therefore can’t prioritise community interest and longer-term thinking.

The various social enterprise models can provide more sustainable ways to deliver our public services. Locally owned social enterprises, trading charities and co-operatives are the only real, viable alternatives. 

There’s huge potential to build more social enterprise public services both nationally and locally. It’s entirely reasonable to roll out a diverse mix of business models that put people and planet at the heart of delivery. 

ScotRail is a prime example where the social enterprise model could be used as an alternative to the current one – and also as an alternative to a traditional top-down nationalisation. We have a great opportunity to do something different.

Local authorities also have ALEOs delivering leisure and other services. These are arms-length companies that are registered charities. Could they become social enterprises too?

What about the NHS? While free healthcare should of course remain a fundamental right is there potential for social enterprise models or employee-owned companies to do more in terms of healthcare delivery, particularly in prevention?

With social enterprise support already strong in Scotland we could in fact become a world leader in public service innovation. 

It’s these options that we can begin to debate and understand. We can start to free up creative thinking, new solutions and new ways of delivering public services.

Duncan Thorp, Social Enterprise Scotland