Toby Johnson
02 February 2015

Carry on networking

The conference auditorium

SEN’s final conference in Brussels on 28th January showed that SEN had done its job well, and that the appetite for policy learning on support for social enterprises is as strong as ever. A recurrent theme was puzzlement as to the Commission’s plans to continue the Social Business Initiative – or not.

Opening SEN’s final conference in Brussels on 28th January, Paweł Orłowski, Poland’s Undersecretary of State for Infrastructure and Development paid testimony to all Poland had learnt through SEN. “I’m pretty sure we found the best practices to learn from,” he said. “We can clearly see the added value for us in this programming period.” But he too was curious about the silence from the Berlaymont: “The European Commission has given the social economy high visibility for the last few years – I would be interested to know what it will do next.”

Paweł Chorąży, director of Poland’s ESF programme was similarly fulsome as to the value of transnational collaboration: “SEN benefitted from consistent representation from the Member States, which is normally a problem in transnational networks. We should discuss how we can continue our co-operation.” He thanked SEN’s members for their honesty: “We avoided falling into the trap of self-promotion and glossing over problems, so our learning is based on good and bad practices!” Poland itself was very much inspired by what it learnt about socially responsible public procurement, social clauses and impact measurement, and it is especially interested in social impact bonds. Social enterprise mark comparable to the Finnish model is already under way.

Six key recommendations

Network expert Toby Johnson presented the ‘top 6’ recommendations, supporting them with evidence from its 18 good practice case studies. These are:

  • governments should ‘join up’ their governmental processes by having a unit or working group that works across silos
  • they should also work in partnership with the social enterprise representative structures
  • they should support scaling-up mechanisms like consortia and social franchising
  • support should be delivered through a braided structure, with both mainstream and specialist elements
  • finance should be mixed: loans as well as grants, public (European an national) as well as private (often meaning social economy)
  • Member States should transpose the provisions of the revised public procurement directive to allow purchasers to select bids on quality, not just in price

see Toby Johnson's presentation >

Antonella Noya mentioned the OECD’s pioneering work on the idea of social enterprises, but admitted they had underestimated the importance of the governance dimension. “Social enterprises are complex so the process of policy-making is important – it isn’t just about legislation, but about horizontal integration and stakeholder partnership.” The OECD is publishing a series of policy briefs and is to hold a capacity-building seminar in Paris on 22-23 April.

Paweł Orłowski

Sparring match

Opening the panel discussion chaired by Roger Spear, Jan Olsson from Social Economy Europe (among other hats) fully supported the recommendations, and wanted to see a strong dissemination effort and research support. He emphasised the effectiveness of partnership, but it needs to be real, on equal terms. It should be expanded to include trade unions and businesses. However he has doubts about marks and impact measurement: “The social economy is value-based and is a label in itself. Impact measurement must be done in dialogue with the sector itself.” He congratulated the Polish government and called for the ‘Polish model’ to be disseminated – praise which put a smile on Paweł Orłowski’s face, which he said was a rare event.

Jens Nilsson MEP announced that the Parliament’s Social Economy Intergroup had been relaunched the day before, and its first act was to write to the Commission enquiring what its agenda was. It was expecting a reply “within some days”. Its next job was to draw up its annual work programme. He agreed with SEN’s recommendations, but wanted to know who it was that was going to act on them. As a former mayor, he knew that local authorities are important to the social economy, but national governments are important too: “I’m probably the only person who finds the words ‘multilevel governance’ sexy!” A pressing issue right now is the implementation of the pubic procurement directive: “Doors have been opened, but the Member States can close them. This needs action now.”

But Amaryllis Verhoeven from DG GROW was not to be drawn regarding the Commission’s intentions: “The Social Business Initiative has put tools in place and it us up to the stakeholders to use them. It’s true that we have not come up with an agreed proposal. This will require a political assessment to be made at some stage. We will answer the Intergroup’s letter.”

Manuela Geleng from DG EMPL queried what could be done at EU level. “The EaSI programme is providing finance, and within the ESF and ERDF a majority of Member States have chosen the investment priority on social enterprise and are committing €3 billion of funding.”

Ariane Rodert, who leads the EESC’s Social Economy Project, noted that following the Italian Presidency conference in November, the Council had endorsed the Rome Strategy. The Latvian and Luxembourg Presidencies will be following it up. “The EESC is continuing its project, and we must not lose the momentum of the SBI. We are looking for a lead agency which takes ownership of the social economy at EU level.”

Polish MEP Danuta Jazłowiecka noted that social investment is not a cost but a saving. She also came up with the day’s best joke: “Why is SEN proposing that management training should focus on leadership? We have plenty of political leaders, but they have proven themselves incapable of managing Europe’s economy!”

In the afternoon, Dorotea Daniele chaired four panel discussions on partnership, social added value, support structures and finance. Marie-Anne Paraskevas (DG EMPL) noted that the Code of Conduct on Partnership had been well implemented with regard to the Partnership Agreements, but not in the preparation of the operational programmes, where consultation was minimal. DG REGIO was to conduct a survey of this. Samuel Barco. SEN’s evaluator, suggested that ‘equality’ within partnerships could be boosted if memoranda of understanding included the intangible assets that the social economy brings to the table, such as legitimacy to act.

An uncertain future

The outcome is that we have no guarantee that the Commission will continue to lead on social enterprise. Neither of the relevant Commissioners, Elżbieta Bieńkowska (Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs) and Marianne Thyssen (Employment), yet have anything they could come and announce to us.

Nevertheless work at EU level will go on. Poland is keen to continue SEN’s work, to address new issues and to be open to newcomers. The Commission will support a thematic network, which should be launched towards the end of this year.