Are we ready for social innovation as a new form of public-private partnership?

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At interesting article from the Economist about the new wave of civic engagement we call social innovation. The article is heavily focused on the UK and US experience, but touches on some common issues around the drivers for social innovation, why it differs from past approaches and the new models that are appearing to address the challenge of social innovation ventures for achieving sustainability and impact.

Rather than focusing on the volunteerism aspects I’ve typically seen highlighted here in Australia (i.e. a few activists and technologists getting together to build a Web-based solution to a community problem in their spare time), the Economist describes social innovation as a new form of public-private partnership:

It differs from the fashion in the past couple of decades for contracting out the delivery of public services to businesses and non-profit groups in order to cut costs, in that it aims to do more than save a few dollars or pounds—although that is part of its attraction. The idea is to transform the way public services are provided, by tapping the ingenuity of people in the private sector, especially social entrepreneurs.

However, the article points out that “so far the enthusiasm for social entrepreneurship has run ahead of its effects“. One of the new models for dealing with that problem is the concept of a social-impact bond, which provides funding, but only costs public money if the social innovation achieves its social impact goals. This is necessary so that social innovation can actually achieve the scale and impact it needs to make a difference to the community.

Still, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t an important role for volunteers in social innovation – they mention Participle in the UK, who are attempting to “redesign the welfare state ‘bottom up’” with pilot projects like the Southwark Circle. BTW the most recent Tech Weekly podcast from the Guardian includes an interview with Participle’s Charles Leadbeater. Listen from about the 26 minute mark.

Unfortunately as read this article I could only reflect that the social innovation conversation here in Australia is still very immature. While I am hearing some people in the Australian Government 2.0 community talk about related social innovation methods like service design, we are still very much focused on the issue of upgrading government rather than exploring the possibility of creating new kinds of public-private partnerships (and the mechanisms that will support them) that really could transform the effectiveness of public and community services.

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