Social enterprise: innovation in public service delivery

Ben Higham asks....



Has the opportunity for social enterprises to deliver 'public services' provided a platform for development, improvement and innovation?

It has been argued that the current radical transformation of public services as we know them will make them more relevant, accountableand cost-effective. A recent survey of SEEE members that have engaged with thedivestment agenda has offered some interesting perspective on this proposition. It will be no surprise that the range of organisations responding was very diverse.




We asked if becoming contract ready required major changes to the organisation. 25% of respondents said it did. However, 42% agreed that they needed to review the skills and experience of staff in order to meet the challenge and 33% confirmed that significant operational changes had to be made.  Perhaps obviously, where organisations have been developed in order to respond to a need given a commissioning opportunity they were, generally, more prepared than some existing organisations.




75% of respondents agreed that improving the quality of service drove their delivery solution.  For some this was an opportunity to engage staff and clients and to increase ownership of the organisation and its activities. Two thirds of responses confirmed that customers are increasingly involved in evaluating their service and most providers are proactive and recognise evaluation as a positive element of service improvement. Better understanding of impact, greater scale of operation, and the development of new products and services were all other improvements identified.




When it comes to innovation there were some interesting responses. When asked if service delivery has been the opportunity for, or led to, innovation 75% said it had. Some observations include 'new business ideas have been subject to 1 board discussion not a 3 year process!' (perhaps a divested service speaking here?), and 'Community Parents' building 'stronger relationships between marginalised expectant parents and professionals' lead to 'timely access to services' and prevented 'escalation of need'. Another suggested that a 'local action group [distributing business grant aid] has provided innovative solutions' in use of 'public funding support to micro businesses'.




For some the term 'innovation' seemed to be confused with concepts of change and improvement. One responded that innovation for them was 'having to fit all the extra demands in around an existing service'.  A further indication of confusion was the
response of  'don't know' to the question - have innovations had any influence on the planning of services for the future? - when the same respondent had previously stated ' we won the contract and then retained it by offering innovations each time'. Go figure!




However, 66% of respondents did identify the influence of innovation on their service and business planning and all saw this as positive. Some recognise the need for modest operational change, ' more long-term planning', through to significant development; ' need to reconsider…legal structure to…access specific funding for exports so that smaller parts of our business can grow more freely'. Others see impact in an improved operational context in areas such as 'engagement between our volunteers and NHS Commissioners giving improved insights', and 'improvements in planning guidance and support from planning officers'.




When asked whether commissioners would recognise development  and innovation in an organisation as they consider the next contract 66% of  respondents suggested they would; or, at least, should.  For some it appeared straightforward - ' ROI and SROI evidence proven' - which suggested a review framework that expects to recognise achievement. Others are more circumspect - 'depends which contract. Our LA does not believe the 35 jobs we have created in 8 months is economic development.' Another said: ' we hope so! It is very early to tell whether the new Health and Wellbeing Boards and Clinical Commissioning Groups will recognise the value of our innovation and give us some stability'.




It is clear that there is a significant level of change going on in public services and how they are funded and this does lead to a great deal of uncertainty amongst those providing and renegotiating the delivery of services, particularly where they are core. Innovations that add
value and improve service provision often come as part of a process of change and it is this element of complexity, even unpredictability, in the nature of this development that does require a better and less proscriptive approach to the commissioning process. How else will we understand the changing nature of need that these services are intended to address?