Remote Blogging: Skoll World Forum 2008 — What is the role of government?

In the Innovation and Change in Government Culture workshop, one of the major themes was which problems or issues should government address and which should they ignore or stay away from. This is a very important concern, especially since much of the impetus for social entrepreneurship comes from those areas where the public sector is downright dysfunctional.(Source SocialEdge)

Professor David Gergen [Director, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard] opened this session by noting that social entrepreneurs and governments are not always natural allies. The role of social entrepreneurs is often to fill voids in the governmental provision of social services. Thus governments may perceive social entrepreneurs as competitors, or usurpers of the government’s rightful role, while social entrepreneurs are often prideful of their independence, perceiving the government as a failure. Yet as entrepreneurship becomes a more powerful social force, the two institutions must find new and creative ways to engage with each other. There is the potential for both great conflict and great synergy.

Much of the panel appeared to have focused on the role of scale and the eventual need for governments to become involved with social entrepreneurs after the proof of concept has been shown to maximize the reach of that program. The panel also highlighted the difficulties of working with government funding, primarily the finnicky nature of politics and how it can change the priorities of governments each and every year.

Interestingly, Professor Rathgeb Smith from the University of Washington, who was one of the few speakers from a non-developing nation, focused primarily on the positive roles that government can play in stimulating social entrepreneurship. He paid particular attention to tax credits to stimulate such innovation. In closing the discussion recognized the need for all parties to work together to ensure that the solution remain effective.

Regardless of pros and cons of making financial linkages between governments and entrepreneurs, one thing which cannot be ignored is that social entrepreneurs must operate within the legal and regulatory frameworks established by governments, and that those frameworks can either be tremendously helpful or harmful.  How entrepreneurs should attempt to influence the regulatory ecosystem is still an open question.  Some panelists and audience members called for greater unity within the social entrepreneurial movement, so that entrepreneurs may wield greater political power, rather than fighting amongst themselves for scraps of investment.  But how can this best be done? At the session’s end, this frontier still looked like a frontier.

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