John Pearce Memorial Lecture 2017 Laurie Russell, CEO, Wise Group

Laurie Russell’s address reflected on his career in social and economic regeneration in Western Scotland. In work spanning some 40 years, his journey through community regeneration initiatives in Clydebank to Chief Executive of Strathclyde European Partnership Ltd, and finally CEO of Wise Group from 2006 had intertwined with that of John Pearce at various stages. He also considered aspects of continuity and change in the sectors relationship with local authorities, governments in Holyrood and Westminster, and Europe.

 Left to right: Laurie Russell (CEO Wise Group), Gill Murray (CommonHealth Researcher), Pamela Gillies (Vice-Chancellor, GCU), Cam Donaldson (Yunus Chair in Social Business and Health, GCU)

Left to right: Laurie Russell (CEO Wise Group), Gill Murray (CommonHealth Researcher), Pamela Gillies (Vice-Chancellor, GCU), Cam Donaldson (Yunus Chair in Social Business and Health, GCU)

Cycles, waves and progress

Describing social enterprise in Scotland over the last 40 years, Russell suggested that the movement of the sector could be characterised by cycles, waves, and progress.

Cycles: expressed themes and issues that periodically reoccurred, rather than being ultimately resolved.

Waves:  illustrated the feeling of one step forwards and two steps back that sometimes seeped into his working life.

Progress: despite the cycles and the waves, for Russell, it is also possible to identify growth and a level of acceptance of social enterprise, especially in rural areas.

These movements certainly resonated with my own research into the history of social enterprise since the 1970s. Issues of definition and accountability, concerns over the ability of the sector to remain independent certainly appear to be cyclical. Relationships with local authorities and governments can often appear to move with the waves of election periods where a group of sympathetic champions are lost to (local) government cuts and/or restructuring. The evidence charting the development of the sector is growing, with the recently published Social Enterprise in Scotland: Census 2017 that follows the earlier 2015 publication. The body of evidence that we are producing at CommonHealth will also contribute to a better understanding the dimensions of the sectors progress over time.

Trust

The issue of trust cut across Russell’s lecture, describing how in the 1970s and 1980s when Urban Programme and European Social Fund grants were awarded there was a sense of trust that organisations were able to deliver what they had proposed. Russell suggested that while he is absolutely invested in the accountability of the sector the tight auditing and compliance regulations that are attached to funding today in some ways undermine the sense of trust between the sector and local and national government.

In the Q&A that followed the lecture there was a palpable feeling of frustration from some sections of the audience on the lack of support for (large) social enterprises in Scotland. Concerns were raised that despite the recommendations of the Christie Commission an SNP government who ‘talk Left, but walk Right’ are missing the opportunity to contract services from social enterprises who are deeply embedded in their local communities. This connected back to some of the concerns Russell highlighted with his experiences of Scottish procurement policies that are often unfit for purpose, based solely on application forms with no opportunity for meaningful dialogue. Russell called for policies based on practices he has experienced in England, where commissioners engage in a process of discussion and negotiation with those responding to tenders to ensure a good fit that aligns economic and social value and develops a productive working relationship.

Keep working, Keep talking

Acknowledging the frustrations Russell argued that the answer was to keep working. Throughout his career his motivation has been the personal stories of the lives of people that have changed for the better as a result of engaging with social enterprise.

Thinking of how the work we’ve been doing with the GCU Archive Centre and the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, perhaps we have a role here in facilitating some inter-generational dialogue within the sector and translating the work the sector does to public sector and beyond.

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Gill Murray