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How can social ventures help us reimagine the delivery of public services?

A sign is positioned on an easel which reads "Incubate, Accelerate and Amplify". The sign looks like the night sky, with star constellations, planets and a rocket depicted around the edges.

We have seen disruption, accelerated and forced by COVID-19, speeding up change across all our public services. But public services and those that use them can’t afford to be passive recipients of this disruption.

At Catch22, we believe this crisis offers a rare opportunity to reimagine the delivery of public services – to build back better. 

Our Incubation story

Since 2017, Catch22 has supported social ventures with ideas that have the potential to improve how public services are delivered. We see social ventures as a key tool for driving innovation within public services. 

One of the first ventures we supported was Unlocked Graduates. Following a 2016 prison reform review, Natasha Porter set out to create a Teach Firststyle graduate programme for the prison service. Catch22 shared its charity number with Unlocked, helping them to win a £15 million Ministry of Justice contract. By the end of 2020 they hope to have prison officers in over a quarter of closed condition prisons in England. 

Another venture we’ve supported is Lighthouse. Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang, the founder of Lighthouse, is creating a new type of children’s home – one that feels like a family home and ensures children in care have the same opportunities as everyone else by creating life changing education-focused children’s homes. 

Following early success, in 2018, in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund, we were able to further build upon this success through the creation of our Incubate, Accelerate, Amplify programme. And over the past year we have been working closely with the four ventures on the programme, as they address some of the UK’s most pressing challenges. They are:

  • Puja Balachander, founder of Devie, a caring AI coach which supports you to be the best parent you can be, working to close the early childhood development gap. 
  • Jacob Hill is founder of Offploy; formed by ex-prisoners, it helps those with convictions secure meaningful, mentored and sustainable employment and lead a positive life. 
  • Mifta Choudhury, founder of Youth Ink, uses the power of peer networks to rehabilitate and create safer communities, led by people with experience of the criminal justice system. 
  • Tracy Hammond, founder of Recrewt, helps businesses succeed by harnessing the talent of people with learning disabilities and autism. 

Melissa Milner, Catch22’s Director of Communications led a panel discussion last week, featuring these four social venture founders.

Building back better

COVID-19 has forced commissioners to look at partners that can step up and innovate to do things differently during a crisis. And of course, our social ventures were strong advocates for their own ability to build public services up better. But how are they doing this?  

Jacob from Offploy says that the very nature of social enterprises is “to recognise a challenge that’s not being addressed by government or private enterprise and to wedge itself firmly in the middle. It should then find a model that works. Social enterprises are one of the ultimate vehicles to help us build back better. 

Puja refers to her experience working in civic innovation and believes that social ventures “de-risk” innovation for government. She said: 

A lot of the magic comes from being able to scale. We can do this innovate stuff and then government can help it reach millions of people. But that part of experimentation is difficult to do within government. We can identify the gap, iterate on it in a scrappy way that is low resource and derisk that innovation for government.  

We can test things really quickly, be really agile, get those grassroots insights into how humans use servicesThen government can play its role the way it’s meant to in terms of recognising when these things are promising and helping them reach more people.”  

Facing the challenges

The challenges faced by our ventures were vast but there were no shortages of solutions. They all agreed that there is a need for funders to know that different kinds of funding were needed at different times, and that there should be flexibility in providing evidence of impact, particularly for those just beginning. 

Offploy’s Jacob said that knowing how to learn from things, “knowing what we need to learn and knowing what we don’t know”, had been his greatest challenge from day one. He would like to see more feedback when grants are rejected, as well as more support for backend costs and historic costs. “Ventures need this if we’re going to make the sector more robust and more stable,” he says.

Mifta agrees and says that at Youth Ink, particularly with his young team having had involvement in the justice system themselves, he needs partners who “are willing to take a risk” and “look at young people in a new way.”

Recrewt’s Tracy refers to the huge demands required for non-profits when trying to apply for funding, adding that “the fact we can navigate these additional challenges should add to our credibility.” She suggests a ‘due-diligence passport’, meaning that the asks from funders would be more proportional and her team would be able to focus on delivering good work rather than proving to every contact that they are legitimate.

Puja adds that she needs funders who are “willing to bear with us” during development:

“We’re changing things all the time because we want to develop a product loved by the user. We want a product that our users will say ‘I could not survive without this product’.” 

Funding and payment by results

Social ventures rely on investment but the current funding landscape and infrastructures can be a mountain for any entrepreneur, particularly non-profits.  

Tracy highlighted the importance of a non-profit model through the example of a recruitment agency; she says that they would be motivated to place people who are “easy to get into work” first, rather than deal with the challenges of placing hard-to-reach individuals in employment, if they were for-profit. At Recrewt, their purpose is to focus on those who face difficulties and so, as a non-profit, that purpose becomes the focus over profit. 

Mifta from Youth Ink added that working with large organisations with a similar mission, like Catch22, have enabled him to have much easier access funders and to build on existing relationships. Jacob echoed this sentiment, adding that during Covid-19, he has been concerned for those enterprises who have not had those relationships to lean on during such uncertain times.  

Offploy’s Jacob wants to see more pilots and despite the apparent “winding down” of payment by results, he sees strong benefits in that it enables his team to prove what they can do before a commissioner needs to commit:

“A percentage of every large contract should go towards pilot funding and social organisations, to enable [them] to prove what they could do; a programme for social ventures to get the validation that the government or local authority needswhere they might not have that three-years’ worth of accounts or track record. Let’s speed up that process for them and see what it looks like.”  

Puja’s product development work up until this point has been through partnerships with nurseries and testing with parents, but they’re currently considering how they might structure a pilot and what metrics would be used to measure success.  

The change we need

Social ventures will play a huge role in the social and economic recovery post-Covid. As discussed by the panel, there’s a lot to be gained from doing things small and getting them right from the beginning, before looking to scale them up. However, to make this work, the environment needs to be much more favourable. 

There were three priority areas that could strengthen the sector 

  1. More needs to be done to further improve the funding and investment landscape for social ventures. 
  2. There is need for greater ambition in terms of reimagining how public services might be delivered given the urgency and scale of the challenges. 
  3. We’ve seen how powerful social entrepreneurs with lived experience of the problem they are trying to solve can be. More effort is needed to diversify who gets the opportunities to be social entrepreneurs. 

Catch22’s next steps

Our Chief Development Officer Mat Ilic closed the event, highlighting the next focus for Catch22’s support of social entrepreneurs:

Social ventures are born to operate in the face of adversity and we can put a pretty safe bet on the role of these social enterprises in helping us recover post-pandemic.”

He refers to the way we have educated young people in 2020, how health professionals have reached those shielding but in need of a GP appointment, and how we now need to focus on technology as an “enabler of service delivery to reach those that need us.”  

Catch22 is actively designing a challenge-based programme to support tech-enabled social ventures, our Social Tech Amplifier, to deliver the next generation of public services. 

We now need to explore the role of technology in terms of improving public services. Indeed, a number of our current ventures already have this is as a focus and the demand is only growing