Why is high-level policy support for Australia’s ‘social enterprise’ virtually non-existent compared to the UK?

In our recent article, we asked why social enterprise policy making has differed markedly between Australia and the United Kingdom. We were curious to understand how two countries with similar policy contexts, political cultures, institutional arrangements, as well as a common language could support social enterprise in seemingly very different ways.

Social enterprise is interesting for many reasons, and to us it is because ‘social enterprise’ is a notoriously slippery idea. Social enterprise refers to a range of organisations that trade products and services with the primary goal of creating social impact. They’ve become an increasingly common aspect of discourses around social, economic, and environmental inequalities.

Furthermore, the coordinated impact of social enterprise operating in partnership with the public sector, as part of civil society, has also been largely successful in other countries. This arrangement can offer a sustainable solution that should benefit communities, families and individuals the most.

Indeed, earlier this year, the Victorian State government launched their Social Enterprise Strategy, followed swiftly by a commitment to a Social Procurement Strategy. The launch of both was preceded by the promotion of Map for Impact, the Victorian government-funded ‘mapping’ of social enterprise activities across the state. While building on the work already accomplished by Social Traders, the three events seemed momentous to those among us who have been working in this space for several years.

And yet, based on our knowledge of social enterprise policy in other countries, especially the UK, we had long been curious to know why Australia’s social enterprise policy making is virtually non-existent by comparison.

In the UK, successive Westminster governments have shown a prolonged commitment to supporting ‘social enterprise’, and the same cannot be said for Australian federal governments. Barring the Social Enterprise Development and Investment Funds, there has been no major, or prolonged investment into capacity building for social enterprise in Australia at a federal level.


Why would this be?

To tackle this question, we took a different tack to other scholars – most of whom look to historical, sociological or rationality-based explanations for how policy making compares between countries. We realised that none of these approaches provides a complete explanation for why social enterprise policy making should appear so different in Australia and the UK.

Instead, we looked for discursive explanations, based on the work of the political scientist, Vivien Schmidt. In short, Schmidt argues the while policy making occurs partly through the other methods noted above, it is coordinated and communicated according to discursive logics. She argues this strong discursive component often goes overlooked in comparative policy analysis. This is unfortunate, because it can yield important insights into how policy makers think, and how comparative differences between policy could be explained.

In our case, we constructed a unique data set – containing all social enterprise-related policy materials in the UK and Australia between 2004 – 2017. This evidence reflects foreground discursive ability; the processes through which policymakers coordinate and communicate these ideas through policy and policy making to influence wider publics.

In other words, policy and policy making represent a way of knowing and seeing the world. This is usually thought to reflect a government’s broader political strategy, or a particular ideology that infuses the way government, its ministers and policymakers, engage with the public sphere.

We found that ideas do indeed reflect the nature of differences between the UK and Australia in social enterprise policy discourses. In the UK, social enterprise is much more visible in the work of government and governing. This results in a policy approach, involving higher-level policy platforms and a strong presence in election manifestos. The UK has a very strong history in developing social finance infrastructure, but hasn’t relied on this alone. Their more expansive scope has resulted in policy platforms enabling social enterprise capacity building: developing closer relationships and Compacts with the third sector, opening up opportunities in the public sector, and legal reforms to introduce the Community Interest Company.

We call this approach polythetic – multifaceted policymaking connected by the coordination and communication of ideas surrounding social enterprise and its place in government work.

By contrast, we found a more restricted and pragmatic approach in Australia, that we term monothetic. Based on the evidence, there is an ‘ideas vacuum’ at the federal level related to social enterprise. We argue that only one idea underpins the Australian federal government approach to social enterprise: social finance. Actual policy is thin on the ground, which perhaps speaks of a lack of high-level commitment to ideas underpinning social enterprise.

Where there has been activity, it has been concerned with the supply of finance into the social enterprise ecosystem, such as through the SEDIF program. This particular program supported intermediaries in the social finance and development space, such as Social Ventures Australia and Social Enterprise Finance Australia to develop a small number of social enterprises. The work of capacity building falls to intermediaries, philanthropy and, more recently, state government.

So, what does this mean? Our analysis shows how the language of ideas can explain unexpected or unusual policy development trajectories. In Australia’s case, there is sterling work going on at ground-level, from individual social entrepreneurs and businesses, cooperatives, to the intermediaries who support them. Would it be buttressed by a clearer vision and commitment at the highest level of government? This is largely true of the UK experience, and we hope so of Australia. The fact that state governments are articulating such a vision and putting it into practice is very positive, reflecting a polythetic approach. However, recent evidence doesn’t fill us with confidence it will emerge at the federal level in the near future.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Mason, Chris; Moran, Michael, Social enterprise and policy discourse: a comparative analysis of the United Kingdom and AustraliaPolicy & Politics, DOI: 10.1332/030557317X15133530312516

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