Mission-driven millennials: 15 minutes with Asheem Singh

Activist and social entrepreneur Asheem Singh has published a new book, The Moral Marketplace: How Mission-Driven Millennials and Social Entrepreneurs Are Changing Our World, which documents the ‘quiet revolution’ of young people putting people, not profits first. He spoke to New Start about the endemic cultural issues preventing the potential of social enterprise being realised


How has the social enterprise movement in the UK developed over the last decade?
ore and more young people – I call them mission-driven millennials – are interested in the idea of doing good with their lives. There’s been a perfect storm of technology, communication and this generational shift, where more people are dropping out of college to get involved with this movement. They are coming out of nine-to-five jobs to set up social enterprises, and this is something I’ve done myself.

Politically, there have been many programmes produced by government over the last 10 years. There have been incubators, like Big Society Capital and other flagship projects designed to position the UK as a global leader in social entrepreneurship. On one level they have been quite successful, because I think the rest of the world does see us that way. But on another level, for all the money and hype that has gone into this space, I’m not convinced that we have yet reaped those rewards. I wonder if there are certain endemic cultural issues about the way government deals with social enterprise that prevent the true potential of this generation of social entrepreneurs being realised.

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen news of the collapse of Carillion. Is that good news for social enterprise?
It’s not good news, because social enterprises are set up to alleviate poverty and the collapse of Carillion will not be good news for their beneficiaries. But from the perspective of the marketplace, I think there has to be a fundamental re-assessment of the way contracts are drawn up. The private sector has created contracts, which have essentially made them parasites on state largesse. They have assumed none of the risk and taken all of the reward. What we are seeing here is a failure of the system that was inaugurated under Gordon Brown. The prime provider model that was designed to co-opt the third sector and social enterprise in public sector delivery has fundamentally failed. What we need to see now is government taking a lot of these functions back in-house and working more adroitly with community organisations that can deliver these services. If we have that re-drawing, then it can be good for social enterprise.

Should social enterprise have its own industrial strategy?
This is one of the things I talk about in the book. I would like to see social enterprises privileged when it comes to commissioning decisions. We have used the language of the level playing field and that language has proved to be bogus. The big guys always managed to skew things in their favour. They have the capital reserve. They buy up all the contracts, not with any view to delivering them well, but just to get them on their books. The case has been made for community organisations to be privileged and get first dibs on contracts that come at a local level. Social enterprise is an increasingly important part of the economy. There are more than 70,000 social enterprises in the UK. In the US, social enterprises are worth $500bn. These are huge parts of the global economy. A proper industrial strategy, as the government has committed to for other sectors, needs to be made for social enterprise.

Could social enterprises help to play a key role in plugging the skills gap in parts of the country?
They already do! When social enterprise is at its most radical, it’s about saying you have been left behind by the system, but you’re someone who could be chief executive of your own organisation. You have the power within you to solve those problems. In the process of setting up these businesses, people learn so much and build confidence. From the perspective of helping people become social entrepreneurs, you can skill people up so much by making space available and creating start-up grant programmes. I think there’s real potential there. You have some councils who are very good at this. They have a good handle on what is lacking and they put programmes in place to meet those needs.

Should the social value act be strengthened?
I would like to see social value at the heart of all government contracting decisions. Social value is a fantastic thing. In many ways, it’s completely toothless at the moment, because it only applies certain kinds of transactions. It’s quite easy to get round it. There’s a lot of talk in the sector about extending its remit and I think that can only be a good thing. When the social value act went through parliament, I remember the minister for civil society at the time, Nick Hurd, said this concept of social value is quite nebulous, but I think what Carillion proves is the concept of social value is not nebulous at all. I think it should be extended across the entire spectrum of government interactions and transactions.

  • Find out more about his book, The Moral Marketplace, here:



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