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Welfare innovation – making elephants fly 18 February 2014

Posted by cooperatoby in EU, Social enterprise.
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WILCO illoIn studying how best to reform welfare provision, researchers must pay more attention to the sustainability of the structures that are set up. In particular, they must not allow the crucial role of participation to be submerged.

It’s the season for final conferences. Right at the end of January I discovered the limits of academic debate at the final conference of the WILCO project, held in La Tricoterie in St-Gilles. It used to be a sofa factory but has been converted into that socially innovative phenomenon, a ‘link factory’. Coincidentally, it was where Simon & Brigitte held their wedding reception the Saturday before. It’s an interesting regeneration project that is offering the public the chance to become ‘investor-co-operators’.

The €2.4m FP7 WILCO projectUnderstanding innovations in local welfare to strengthen social cohesion and lower social inequalities – involved research institutions in 10 countries as well as the EMES and NISPA networks. It investigated 77 examples of social innovation in 20 cities around Europe, and aimed to work out how local ideas could be better disseminated. It has produced a myriad of outputs, including some very professionally made videos, discursive case studies and a 400-page book, which includes some (rather confusing) network diagrams showing who tackled which issues where. These constitute a valuable resource and are available on its website.

What about the economic underpinnings?

These outputs make clear that social innovations have to spring out of a culture, and cannot be imposed from above as a quick fix for budgetary austerity. But I was confused and disappointed that the project had paid so little attention to the economic sustainability of the initiatives it looked at. This seems to be because it had started out looking at welfare services from the users’ point of view – and that is the strength of the video documents. Taco Brandsen, who led the project on behalf of the Radboud University in Nijmegen, is proud of the in-depth interviews they made with some of the welfare beneficiaries. It concentrated on childcare, housing and employment, focusing on single mothers and young people.
The project focuses on how welfare systems should be reformed to meet the needs of vulnerable people who are affected by the changing way in which public authorities are providing services it notes the rise of a new situation of permanent instability, which consigns people to an unpredictable series of short-term jobs interspersed by periods of unemployment. This is combined with a shortage of affordable housing and increased migration.
The innovations studied nearly always arise from collaborative networking, with or without the active support of the authorities – but at least without their opposition. The project was looking for sustainability, but found that in reality many initiatives remain short-term and local. Evaluations, if they are done at all, are conducted on state/big-business principles, and this may overlook their power as examples of what can be done. These innovations are essentially local, and if they spread at all it is by mysterious means. Transfer is difficult to engineer, and depends on all sorts of intermediaries. What emerges is that the idea is less important than the relationships that are built up during its development. These are what enable the innovation to take place.

Flying elephants

My problem is that this analysis underplays the key role of the social economy or social enterprises in making innovations work. It pays too little attention to the ‘economic underpinnings’ of welfare innovation.
Agnès Hubert from BEPA was on hand to situate the study in the context of the Social Business Initiative, and as her finale made the rousing call: “We have the knowledge, we have the people, we have the funds – we have to continue to work together!”
I put the question whether anyone was researching whether social economy structures resulted in better and more sustainable welfare innovations. I was surprised to get the response from Adalbert Evers (Giessen) that they had found very few social enterprises among their case base, and that it was more a case of intrapreneurship in the public sector. His beautiful slide showing an elephant with butterfly wings instead of ears depicts the central problem of ‘making an elephant fly’. This seems to overlook the fact that the vast majority of social innovations take the form of social enterprises.
If you have an elephantine public service, which is expensive to feed and unresponsive to changing needs, there are two main things you can change: technology and customer relationships. Social networking approaches are one tack which enables welfare services to become more responsive. The other is shifting power down from representative democracy to participative or deliberative democracy.
Many social innovations involve one of these two routes: on one hand, the internet can save costs by making infinite amounts of information available for virtually no cost and allowing citizens to do their own research and collaborate to solve their own problems.
On the other hand, shifting power down to users allows them to take charge of defining service delivery to make it more efficient. It shortens the feedback loop between provider and recipient. The very fact of being involved often increases satisfaction with the service. This is the great lesson of social co-operatives – of which Italy has over 7,000.
Co-operatives grasp the nettle of combining social with economic ‘bottom lines’. For 170 years the movement has been refining the way through which consumers and producers can democratically operate a business that meets social needs.
Taco Brandsen observed wisely that social innovation has a normative dimension, in that every change involves a transfer of power, and there are losers. I pointed out that there are sorts of ‘social innovation’ which might – if one took a normative view – be seen to be undesirable: in particular, the ‘spin-outs’ of public services to so-called ‘employee-owned mutuals’ that is the vogue in Britain. In theory public service staff are given the right to ‘privatise’ the service they deliver by setting up a new business which they control and which takes on contracts from its former employer. They are then in theory liberated to develop new service and behave in an entrepreneurial fashion to everybody’s benefit. But in fact many of these are majority controlled by venture capitalists. As the industry will inevitably consolidate through takeovers, competition will enforce a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of workers’ pay and conditions, and may endanger service quality.
Research seems to be lacking on what sort of structures provide the best outcomes for service users and employees in the long term.

Stealing the social economy’s glory

There is a repeated effort on behalf of level-minded academics and policy-makers to depoliticise this area. Whenever the social economy comes up with a good idea that is based on the tried and tested principles, someone comes along and rebrands it – in this case to ‘social innovation’. But this attempt, which on the face of it seems rational, may be self-defeating. Because it may end up setting up structures which are short-lived. Participation is inherent in the definitions of both the social economy and social innovation, and must be safeguarded.

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Comments»

1. Samuel - 22 April 2014

Great article! But let me be a little bit controversial… Ok about the sustainability and about what is hidden behind the vogue on Social Innovation… but what if some of the findings are (partially) true? What if behind many social innovation there are not (formal) social economy organisations? What if we find out that the (transforming) pulse behind social economy is no longer with us and we have became a part of the somehow bureaucratic machinery that holds this system together and the force to transform lies in other movements?


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