How public procurement can be used to foster social enterprises and social innovation

On April 2, 2014 Social Business International organised the conference "Social enterprise innovation in services and creating ecosystems of support" in Helsinki. It was a very interesting event that gathered social entrepreneurs, instituional representatives (from the Finnish government and public authorities and the European Commission) and academics from 9 different countries. The conference had opening and concluding plenary sessions and five workshops: on ecosystems, public procurement, funding and investment for social enterprises, social enterprise innovation and social impact measurement.

We had the opportunity to present our views on the implementation of the new public procurement directive. Valentina Caimi, Policy and Advocacy Adviser, illustrated the opportunities that the new directive offers to social enterprises (you can read the slides): reserved contracts for economic operators that work for the social and professional integration of persons with disabilities and disadvantaged people, the special regime for social, health and cultural services, more attention to quality in public procurement procedures, and reserved contracts for social and health services. Concerning the latter, the fact that the maximum duration of reserved contracts is three years undermines the fundamental principle of conntinuity of service provision.

However, it has to be clear that as most of the provisions that allow boosting social procurement are not compulsory, therefore member states have a crucial role in the transposition phase on the choices contracting authorities can make in relation to socially responsible procurement. And in the end it is up to contracting authorities to decide wheter they want to take advantage or not of the opportunities offered by the directive. This is why we hope that the Commission guides member states to make them fully aware of the opportunities they have to boost social (and green) procurement with the new directive. Then an extensive training programme for local authorities should be put in place. Stakeholders at European and national level can give a useful contribution to this process.

Kerstin Eriksson (FAMMA – Swedish member of a member of Social Platform) said that civil society in Sweden hasn't been able to grow in the last years. She said that public procurement has been for many years an obstacle for the development of civil society organisations. The constant application of the lowest price criterion has led to a decrease in the quality of social services. The new directive instead offers good opportunities for the social sector: in addition to what already mentioned, one should consider the increased threshold of 750.000€ for social and health services (while for other services it is 500.000€) and the innovation partnership. The three-year duration of reserved contracts for social and health services is a problem, because it is a too short period to build a trustful relationship between the providers and contracting authorities. However, it seems that Swedish authorities are not going to transpose this article.

From Finnish actors it was said that they need more diversity in social service provision and that they are ready to have more social enterprises providing services. The representative from the Finnish competition authority said that more diversity means not only multinationals but also social enterprises, SMES and volunteer work.

The added value of social enterprises and the need for a partnership approach between social entrepreneurs, institutions at EU, national and regional / local level to foster the development of social enterprises have been the thread line of the whole debate. Anne Bland, from Social Business International, informed that Finland hasn't got a strategy for the development of social enterprises. They are working to build a Manifesto.

Ariane Rodert, Vice-President of Group III of the European Economic and Social Committee, said that we need a stakolder approach to create innovative policies. Axel De Martène, member of Commissioner Barnier's Cabinet, said that it's now time to build the agenda for the new Commission to continue the work of the Social Business Initiative with EESC and entrepreneurs. Amaryllis Verhoeven from DG Markt reminded that stakeholders in Strasbourg called for a Social Business Initiative number 2 and added that a partnership approach with EESC and stakeholders is needed for the Commission to continue their work. Ariane Rodert finally stressed the importance of having national action plans for the development of social enterprises and welcomed the efforts that Finland is doing to develop a strategy.

Therefore we still need to do a lot of work and let's do it together!