The department of the bleeding (non-)obvious

The last couple of weeks have seen my research move very much into the final phase as I completed my data collection for one stream of my research, and am working on drafts of a paper for the other. As I have the tentative results of each swimming around my head, things are starting to fit together and the language I have used in each has become particularly interesting.

Ron Obvious
Ron Obvious

The paper I am writing is on my analysis of social impact reports (Social Accounts and Social Return on Investment) to establish the ways in which organisations conceive of their impacts upon individuals and communities. It considers whether social enterprise can be deemed a ‘non-obvious’ health intervention- impacting upon people’s health without necessarily intending to, or recognising it. A number of recent public health experts have indicated that the harnessing of such interventions (and the institutions that deliver them) could be a solution for the future of public health provision. It does appear that social enterprises can and do impact on a number of factors within the lives of individuals and communities which have been strongly linked to improved health, although they may not have considered that their overt goal.

What struck me about the term ‘non-obvious’ was its subjectivity. To whom is it non-obvious? And what about the people who intuitively recognise the health impacts (and therefore consider it ‘obvious’)? The reports I looked at were informed by research conducted with a variety of different stakeholders, and ‘audited’ or ‘assured’ by an external observer, but fundamentally written by, at most, only a handful of staff at the organisation. If those particular members of staff did not recognise those impacts as health-related, or simply held a different perception of what constitutes health, does that make those impacts non-obvious, or simply not considered?

The second stream of my research consisted of interviews with numerous stakeholders around three social enterprise case studies. Comparing similar stakeholders across the case study organisations it can be seen that those working in the council or local NHS often do recognise the health impacts of organisations, and indeed commission services directly from them. Social enterprise leaders often see a holistic view of individual and community health, recognising the wellbeing impacts of the work they do. Indeed that is often why they do it. Staff and service users with a personal view of the work of social enterprises can recognise the impacts on people’s lives and can conceive of impacts upon health, tending to consider these in terms of noticeable changes in physical or mental health outcomes.

So when all of those with a knowledge of the work and impacts of social enterprises can recognise their impact on health, and when academic theory recognises that the impacts upon numerous ‘intermediate outcomes’ can have a direct impact on health, to whom is it non-obvious? Hopefully one of the outcomes of the CommonHealth project will be to fire the starting gun on shifting the perception of social enterprise from that of a ‘non-obvious’ to an ‘obvious’ public health intervention, reflecting the thoughts of the individuals and organisations that have contributed to my research.

Reaching your goals

There aren’t many books I remember vividly from my childhood. I read the odd Roald Dahl story and was in the privileged generation of kids who progressed up through school just as Harry Potter and his friends (and indeed enemies) were doing the same. But the book I had the most pleasure reading came out every year towards the end of the summer. It was wee and red, and was creatively called, The Wee Red Book.

weered

The Wee Red Book contained all of the football fixtures for the season ahead, profiles of each team and the result of every game that had ever been played by the Scottish national team. It detailed the top scorers in Scottish and English club football for the past 50 or so years and was an absolute fountain of knowledge. Later issues included a single page about ‘assists’- the identity of the player who provided the pass to the goal-scorer, and how many times he had done so. These records didn’t go very far back at all and appear to have only started being systematically recorded upon the founding of the English Premier League in the early 1990s.

Without getting too technical, an assist can be responsible for almost all of what it takes to score a goal, apart from providing the final touch. The legendary French striker Eric Cantona claimed that the best feeling in his career came not from scoring a goal, but from providing an assist. Apparently it was only relatively recently that the football world (at least those who are in charge of compiling statistics) recognised this vital support role and the need to acknowledge those who play it.

During the course of my research I have encountered numerous organisations that support the development of social enterprises. Some support organisations are themselves legally constituted as social enterprises while many others are private businesses, generating personal profit from a sector ostensibly constituted to value collective gain over personal enrichment. A number of people have been less than complimentary about this sector of social enterprise ‘consultancies’, with some seeing them as simply limpets, clinging on to the growth in funding and policy attention directed at social enterprises. Others, however, recognise the role played by such organisations in lobbying and developing the policy environment which supports social enterprises, doing the leg-work behind the scenes which may not directly impact on any individual social enterprise, but lay the groundwork for the potential success of the sector.

So what status should we give to these organisations that play a role in developing social enterprises, in helping to lay the groundwork for organisations to achieve their social ‘goal’ (pun intended)? Are they collaborators in delivering that goal? Do they provide the assist, the Eric Cantona to Social Enterprise’s Dennis Irwin (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_uzU85htH4), or simply seek to share in the glory and riches while contributing relatively little?

