The lure and challenge of 'social entrepreneurs'

A few years ago the Business Roundtable toured through the country a no-nonsense nun, Connie Driscoll, who rescues Chicago women in strife and turns their lives around.

Sister Driscoll’s enterprise demonstrates a simple truth of which the roundtable has reminded us persistently and valuably: that people with imagination and passion, operating independently, can move mountains that defy all the state’s earthmoving machinery. This applies in the economy, health care, education – and social welfare.

Two mistakes have often been made with this simple truth.

One is to conclude that state activity should be much diminished in favour of private activity. The Driscoll formula works only with some women. There are too few Sister Driscolls and their flair and passion are not readily transmissible to imitators. What do you do with the frail and needy who miss out?

The second mistake is to conclude from that first conclusion that, for evenness and fairness, the state should take over all such activity or impose uniform standards which comes to much the same thing. Many would miss out on a real chance in life for want of contact with inspired and unorthodox free spirits.

The real lesson is to make the most of these “social entrepreneurs” through an encouraging regulatory environment and, where useful, by help with money and other resources.

The clearest articulation of this in our part of the world has been by Mark Latham of the Australian Labour party.

“Social entrepreneurs combine the best of social practice, forging new connections and support between people, with the best of business practice, encouraging risk-taking and creativity in poor neighbourhoods,” Mr Latham has written. “They play the role of community brokers: identifying small bursts of effort and achievement; linking these projects into new partnerships and alliances; facilitating a wider span of community success and self-esteem.

“Social entrepreneurs are more interested in developing people than structures; in creating new social relationships than bureaucratic rules. The success of this approach internationally is recasting the nature of welfare policy.”

But “entrepreneurs”, whether in business or social services, are independent-minded people who don’t fit into bureaucratic frameworks. Narrowly-written contracts for “outputs” and the other paraphernalia of centralised, accountable, rules-based government make state cyphers of them and stifle creative social “outcomes”.

Social Services Minister Steve Maharey grasped all this while in opposition. Globalisation limits national governments’ scope for action and anyway the state cannot monopolise wisdom. He wants “partnership” with social innovators.

So Mr Maharey last year set up a widely representative working party to develop a model agreement with voluntary and community organisations. Now about to report, the working party will tell him, unsurprisingly, no catch-all agreement is (yet) possible.

The working party found widespread disenchantment and mistrust of the state’s heavy hand. The sector’s multifarious inhabitants are looking first for a statement of good intentions from the government.

If Mr Maharey wants the “trust, accountability and respect” he has said he seeks, he will have little alternative but to oblige. “Partnership” implies equals and, though the state cannot in the crunch be equal with subnational organisations, he will have to recognise their independence and offer participation in policy- and decision-making, plus flexible outcomes-based funding.

Mr Maharey personally should have little difficulty with this but he may find it hard to engender in some of his colleagues the risky shift of mentality it implies and requires. And, the working party has found, he will need a lot more work outside the bureaucracy to develop workable new mechanisms.

That’s not all the working party found. Among Maori it ran smack into a now persistent refrain: demands for constitutional change as a precondition of “partnership”. Shades of Tariana Turia.

The working party has tried to sidestep this. But it remains a live and volatile issue. Mr Maharey will need fancy footwork of his own if it is not to become the hospital pass that wrecks his earnest design.