Rebuilding Social Capital: A Banker and Bootlegger Point The Way

What do Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane and notorious rave promoter and bootlegger Jonny Banger have in common? As well as having permission to print £5 notes, they are both supporters of social capital. In his recent article for the FT, Haldane predicts a renewed understanding of the importance of social capital will be one of the enduring outcomes of this crisis:

“We see this daily on our doorsteps through small acts of neighbourly kindness. We see it in the activities of community groups, charities and philanthropic movements, whose work has risen in importance and prominence. And we see it too in the vastly increased numbers of people volunteering to help.”

This ‘Third pillar’ on which our society is built, the other two being government and private enterprise, has fallen by the wayside in recent years. Its demise cited as one of the main reasons for the ever-widening cracks we see in the current version of our capitalist system. As Haldane outlines in his article, strengthening the social sector could have cumulative benefits to the whole of society, including private enterprise, to the tune of £200bn a year, or around 10% of UK GDP. So how do we unlock it?

Back to Jonny Banger…

Since the crisis began, Banger has raised over £150,000 from a range of ‘NHS’ hoodies, all of which has gone to funding front line support for NHS workers across North London in the form of fresh food deliveries to hospitals and hospices. This kind of grassroots support for workers in the NHS and social sector is a striking example of how businesses with the right motivations can be highly credible and effective social entrepreneurs.

But while direct fundraising is certainly helpful, and other businesses have shown support through things like priority queuing in stores and discounts on goods to carers, this is really the tip of the iceberg of what a deeper relationship between these currently disconnected parts of our society could achieve. What else can private enterprise do to support the social sector and, as a consequence, take a more prominent role in building a more balanced post-crisis society that will, ultimately, be for the benefit of everyone?

1. Connecting supply and demand

It was clearly a big achievement to sign up 750,000 NHS volunteers and launch the NHS Volunteer app in such a short amount of time. But with many features in the app either irrelevant or not working and many volunteers complaining about not having enough to do, the general view is that it’s not fit for purpose.

The developers, understandably, saved much needed time by re-skinning an app designed for coordinating rapid responses to heart attacks. A more advanced platform specifically designed to connect supply (carers) with demand (people seeking care) would be a great step towards unlocking the potential of this highly motivated workforce.

Imagine an Uber or Airbnb for social care.

You can easily see how bookings and feedback would work. If we push a little further, this new digital infrastructure could be used to establish the underlying ‘rails’ through which funding, when available and applicable from government or charity sectors, could be more easily distributed to carers based on the specific work they are doing and the outcomes (social capital) created by that work. Finding ways to more easily exchange social capital with actual capital (aka money) when it’s available is something that must be looked at if the social sector is to be fully revived.

Retail pharmacies have been heavily involved in the COVID-19 response and shown how the private sector can step up in times of crisis by e.g. waiving delivery fees on prescriptions and providing safe spaces for victims of domestic abuse, to name just two examples. They are already deeply embedded into the care ecosystem through their dispensing businesses and have healthcare professionals working in their stores. It would be amazing to see one of them, or even a consortium of pharmacies and charities, build this sorely-needed piece of digital infrastructure on the solid foundations of their already close relationships with the NHS.

2. Care for yourself, as well as others

As we introduce 750,000 new workers into the care system, we need to consider the kind of support they need to be most effective. And maintaining one’s own personal health and wellbeing is the first step to being an effective carer for others.

A new economy in health and wellness has already sprung up around the needs of the individual, but it feels intuitively like there is something about the additional responsibilities carers choose to take on that makes their needs different from people trying to lose weight, for example, or get a competitive edge at work. Mental and physical wellbeing advice focused on carers would be an interesting area to explore.

So too would smart products and services for those providing care to people suffering from chronic diseases, such as diabetes. Giving citizens access to trustworthy and up-to-date information about disease management is not just helpful but a matter of patient safety. This is something the NHS has historically struggled to do well due to its federated structure and lack of modern knowledge management systems. 

‘Multi-sided’ services designed to help care givers and receivers effectively manage conditions would make social care and self-care an even more effective way of reducing demand on the traditional parts of the health system. Something we know is going to be critical as our population ages and limited funding needs to work much harder to meet the needs of society.

3. Educate and empower

As well as supporting carers, we need to educate and empower the social sector organisations they work for. The relative digital immaturity of charities when compared to private companies (Haldane believes they are 5 years behind) is limiting their ability to collaborate effectively with the rest of the system and direct funding where it’s most needed: on care.

Long before the COVID-19 crisis started, initiatives like Barclay’s Digital Eagles showed how private companies can be a powerful force for building digital skills and increasing access to digital services for even the most disconnected members of society. Offering digital education specifically to individuals and charities working in the social sector would accelerate the adoption of new technologies and allow us to more effectively integrate the sector into the rapidly digitising healthcare system.

Great content has already sprung up to respond to the urgent need for home schooling. It would be amazing to see an ecosystem of accredited training materials for carers and charity workers to help them learn new skills and become more impactful in what they do. We already have accreditations in place for childcare, could this be extend to other types of social care and who should take the lead in creating it?

4. Define new types of partnership

Public Finance Initiatives (PFI) used by previous governments to fund public sector projects with private sector investment did not deliver value for money. This time we need to do things differently.

New models of governance, incentive, ownership and administration of new ventures, particularly in relation to the digital platform described at the start of this article will be key to making things happen. The private sector’s focus on profit and operational efficiency means it has a hard time quantifying social capital. Government and social sectors certainly understand social issues but generally lack understanding and appreciation of the benefits of the market.

A visionary new approach that builds on the strengths of each sector, combined with a proper understanding of the systemic benefits of public, private and social sector collaboration will be crucial if we’re going to maintain momentum. This is no mean feat, and something that has been sorely lacking in recent decades. But if this crisis has shown us anything, it’s that when united by a shared purpose and common mission the whole of society can come together and do incredible things for the universal good. However you decide to measure it.

Something else I’m sure the Bank of England and the Maison De Bang Bang would agree on.

Ben Rubin
12th May 2020

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