The answer, as always, is ‘it depends’. However, as reflected in the recent Social Enterprise Census, the industry is going from strength to strength and shows no sign of letting up, so we can be confident that those peripheral support organisations will do the same. They may even be increasingly recognised, as those players were latterly in The Wee Red Book, for their ‘assist’ in generating social returns. And as for judging their intentions- until convinced otherwise, I will choose to follow Mr Cantona’s advice:

“You have to trust your teammates, always. If not we are lost”

Stretching the mind

Almost three months ago, my American wife left her job in New Mexico and moved lock, stock and barrel to Glasgow. Initially she had intended to take some time to settle in, enjoy a relaxed summer, start to do up our slightly dilapidated flat and gradually work her way into employment. Unfortunately, the reality is that we didn’t really get a summer this year, we have only now acquired a wallpaper steamer, and work is proving difficult to come by, resulting in her recently crossing that dangerous line between ‘holiday’ and ‘unemployment’, and giving her a fair amount of time on her hands.

File 27-08-2015 09 51 06

Two of the ways she has been filling that time is by wandering around the Mitchell Library (highly recommended) and by doing yoga. These two activities converged last week when she borrowed the above book, Yoga: The path to holistic health, by B.K.S. Iyengar. With frameworks and conceptual models swimming through my head about the ways social enterprise can impact upon health, this title intrigued me. The claim being made was that through doing yoga you follow a path which will lead to a broad definition of health and wellbeing, that people’s lives were being improved through engaging in this activity. The NHS apparently acknowledges this, recommending yoga, along with other ‘mindfulness activities’ to combat stress, anxiety and depression. Alongside the knowledge that yoga classes almost always cost money, does that mean that all yoga schools and studios are social enterprises? Is Mr Iyengar a social entrepreneur? And, through reading the book, could I increase my understanding of the processes involved in how this particular social enterprise model can be considered a public health intervention?

Many of the other social enterprises I have examined direct their social purpose toward service users who have been forgotten or marginalised by the system and have fallen through the cracks between public and private sector provision, whereas yoga consumers choose to spend their money on the service. The target group are the consumers of the service, which although less common in urban environments, is often the case in the provision of vital services to rural communities. Moreover, it is consumers who entirely fund the businesses, not relying on public sector commissioning or the selling of a separate commercial product to survive, potentially making the business more sustainable.

The model of governance and profit distribution may preclude many from social enterprise status but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that yoga studios could be democratically governed, perhaps through a form of consumers’ cooperative, and that all profits could be ploughed back into expanding the yoga business, thereby increasing the social value generated. If, as Mr Iyengar claims, yoga is one path to holistic health, and if certain governance structures are put in place, yoga studios could not only be considered social enterprises that generate social returns for their consumers, but they may also shed new light on the particular pathways involved in the health-generating potential of social enterprises.

Stretching this a little further (no pun intended), if doing yoga can help to combat some of the detrimental health effects associated with unemployment, should we find ways to overcome the financial and other barriers to involvement so that more people can gain from this form of intervention?

That warm, fuzzy feeling

Warm fuzzy feeling

I decided early on in my research that I should speak to a cross-section of stakeholders connected to different social enterprises so as to build up a broad picture of potential impacts on health.

I made a point of including ‘service users’ in this cross-section. This group is different for every social enterprise but they represent the ‘social’ element of a social enterprise’s work, and I therefore assumed would be the recipients of any health impacts generated by the social enterprise. They may be adults with learning difficulties, long-term unemployed people, the population of a particular community, and are often categorised as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘needy’ groups. As well as interviewing these groups, I also asked staff and leaders of the social enterprises, as well as regional and national stakeholders, about the effects of the social enterprises on those groups. I hoped that this method would give me a number of different views of how those vulnerable groups were being helped. However, what emerged wasn’t entirely what I expected.

When asking open questions regarding the organisations’ impact on health, a number of respondents immediately interpreted the question as referring not to service users, but to the staff of the organisation: support workers, administration staff and others who were certainly not the intended beneficiaries of the social enterprise. Early interviews revealed that there were certain benefits that employed staff experienced through their work, with respondents describing it vaguely as a kind of satisfaction associated with ‘doing good’, which was beneficial to their mental health.

Following these early interviews I began asking different stakeholders about these impacts directly to try and dig deeper into this phenomenon. Two very different respondents that I happened to interview on consecutive days almost repeated each other word-for-word: people who work in social enterprises can make more money for doing the same job elsewhere, but they choose not to.

Why? What would compel a logical, rational adult to work often longer hours, for less pay, in a sector which regularly struggles to remain sustainable, instead of taking a cushy alternative in the public or private sector?

