Belfast Telegraph

Social network solution

A burgeoning social economy that unites public and private sectors will benefit all, not least taxpayers, says John McMullan, CEO of Bryson Charitable Group

As the Government wrestles with how best to rebalance Northern Ireland’s economy, there is clearly a story of local progress and growth which is going untold. It’s a tale of substantial growth of the social-enterprise sector, which is providing a third element for consideration within the traditional public-private sector economic debate.

I believe the social-enterprise sector is the best-kept secret in our economy and its potential for growth has been proved by Bryson Charitable Group. Bryson, which provides more than 22,000 services across Northern Ireland and Donegal daily, has just announced 20% annual operational growth, bringing its turnover for the year 2010–2011 to £30.77m. It employs more than 650 staff and has 130 volunteers within its ranks.

Bryson’s services, which focus on tackling major social and economic challenges, are delivered through seven social business companies. Activities include: social care, energy, training for employment, recycling, watersports and support for ethnic minorities.

What can social enterprise bring to the Northern Ireland economy?

I believe, social enterprises such as Bryson can contribute even more too both the analysis of our current underlying problems and in delivering service excellence to the public. It offers a value-for-money approach to public-services delivery.

At Bryson we are driven to provide social-value profitably. It is a win-win situation for the Government as it is getting excellent services,while at the same time reinvestment in further social value.

Bryson derives around 95% of its income from contracts and importantly, spends 96.4p in every pound on service delivery/development, a figure that has increased from 95.5p last year. It is from that foundation that I believe that Bryson can deliver even more services, with excellent value for money for the taxpayer.

With regards to Government procurement, my message to the Executive is that the public, private and social enterprise sectors must all be enabled to bring their strengths to the table in a procurement process that creates a level playing field, and is transparent and focused on value for money and service excellence. That’s the way to ensure that we purchase the creative and practical public service solutions that we so urgently need.

There is no doubt that in order for social enterprises in Northern Ireland to reach its full potential, policymakers must continue to open up the the process of public contract tendering, making it social enterprise/SME ‘friendly’ and guarding it against ‘protectionism’.

My vision is for a burgeoning and expanding social economy over the next few years, which allows existing social enterprises to thrive while encouraging new start-ups into the market place.

Bryson is forecasting continued growth for this financial year and through our hard work and commitment to excellence are continuing to win new contracts in key areas of social need. For instance, Bryson FutureSkills is tackling the worrying growing levels of unemployment for youth, the long-term unemployed and those who have become estranged from the labour market.

We are, through Bryson Care and Bryson Care West delivering essential social-care services to vulnerable families and individuals. One of our key services, Home from Hospital, is an ideal example of Bryson’s social business model’s impact. When a person is to be discharged from hospital, Bryson Care provides direct but flexible support in their home for up to six weeks to help the person get back on their feet, to re-establish themselves at home and to their confidence in familiar surroundings.

Looking ahead, social franchising will become an increasingly viable business model within the social economy as organisations such as Bryson work with and assist smaller organisations, enabling them to benefit from high-volume contracts and deliver services to the highest standards.

This is a great way for the Government to ensure that public spending impacts through small local organisations in local economies and achieves both economic and social objectives. Bryson will continue to provide a range of services that will contribute to the development of effective social and economic policy.

Belfast Telegraph