Here’s an issue which has cropped up time and again in conversations about social innovation: Those who give small and medium sized grants to social enterprises trying to move beyond the start-up phase face a conundrum. On the one hand, they want to fund the best ideas with the best chance of achieving impact. On the other hand, social start-ups often don’t have the capacity and skills to make the strongest, most evidence based, case for their work. In particular, it is unusual to find applicants who have thoroughly answered these simple but tough questions: ‘what other initiatives are very similar to yours?’, and ‘why is yours positively different?’
I suspect there is a psychological dimension. A few years ago someone ‘phoned to ask me if the RSA would support a new project in schools to promote entrepreneurship. When I gently pointed out that there are already several national and local initiatives of this sort which he should check out before refining his own thoughts, not only didn’t he thank me for the advice but he clearly felt slighted.
When we have an idea or a passion we tend to want to think it is unique to us, that we are truly radical innovators who are bound to succeed simply because of the strength of our intuition and commitment. No one likes to have that enthusiasm dampened by the knowledge many other people have walked this road before and many have lost their way. And - in case you’re wondering – I am just as guilty. When I had my idea yesterday of a national care experience for young people my first reaction was to hope no one else had thought of it or done before.
It should also be said there is a converse problem of people taking an idea to an existing organisation and being met with a ‘not invented here’ or ‘we tried that twenty years ago and it failed’ defensiveness.
An example of an area in which I hear of new initiatives almost daily and in which it is vital to survey a crowded scene of similar ideas is mentoring. Last week the Sutton Trust becomes the latest organisation to present conclusions from meta–analysis of educational practice (that is analysis of many research projects around the same topics). One conclusion was that ‘poor mentoring is worse than no mentoring at all’. This reflects not just of the quality of individual schemes and mentors but also the conceptual foundations of mentoring. Often the motivation for establishing schemes is the assumption that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer from low aspirations and therefore need the guidance and encouragement of a high achiever.
However, as powerful research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown, the story of low aspiration – despite being ubiquitous in political speeches and newspaper columns – is a myth. The problem for the disadvantaged, whether pupils, parents or the wider community, is not low aspirations but low expectations and limited resources to change those expectations. Young people don’t need to be insured they need concrete advice and support to enable them to climb the stubbornly wide gaps between the rungs of the progression ladder.
From all this I conclude that what we need is a social enterprise concept triage process. Through this people with new ideas or fledgling schemes, but lacking the time, skills, resources, or psychological resilience properly to survey the scene of similar initiatives and their evaluation, could get a short, focussed but robust research report that can inform, guide maybe even sometimes inspire. Funders might quickly ask for such reports to be appended to funding applications.
The consequence? Some dreams would be shattered, some hopes extinguished but also a whole heap of blood, sweat and tears would be avoided and funders would be able to choose from a smaller but better field of applications. The process might itself be a social enterprise, charging just enough to provide the service and using social science students who would have the skills and could use the money for a job they could do flexibly.
I just hope I’m the first to come up with this great idea. But if you have already heard about someone doing something similar, to be honest, I really don’t want to know.
In preparation for a discussion on social mobility on Saturday’s Today Programme , I read a report on the subject by the Sutton Trust. The top line of the report, quoted by both Nick Clegg in his speech last Tuesday and Neil O’Brien who was debating with me on Today, is that Australia and Canada have similar levels of inequality to the UK but much higher levels of mobility. The DPM and the Policy Exchange Director used the finding to rebut the view that reducing inequality is the best way to increase mobility.
In fact, looking across developed economies the relationship between lower inequality and higher mobility holds pretty well, but what about the Sutton Trust’s Anglophone quartet? The Trust report contains a table providing figures for mobility but also for per capita income (2010) and the 2008 Gini coefficient (widely seen as the most reliable measure of inequality). I wondered whether bringing income into the equation might shed more light on the inequality-mobility relationship.
My calculation was pretty basic but still came out with a powerful comparison. First, I calculated the national per capita income as a percentage of the OECD average. This gave figures of: Australia 121%, Canada 115%, UK 106% and USA 138%. Then I did the same nation by nation comparison on the OECD Gini coefficient average: Australia 110%, Canada 103%, UK 110% and USA 123%.
Because the per capita range is significantly higher (32 percentage point spread) than the coefficient (20 points) I damped down the former by reducing each number by a third, making the new per capita comparisons; Australia 114%, Canada 110%, UK, 104% and USA 127%. Then I simply subtracted the coefficient from the per capita. The resulting figures for per capita income minus inequality are: Australia +4%, Canada, +7%, the USA +4% and the United Kingdom -6% (if I hadn’t damped the per capita figures the respective figures would have been Australia +11%, Canada +12%, USA +15% and UK -4%).
Whilst the crude and arbitrary nature of these calculations won’t impress a statistician, this is more evidence that the UK is now a pretty grim place to be poor. It’s a double whammy. The least well-off in the UK suffer both from our relatively poor per capita income and our high inequality; they are both absolutely and relatively worse off than the poor in many other developed nations. I haven’t got the data to hand, but it is a pretty safe bet that the UK poor are also lagging way behind Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France.
Despite our current severe economic difficulties, I suspect most middle class people in the UK still feel they live in one of the richest countries in the world. Inequality not only makes life tougher for the poor, it also disguises the nation’s performance from a middle class for whom intra-national privilege disguises international weakness.
An important omission from data based on per-capita income is the social wage of public service entitlements. Including this would improve the relative standing of the UK poor in comparison to the equivalents in US but make little difference in relation to the other better performing nations, which on the whole have reasonably generous provision. And with an estimated 90% of public sector cuts yet to be implemented in the UK, the social wage is also set to substantially decline.
Now, the fact that the well-off in the UK are in the global Premiership while the UK’s poor have been relegated to the Championship does not in itself imply a specific policy response. Those advocating reductions in benefit entitlements and tough conditionality regimes will argue that they care as much about the poor as the advocates of greater redistribution. However, in comparison to debates about social mobility and welfare dependency, the sheer fact of the declining fortunes of our least well off is something which tends to get underplayed in mainstream debate.
As the Jubilee weekend approaches, the European Championships beckon (for the English at least) and the Olympics hove into view there will be a lots of flag waving and national pride on view. Perhaps at this time we should also bear in mind the following sentiments:
“Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members – the last, the least, the littlest.”
Cardinal Roger Mahony, in a 1998 letter, Creating a Culture of Life
“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.”
Samuel Johnson, Boswell: Life of Johnson