The rise of the shadow state: What can we do about it?

If the money doesn't go to giants like Serco and G4S, where can it go? Alan White explores the ability of social enterprises to commission services instead.

Yesterday I catalogued the problems with the way Government outsourcing is conducted: the placing of profits before people, the siphoning away of money intended for communities that need it, the unaccountability; the rewards for failure.

Peter Holbrook, CEO of Social Enterprise UK says: “The Government has to act as more than a legislator. It can shape markets and it doesn’t do so. These markets have to be part of the solution. It’s not left wing to call for more transparency and accountability. There seems to be a contradiction - everyone knows localism makes sense, but as soon as various parts of local and national Government are given the chance to commission, they buy in bulk.”

The question is what we’re going to do about it. And the first question is obvious - if we don’t give the money to the giants like Serco and G4S, to whom can it go?


The Paddington Development Trust (PDT) is what’s known as a social enterprise. What’s a social enterprise? There’s no legal basis for such a thing, so it can take many forms: it could be a charity, or a limited or commercial company, for example. This masks the fact the central idea is quite simple: the profits do not go to shareholders, instead being reinvested in the “social mission” the company is carrying out. A PLC is legally required to maximise shareholder value, while a social enterprise, of which there are 68,000, acts like a company but instead tries to maximise its social value. Well-known examples are things like the Big Issue and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen.

The PDT was founded in 1997, one of the first community-owned social enterprises in the country. On paper, its goals perhaps sound wishy-washy and vague: to “increase social, cultural and economic opportunities by forming strong partnerships across the community and public sectors.” The projects it has delivered have been anything but.

The money the PDT receives is focussed on a specific local area: north Westminster - and is then broken down between even smaller areas. I first came across it in the process of researching a local housing estate. The community forum whose incredible actions ended up forming the core of the resulting long form piece I wrote is a PDT offshoot.

Its chief executive, the admirably straight-talking Neil Johnston, tells me more: “When the residents set up the PDT, the area of north Westminster was a colossal failure. You could see it through so many indices: housing, unemployment, mortality rates.” In 1998, the PDT won £13.5m of funding, through the government's Single Regeneration Budget programme, which ran from 1994 to 2001.

Johnston says: “The money went to other organisations in order to deliver services. We formed an interface between the public and the private sector – since then we’ve distributed £40m over fifteen years and have been influential in the spending of another £120m. The money’s come from various sources - the Great and Good, local government authorities, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and others.”

The PDT now runs youth services, health centres, academies, has refurbished community centres, and has been involved in many more projects, most of which are designed to create employment and business opportunities for residents. One of the PDT’s most successful enterprises was Westbourne Studios, into which it invested £500,000 - it didn’t own the building, but paid a peppercorn rent to guarantee the assets were distributed through the local economy. Today it’s one of Britain's most imaginative office and studio complexes, home to over 100 small businesses. On top of that, the PDT even has a small grant through which it can fund start-ups.


One thing that struck me about the people I wrote about was how happy they were in their work. Despite the fact that pay for its staff has gone down in recent years, the PDT has a remarkably low rate of employee turnover, which in turn saves money and helps it pay acceptable wages.

Social enterprises are often limited in size, partly because their purpose is often built around the needs of a particular area, and partly because they don’t have the same will to grow as a purely profit-driven operation. It means they’re finding themselves squeezed in a market that increasingly favours the largest contract-size.

“Interestingly, we have been commissioned by the DWP for the Work Programme,” says Johnston. “We’re a small partner with Maximus, which is a huge company. Fortunately, Maximus are a commercial business, but they know what they’re doing - their vice president came over to visit, for a start. We actually lost money through doing it, but managed to supplement it through doing other projects.”

A belief has grown that commissioners can’t afford to outsource differently. In fact, the opposite might be true: they can’t afford not to. As Johnston says:  “The question for Government is - do you let the money out through companies, or inject it into local organisations? There seems to be a belief that you can economise through upscaling and contracting to the big organisations. But Maximus know what they’re doing on that side too - they won’t give away any more profit than they have to. The Government’s either aware of that, or it doesn’t understand profit in business.”

The way the Work Programme works is that once people have been unemployed for six months, their details are fed into a big databases. ”Prime” contractors then spit out names to the smaller charities. Johnston wasn’t surprised when the initial figures showed it to be a failure.


He says: “Prior to the Work Programme, we managed to get 500 people in work over the course of two years. But it was bloody hard work. We had to work in partnership with a lot of community enterprises. We had neighbourhood-based advisors, who were going around knocking on doors. With the Work Programme there’s a disconnect - I recently heard a story about one women being interviewed and asked why she hadn’t found a job sooner, even though she was blind.”

One could say that the very fact something like the PDT exists demonstrates the fact that it’s needed. Johnston says: “You have Whitehall, you have local authorities - and they’re always fighting a war over budgets and power - then you have nothing official, but there’s a whole plethora of stuff going on. If communities weren’t crying out for power, they wouldn’t set up things like the PDT. So the challenge for the Government - and it’s something all governments want to do, is how far they can drive down the democratisation of budgets.”

I point out to him that during the riots London called out for the return of Boris Johnson and David Cameron from their holidays. If that highlighted anything, it was a distinct lack of local leadership. He replies: “In New York you can see the leadership flowing down from the Mayor, the key officers - and that socioeconomic strategy makes the city sing. In our major cities the leadership appears to be less accountable than rhetorical.”


Despite the gloomy history of commissioning described thus far, the future for social enterprises is looking up. In January 2013 the Public Services (Social Value) Act becomes law. It’ll require all public bodies in England and Wales to consider the wider social or economic benefit to an area of any contract they award, over the value of £113,000 for central government and £173,000 for other bodies. According to Social Enterprise UK’s report: “Commissioners have told us that the Act finally gives them the justification to commission in ways that they have previously wanted to, but could not.” The organisation has made a number of recommendations with regard to the law, including an independent body to scrutinise contracting, and previous performance being weighed up as part of the process.

There’s evidence of a growing appetite for more thoughtful commissioning. In October 2012 the Cabinet Office awarded contracts for the National Citizen Service. Management fees were capped at 5 per cent and payment was made in advance, so that smaller charities and community groups without large capital reserves could afford to bid. Ninety per cent of organisations involved were locally based.

There are small steps being made at a local level too: in Lambeth, the commissioning process is being stripped down to its first principles. This doesn’t necessarily mean that global companies are excluded, but the locally devised solutions are unlikely to include too many. Moreover, by the beginning of November 2012, 93 organisations, including nine local authorities, had become accredited Living Wage Employers.

Nick Hurd MP is quoted in Social Enterprise UK’s report: “You could do really smart stuff. In my area, Hillingdon Council, BlueSky do the landscaping. Their motto is, ‘we’re the only company in the country where you have to have a criminal record to work’. It’s the first chance to prove yourself, to prove that you can be trusted. From Hillingdon’s perspective, they get a good service at a good price. But they also reduce reoffending. For me, that’s smart commissioning.”

And as Neil Johnston tells me: “Part of the reason for the upscaling has been the assumption among commissioners that everyone will try to rip you off. But we’ve seen things like A4E recently - you will always get people who cheat, but is it the prevalent part of the community?”

Charities and social enterprises delivering public services was a much-repeated promise in the argument for the big society vision: the title may have fallen by the wayside, but is the idea dead?  As Social Enterprise UK’s report concludes: “Public debate in the wake of the financial crisis has centred on whether public spending cuts must be made or avoided. But who benefits and who loses because of the way that public spending is done, is a much bigger question.”

The huge Aylesbury council estate in Southwark, home to 7,500 people. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.