I came across Redundant Public Servant’s blog on his last day: it’s a moving and brilliantly written account of the process of being made redundant from a useful, worthwhile job, told from the inside.
My partner’s working for a brilliant council service which is currently in the process of being closed, so I have some sense of what it feels like to be at “the front line of deficit reduction”, in the words of RPS’s strapline.
If you hate the Big Society narrative, you may well see it as the crass idea that we can lay everyone off from council-run services and they will magically transform into self-sustaining social entrepreneurs. My partner and her colleagues had a think about that option, but swiftly came to the conclusion that whilst they might be able to put together a good service, without either the NHS or the council willing to fund what they did, there was no viable business model.
Funding isn’t the only barrier, either. The micro-entrepreneurs we support have to run the gauntlet of commissioning approaches designed for big organisations with lots of capacity for form filling, being inadvertently regulated out of existence, the uncertainties of relying on individuals to bring their money or personal budgets to your service, and the huge learning curve of moving from council employee to self-employed business owner.
With those barriers in mind, it’s amazing that so many people manage to create and sustain micro-enterprises, but they do. Cathy and Jean used to work for a big domiciliary care organisation. They didn’t like the way they had to work and so set up a co-operative which supports about 15 older people in their own home. The co-operative has been joined by other like-minded people who are equally passionate about personalised, flexible services shaped round the people they support.
Choice, Support and Transport (CST) is run by business partners Mark and Keith. Both worked in day centres for people with learning disabilities which were earmarked for closure. Mark and Keith talked to people who used services and their families, with support from NAAPS. Initially some felt that people would prefer to use their personal budgets to employ a personal assistant for 1:1 support, but CST found concerns that people would be left with little meaningful to do after the closure of day centres. People have voted with their feet and the service is now at capacity.
The service provides transport, picking people up from home if they wish. Everybody meets at a community centre for a short time before being supported to undertake a variety of community-based activities using public transport including dancing, swimming, drama and volunteering opportunities. The service supports a maximum of nine people per day and customers can choose to attend on one or more days a week. At present the service has a total of 15 people accessing the service.
At the moment, you have to have a strong will and a steady nerve to embark on a very small enterprise. Or perhaps to have no other option. This doesn’t mean, though, that they will never become a significant part of support for people. In fact, what research there is suggests that there are already tens of thousands, it’s just that they operate off council’s radars and often don’t last that long. And there is room for them to grow, not in size – most want to remain small and personal – but in number. This would take more specialist support (we offer that to NAAPS members and our social enterprise Community Catalysts offers it on an area wide basis to councils) but also more awareness. With every day bringing news of another thousand skilled council employees being laid off, why isn’t everyone being at least made aware that there is such a thing as a micro-entrepreneur?