Thursday, July 10, 2008

The most famous social entrepreneur you've never heard of...

Say the name Simon Duffy to most people in our sector and they won't know who you mean. That bloke who played Bobby Ewing in Dallas? Father of that Welsh girl with a voice like Dusty Springfield?

However say `personalisation of public services' and people will know what you're on about. Well Simon is, as far as one can say these things, the person behind the story. And in this sense, he is a far bigger influence on the future of our nation than most of today's social entrepreneurs put together.

Yes, Simon Duffy is probably our lowest profile-highest impact social entrepreneur. Or, I should lowest profile in the select world of social entrepreneurship. In the wider world he's a big name, winner of the Albert Medal, an honour bestowed on, among others, Albert Einstein. He's credited with the intellectual spadework behind the creation of personal budgets for disabled people. His organisation, In Control, has been in the vanguard, enabling over 5000 people to take control of their own resources to shape a life of their own choosing.

Now Simons thinking is now spreading like brushfire through Government. The Darzi review speaks of patients with lon term conditions managing their own budgets. The Department of Work and Pension is looking at personal budgets for the long term unemployed. The rest of us are gasping to keep up.

A philospoher by background, Simon wrote 'Keys to Citizenship' a few years ago following time spent overseas as a Harkness Scholar. This became the template for his work, first, with Inclusion Glasgow and latterly with In Control. His approach is one based in his philosophical work which, broadly speaking, is libertarian but places the individual and the `good life' firmly in a social setting.

I met Simon at the RSA. I called the meeting to ask his views about a new service we are thinking of selling to councils to help more disabled people use personal budgets. Characteristically, he said yes (no blocking PAs or prima donna-ism that I have encountered, sadly, a few times of late from people with big views of themselves) and here he was.

Thankfully he liked our idea. This mattered. He understands the market and the way things are developing on the ground. There was one caveat. He doesn't like the idea of yet more superstructure adding to the costs of giving people with disabilities their lives back. Any additions would need to be more-than matched with reductions in the activity of the state at local level. To this end we agreed to partner with local authorities that needed to disinvest in care management as they ramped up the kind of informal `people-powered' support we are proposing to faciliate at local level.

We talked a lot about the social care sector. For me it was like coming home. Speaking to someone who shared most of my own deepest feelings. It was both a relief and somehow quite vindicating. I spend a lot of time feeling like a chorus of one, be it in my dealings with the social care establishment (councils etc) and even certain people in the advocacy sector.

Simon pointed to advocacy as a sector desperate to create a self-justifying theology out of what is, in essence, helping people to control their own lives. He expressed the view that many people in the advocacy business make things unnecessarily complex to cover their own lack of accountability for achieving things. Even though I run one, this was I view I could certainly understand. We do spend a lot of time coming up with all sorts of stuff about what our job is and isn't to do. Perhaps we need to stop and admit that its actually really simple.

I came away from our meeting feeling pretty good. I'd met in Simon a guy with strong values, unflinching drive and the intellectual self-confidence to cut through the bullshit. I'd also met someone who could give anyone a Masterclass in how to be influential.

He inspired me too. I have had some dark doubts in recent times about my level of motivation and my life-strategy of creating a big, strong business that could help a lot more people - but which is undoubtedly corporate and highly growth oriented. I know Simon prefers small scale and has eschewed this kind of approach but I somehow, in a weird way, felt better about what I was actually doing with my life. Day to day I often struggle knowing that I am making any real difference at all.

When I started it was idea today, action tomorrow. I could see the changes with my own eyes. Now the amount of co-ordinated effort, time and money to produce change seems to much greater, and more vulnerable to the needs of funders, the organisation, staff and so on.

Arrived home from London to pick up Ruby from her Nan's. She was very pleased to see me. Until the arrival of her fish and chips. Then I was very much secondary to proceedings. That girl knows where her priorities lie.

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