Can we look at social purpose differently?

In his first guest spot for Mojo, business change 'wise owl' Alastair Smyth suggests some new ways of looking at social value.

I was reading Paul Taylor's article How Do We Know Our Organisations Are Really Succeeding? (Found here: and found a few dots connecting in my head around the subject of Wicked Problems, particularly those faced by the Social Housing sector and the sector focus on Transformational Change and Mergers to address these.


The last few weeks have been interesting. Leaving my long-term employer and setting out on my own has led to a number of stimulating conversations, all of which have helped draw my attention ever more to the bigger picture - it's certainly easier when the detail isn't there to catch you out! I've wanted to try writing a blog post for a while, with ideas seeded from a number of those conversations with colleagues, peers and new connections. In the end it was the intersection of personal experience, strategy & change knowledge and sector change, that led to something which grabbed me.


Paul's article rightly highlighted that addressing Wicked Problems requires more than an individual approach, or indeed a sector-wide one. This pulled me back to last week's BBC Panorama programme, looking at the effect of the Benefit Cap, as an example of a challenge that impacts both the whole sector and a wider audience. Whilst recognising the fact that this challenge is bigger than the sector alone, we can still consider Gandhi's advice to change yourself in order to change the world, and accept that doing something, whilst considering the wider impacts, may be the necessary first step.


This isn't an article about the Benefit Cap, there are many people who can write far better on that subject than me. For the sake of this, let's assume the principle of having a limit on the amount of benefits someone can receive is an accepted position. The challenge then becomes, how does the sector respond?  In response to the Panorama programme, I asked what the sector could do to help address those challenges to my (fledgling) network on Twitter. The entirely unscientific answer is 'something'.


Of course, many organisations have done a great deal in helping their customers address this challenge, particularly through social purpose activities. Playing devil's advocate; much like the CSR work of private sector companies, this is often focussed in ways that still benefit the organisation, for example, money & benefits advice that protects existing income streams. That's not to say there's something wrong with that, if it keeps someone in their home, that is a good thing, but, looking back to the Wicked Problem theme, it's an individual effort. In the course of my thinking, I wondered if the most significant benefit to those affected has been the 1% rent reduction, which led me to think more widely about social purpose.


In the week where Housing Sector deregulation came into effect, there is a clear synergy between the challenges faced and the greater flexibility to respond. Of course, deregulation has not completely removed the rules, however, I liked how Andrew Van Doorn of HACT summed it up in the most recent Campbell Tickell Brief - "after decades of being told who we are and how we should behave, by both regulators and inspectors, those choices are now in our hands" ( It's these choices that present an opportunity to do things differently and look at challenges from a sector-wide position.


Some of you will undoubtedly have arrived at where I'm getting to before I have; but, in the current trends for Transformational Change and Mergers, we see the removal of cost to deal with enforced income stream reduction, and the opportunity to free up capacity to address the housing shortage as being key drivers. These are not bad aims. There's no doubt that providing more homes, for more people in need, fits with the tradition of social purpose within the sector, but, perhaps now is the time to look at an alternative and seize the opportunity provided by deregulation.


We already have the voluntary RTB arrangement as an example of successfully negotiating with Government. We know considerations are already being given to what the rent settlement might look like post the April 2020 reduction, but, is there an opportunity to steal a march here, at a time when the Government is likely to have bigger fish to fry?


What if, sector-wide, we looked at the opportunity to provide a commitment to freeze rent levels following that reduction, or even to reduce further, or specifically linked rises to delivery of new properties? Freezing or further reducing rents would have a far greater impact for customers, those affected by the benefit cap or not, and would provide an alternative example of large-scale social purpose activity, and perhaps begin the process of addressing that Wicked Problem.


Next time, I'll consider some of the other aspects we'd need to consider to make this work.