Feeling the squeeze? Tabbies or tigers: the case of social enterprises contracting in the fields of recycling and work integration

Aiken, M. and Slater, R. (2007). Feeling the squeeze? Tabbies or tigers: the case of social enterprises contracting in the fields of recycling and work integration. In: 4th Annual Social Enterprise Research Conference, 4-5 Jul 2007, London, UK.


Current UK policy is encouraging the identification, emergence, transmutation or invention of third sector organisations that will have a social enterprise orientation with a particular focus on them as vehicles for the delivery of public services (Audit Commission 2005). This can be seen as part of the new governance agenda (Taylor, Wilkinson and Craig 2001, Kendal 2003, Stoker 2004) the form of which is still emergent. One view of governance refers to a 'hollowing out' of state powers (Rhodes, 1997) and a shift from state control to co-ordination using mechanisms such as networks and partnerships to bring together the public, private and third sector as well as community actors and citizens in reforming services. Local Authority white paper (2006) promised further decentralisation moving functions downwards to special purpose bodies and outwards to agencies and communities. The new Local Government White Paper emphasises the role of community engagement, partnership arrangements and devolved budgets with voluntary organisations at the local level (NCVO 2006: 2-3). Such processes are aimed both at both private and third sector providers.

In this new distributed system of governance partnership and collaboration plays an important role in the implementation of social goods although these processes are never unproblematic (Huxham & Vangen 2000; Taylor Taylor, Wilkinson and Craig 2001). Nevertheless the contracting out processes continue to gather speed: with recycling and waste, care, leisure services, work advice, health services, prison and probation at various stages in the continuum of change.

Against this background the role and form of social enterprise organisations appears at times to be assumed to be 'heterogeneous' and 'good' with all organisations tending towards similar development trajectories with uniform support needs. What is often not distinguished so clearly are the differing types of social enterprise; the different sub-sectors of the economy they are operating in; the variety of markets and funding regimes they are involved in; the different partnership regimes they are embedded within; and their different cultures and connection to local communities. All of these factors have implications for what types of organisations (large/small social enterprise; local/national organisations, and even social enterprise or private organisation) are favoured in the contracting processes and how such processes may affect their wider mission and ethos. Social enterprises are sometimes treated by policy makers, and at times by leaders, practitioners and researchers within the sector as if they were one thing. Crudely we might say they are treated as if they are all cats when in reality some are tigers and some are tabbys – with every breed in between. Nevertheless, despite the heterogeneity of the social enterprise scene we are seeing evidence of a convergence of form in contracting processes which, we argue, tends to favour the tigers and squeeze the tabbys.

This paper reports on recent empirical research and analysis in 2 sub fields of social enterprise activity: (a) the delivery of waste and recycling services (Slater 2006) and (b) the delivery of work integration and advice activities for the disadvantaged (Aiken 2006, 2007).

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