Last week I put that question directly to staff at one of my case study organisations. The answer was not straightforward and it was clearly difficult for some to put into words. One described as ‘selfish’ the positive feeling he got from helping people, and described the private sector alternative as ‘boring’. Another spoke of how ‘lucky’ she felt at being given the opportunity to help people in the community and how she couldn’t imagine herself working in the overly restrictive public sector which didn’t adequately respond to people’s needs.

What was clear from both, and indeed from others I have spoken to previously, is that the impacts on staff of working in these social enterprises cannot be replaced by a salary increase or job security. Could it be that these staff members have indeed found something better than money: the warm, fuzzy feeling (and ensuing health benefits) which comes from delivering social and economic benefits not possible in the public or private sector? Could it be that they are indeed thinking logically and rationally but are seeking to maximise their own wellbeing, not their bank balance? Either way, it is clear that my research will need to consider the impacts on the health and wellbeing of the staff of social enterprises, as well as their service users. The challenge will be to translate ‘warm and fuzzy’ into acceptable academic language.

“We have a bridge and a castle, oh Inverness is wonderful”

A couple of days ago I was in Inverness at a Social Enterprise Summit organised by Community Enterprise in Scotland (CEiS), Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and a number of other organisations.

Inverness

Inverness is a lovely place to be. It was bathed in sunshine on Wednesday and it was even suggested that a break-out session be held in the leafy gardens of the conference venue. Everything seems to be on the up in Inverness: the economy, the population, even Inverness Caledonian Thistle (who’s terrace chant give this blog its title). But that wasn’t why I went, I was there to learn, predominantly, about rural social enterprise.

The event brought together over 200 social enterprise practitioners and staff, intermediary organisations, representatives from local and national government, and even the odd academic, from the Highlands, Scotland and abroad. The delegates were addresses by, among others, the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, and a Land Manager from North Harris, and appeared equally impressed by both.

Amid discussions on community empowerment and financial sustainability it became apparent that rural organisations often see it as self-evident that solutions should derive from the community level. This element of confident independence and self-reliance has long been central to many rural social enterprises, often through necessity rather than choice or ideology. With the retrenchment of many public services from rural communities it is once again social enterprises which are stepping into the breach to assume responsibility over their provision. They do it, because nobody else will.

One consequence of this (according to my research) is that voluntary and community organisations are more trusted to deliver services, because they are perceived to care more about the community than the state does. In much of the remote periphery of Scotland, Holyrood and Westminster seem equally removed from the reality of life on the ground, local councils are considered too large, and voluntary organisations are often looked to for the delivery of relevant, coherent public service provision.

This phenomenon is clearly relevant to the discussions around the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act currently making its way through Holyrood. Criticisms of the act relate to the deconstruction of the public sector and the potential negative impacts on communities that perhaps lack the assets or capabilities to take charge over their own development. But from some initial findings of my research, far from decrying the deconstruction of the state, local authorities are being criticised in rural communities for retaining too many services and not contracting them out to social enterprises, who are seen as more effective at delivering them.

There is no reason for me to believe that this confidence in the ability of social enterprises to better serve communities than the public sector can is misplaced. There are measures in place to ensure that communities are capable of taking on such responsibilities and ongoing support to make sure that they remain sustainable. Over the next few years there is scope for a significant reshaping of the relationship between social enterprise and the public sector. We can only hope that, following this reshaping, Inverness and the rest of the Highlands and Islands remain as wonderful.

The social value of Social Value

company-accountants

From very early on in this research it was clear that a central role must be given to social enterprises themselves. There was no point in only considering theory or speaking to ‘high heid-yins’, the voices of social enterprise leaders were needed to reflect the actual work of social enterprises.

But how?

The process needed to be able to gather detailed data on what the organisation does, what it produces and for what people, while also not being so time-consuming to prevent a broad cross-section of voices being gathered. The answer lay in evaluative reports: Social Accounts/Audit (SAA), and Social Return on Investment (SROI).

For those who have never encountered one of these reports, I recommend you do. Conceived as a repost to traditional financial accounting which detail the income and outgoings of businesses in terms of financial value, Social Accounts concern themselves with the social value created by the organisation. SROI involves an almost identical process, only with the addition of a financial representation of the social value produced, using the market prices of alternative methods of achieving the same social outcomes.

The reports are written with meticulous detail, regarding the organisation’s work and the impacts it has on people and the environment. Many are more than 100 pages long, are backed-up with qualitative and quantitative research and externally ‘audited’ by certified individuals. Some organisations compile such accounts every few years, using them alongside tenders and grant applications, justifying their work to the community, and self-reflecting on the work they do and what it achieves.

