The name of the documents was interesting in itself; from strategy, to blueprint, to vision, to framework. Each one of these words creates a different perspective for the reader, is the document what the Government hope to see? Is it a document that incorporates a step by step process for empowering and expanding opportunities for social enterprises? Or is the document a collection of ideas that perhaps in time would be beneficial for the sector? And it is the word from the outset that establishes the reader’s expectations from such a document.
A concerning factor of the Scottish social enterprise strategy was the numerous grey areas alongside a certain vagueness regarding specific priorities and workstreams. And looking initially at another four ‘strategies’ (the names of the documents do vary), from various regions; this was also the case in three of them. The ideas, the opportunity, the potential buy in from readers’ was there, but the execution, the how we are going to achieve these, at times ambitious goals for the sector, were ambiguous. One document did break down a year by year, step by step process of how they were going to achieve sector sustainability by 2018. And it begs the question, although almost an operational plan, is this what Scotland’s social enterprise sector were hoping for with the new strategy, or do we prefer the flexibility due to the changing nature of such a diverse sector?
Although vague at times there were two prominent and recurring themes in all social enterprise strategies that will lead the way for social enterprises in the future, and that is collaboration and visibility. Both of these priorities were not only represented in all ‘strategies’, but are reiterated extensively throughout the documents.
The documents discuss and emphasise the importance of social enterprises working collaboratively with the Government, public sector, educational institutions and private sector. In turn this would reduce costs, share resources and create new opportunities in a variety of markets. These are crucial benefits for the sector, as with extensive funding cuts but increased opportunity and demand for services; the need for alternative resource is at its highest. For a sector striving for sustainability, collaboration would appear to be the answer. If this is now an international understanding, could it see a baseline for incorporating more international collaboration of social enterprises? Social enterprises taking the world by storm perhaps?
From the strategies analysed another recurring priority was social enterprise visibility to consumers. And looking at the social enterprise figures it is astounding how many are still unaware of social enterprises. There are 120,000 social enterprises operating in Thailand, 50,000 more than the UK (please note there are small differences in social enterprise classifications). The Scottish social enterprise strategy hope for the sector to be fuelled by consumer demand, and look to encourage ‘buy social’. Understandably with so many social enterprises operating worldwide, the need for consumer commitment and support is crucial in terms of survival. This is still in the learning phase for many, and it would appear to be an international challenge, but with implementation of strategies, it looks to change the perceptions of the public to understand the extensive work that comes out of social enterprises’ products and services. This in turn could lead to an internationally recognised certification for social enterprises, not just in Scotland.
Many of the social enterprise strategies identified have been implemented in the last 2-3 years with the exception of Wales who were ahead of the game in 2005. This is largely due to Governments identifying and understanding the significant contribution their social enterprises are having on their economies and the support in which they provide. Working together would increase opportunities and meet demand. But in the light of collaboration should Governments worldwide perhaps be discussing their strategies to see what is working so we can work towards the best strategies for the sectors? Learn from each other? They speak about collaborating with everyone but what if there was collaboration for policy to further support this ever growing sector.
So the question is, are these strategies/blueprints/visions/frameworks meeting, not just the expectations, but the needs of social enterprises worldwide? We can see that social enterprises are being more recognised by their individual Governments, particularly due to their contribution to economy and those incorporating support, legislation and policy do want to step up and increase opportunity, but are the documents instilling this? Can we expect to see progression to a worldwide social enterprise strategy?
With these documents being the first of their kind, the next stages (although many are looking to achieve sustainability), particularly in Scotland, should hopefully see a further understanding and descriptive, almost operational, process to move the sector forward. Perhaps this will come with the 3 year action plans?