There has been a great deal of talk over recent months about the role that social enterprises might play in delivering local authority services. At Surrey CC this is now starting to become a reality.
“We were invited by the Department of Health to put together an expression of interest in running a social enterprise pilot,” says Graham Wilkin, assistant to the council’s strategic director.
“After some deliberation, we decided that the [social work-led] deaf and hard of hearing service would be the best department for this pilot. In retrospect I’m glad we didn’t pick a larger, more complex service, as we discovered that setting up a social enterprise pilot is a challenging process.”
The first step was to gain buy-in to the project from the departments that needed to be involved, so the council set up a steering group including representatives of the legal, HR, IT, finance and operations departments. Mr Wilkin reports that there was an encouraging level of enthusiasm through the organisation, so once the £90,000 funding from the Department of Health via Social Care Institute for Excellence was approved, the council was ready to hire a project manager.
Then came the crucial step of involving service users from the hard of hearing forum, and members of staff. They were joined on the independent implementation committee by representatives from the corporate groups, and this committee devised the formal staff consultation.
Mr Wilkin says: “The consultation was a vital stage. Ultimately, if our employees weren’t happy to work as a social enterprise then the project would never get off the ground, but we didn’t want to pressure them into it. We wanted to run an open, inclusive and accountable consultation process. I’m proud of the fact that even the unions who oppose the project were complimentary about this consultation process.”
All but one of the team of 16 wanted to be involved, and so on 15 November the community interest company, First Point, was launched. It delivers Surrey’s deaf and hard-of-hearing service: specialist equipment, interpreting, and social care. It has a contract until August 2013, at which point Kings College London will assess how it has performed.
In the interim, the council will continually evaluate how well First Point delivers on its contract. Mr Wilkin stresses, however, that the council will not interfere. “We are here to advise and support, not to make their business decisions for them,” he says.
It is only the second social enterprise pilot scheme run by a local authority, and the team at Surrey is optimistic that it offers a promising new direction for the future.
“Doing something like this for the first time was always going to be challenging, so I’m excited to have got this pioneering project off the ground,” concludes Mr Wilkin. “There has been a great level of support right across the council, both officers and members, and we’re all looking forward to seeing how this area develops.”
CHRIS BROPHY COMMENT:
Surrey CC thought deeply about the social enterprise option before they made a move but, once that decision was made, Surrey did their homework and got to grips with understanding the process and then making it happen.
Officer interest and support to make things happen is just one part of one half of the “key” which you need if you are going to unlock a successful social enterprise. The support is one of a series of interlocking parts which make for a successful transition, including the strength of the leadership within the staff, how supportive the workforce is, any opposition and how politically deliverable it is. The other half of the “key” which you need is the “appropriateness” of the business in question to be become a social enterprise.
It will be interesting to see how the new way of delivering services will impact on the people in Surrey that use the deaf and hard of hearing service. If this new business model is successful it will also be fascinating to see how it will impact on the council itself.
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