Despite these benefits and potential applications, a number of respondents have warned of the dangers of engaging in this form of evaluation, sometimes described as a ‘non-core’ activity. While recognising the long-term benefits of engaging in the process, it was claimed that the time it could take to compile them could have detrimental short-term impacts in terms of both the social mission of the organisation, and its sustainability.

And then there is the issue of the financial proxies. An SROI ratio denotes the number of £s of social value produced for each £ invested in the organisation. In this way, social enterprises may be favoured by the tendering process as they claim to achieve many different targets simultaneously. One worry, however, is the validity of the proxies used to calculate the financial price of social value. For example: ‘volunteers valuing their ability to give back by contributing to society’ is represented by ‘cost to individual who volunteers in Uganda for 12 months’. This proxy may have been chosen for the purpose of maximising the financial representation of the social value produced, rather than the accuracy in reflecting the price of recreating the social value. This may be beneficial to the organisation in the short term but might have the effect of gradually reducing trust in SROIs over time.

My brief analysis of the pros and cons of these reports does not do justice to the arguments surrounding them. However, what I can say is that they have proved invaluable to me in gathering data on the work and outcomes of social enterprises in Scotland. So whatever else in the writing, reading or interpretation of them could be criticised, the social value to me and my work is substantial.

For more information on Social Accounting and Social Return on Investment, visit the following websites:

Social Audit Network- www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

Social Value UK- www.socialvalueuk.org

“I have been speaking to people up and down the country…”

politicians

I’m writing this blog on the day of the most interesting election in decades. The old tennis match of British politics, with the ball being knocked across the net every 5 or 10 years, has been replaced by World of Warcraft- a new political landscape which the old guard doesn’t understand and are frantically asking the young people to help them with. By the time you read this there will be more claims of legitimate power than an episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ and the majority of the UK will say they are underrepresented by the resulting government, assuming there is one at all!

Representation is key to politics, candidates are voted for because they represent the views of the voter, and are then tasked with doing so in parliament. Claims of representing the views of the populace then justify, rightly or wrongly, many of the decisions made in parliament. Every party claims to represent the people, so who is telling the truth? How do they know they are representing people’s views? This issue of representation is something that I myself have been grappling with throughout my research. So let’s consider some of the ways in which this can be done.

One of the ways I am attempting to discover how social enterprises impact upon people’s health is through analysing social impact reports. After searching through all available reports, only 17 were found to be written by social enterprises in Scotland which, I would guess, forms only a tiny fraction of the sector. So can the results of my analysis be claimed to be representative?

Perhaps they can in the same way that Ed Miliband claims the existence of a labour surge, based on the people he has spoken to “up and down the country”. Ed is a busy man and can only speak to so many people. Of the total population of people that he is capable of speaking to, the vast majority have told him that they will be voting for him. I recognise that there are other factors influencing who those people happen to be but, limitations aside, is there anything wrong with the conclusion he has derived from his research?

Another method I am using is to focus on case studies of three organisations in an attempt to understand context-specific factors relevant to the work and impacts of social enterprises. This process of focusing on very few areas and attempting to garner data which is relevant to the entire country appears very similar to UKIP’s election policy. Nigel Farage tends to focus his research on certain constituencies and is truthfully told by residents there of their support for him. He then generalises those findings to the whole country. Is there anything inherently wrong with this method?

My third stream of research involves interviewing ‘industry experts’ regarding their views on the potential cross-overs between public health and social enterprise. I am considering them as interested parties who have a strategic knowledge of each sector and the ramifications of any decisions affecting them. It is not difficult to see the similarities to David Cameron’s use of the open letter signed by thousands of small business owners claiming to represent the sector and warning of the dire consequences of voting Labour. Are the Tories wrong to use this result for campaign purposes?

The answer to the above questions is no. Their methods appear valid and there is nothing to suggest the results have been tampered with. So why have they arrived at three different conclusions? The difference between me and these politicians is that I would like to arrive at one particular conclusion and I don’t know what it is yet, whereas they want to arrive at three conclusions knowing exactly what they want them to be. They are conducting research to arrive at a result which is already known. Which begs the question, how is it known? How do they know they are representing the people without knowing what the people want? One hypothesis is that they don’t know what the people want, they don’t care about representation and they are justifying their own ideological standpoints through a façade of research.

But I would need to test that hypothesis so I don’t get labelled a hypocrite, or even worse, a politician.

(Stop Press! In light of the monumental differences between the opinion polls and today’s result, perhaps it’s not just politicians that need to consider their research methods!)