Saturday, August 30, 2008

The North West

After years exiled in East Anglia, the North West feels like LA - packed with people, covered in motorways, spotted with towns which all blend together, the miles between them long since eaten away. No Greebelts here, except the natural ones to the East (the Pennines) and the sea to the West.

I am in Warrington, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester. Warrington kind of sums up the story of the last fify years in the North West. Its actually a New Town, flanked by motorways beside which sit its numerous industrial estates. Its a place mainly where business gets done.

But not the business done in Hoxton or Cambridge, more the kind of business that keeps Britain ticking over day in, day out. Distribution depots, call centres, office furniture makers. It was never a big mill town but now captures the way the north-west makes it living.

My purpose is to see two people. First, in the morning, I see Matt Stevenson-Dodd. Matt is the new CEO of Young Enterprise North West. YENW is all about encouraging young people to start businesses.

As a Social Enterprise Ambassador, Matt recently left Unique, a company he established, to lead the revival of this forty-odd year old organisation. Although Matt is more than my equal, I am acting as his mentor during this important first couple of years.

As is usual when new in post he found an organisation rich in potential but with a legacy of recent underperformance. While not a turnaround in the true sense, his task involves re-energising, refocusing and making the business a lot more effective in its use of resources. We focus on how to involve everyone in generating a new plan, something I have often failed to do in the past at Speaking Up.

My big message is to be clear and simple about the recovery programme - give it a small number of big aims - and create some space underneath these headings for people to make the plan real for their part of the business. Matt, who scored a distinction at MBA, combines a subtle and quick mind with a level and approachable personality. He will turn this organisation around very easily I feel.

Over lunch, the conversation moves onto our respective longer term futures. I seem to have a lot of these conversations with men in the 35-40 bracket. Its a time when you've lived a bit, know yourself that bit better and, crucially, a time in your working life when your past is suddenly about the same size as your future.

Both of us started out with garganturan ambition and drive and now find it cooled by family, our other interests and a realisation that getting high on tree doesn't necessarily make you any happier.

The afternoon takes me across Warrington to see Rob Harris, founder and CEO of Advocacy Experience. Rob fulfils most people's picture of the Bluff Northerner. Straight-talking, no-nonsense, quick-witted. Rob is a social entrepreneur but, unusually, owns his business 100%. Some would say he isn't a social entrepreneur at all but I would disagree. Althouth his business is profitable, he doesn't maximise personal profit and ensures a healthy balance between social and financial results.

We talk about private versus non-profit ownership. Rob is scathing about what he sees as the in-built waste and ineffectivness of many charities and public organisatios. He say he has a very powerful personal motivation to be efficient and to deliver long-term. He thinks that`skin in the game' - big personal financial interest in the business - is critical if waste & inefficiency are not to be endemic.

In answer to my question of `Does Mission Matter?', Rob would say that it matters a lot less in terms of getting the job done than a lot of people would like to pretend.

Rob own view is that only charities reliant on volunteering and donations should be allowed that status and the rest of what is currently the third sector should operate as businesses. They should seek to make a profit as well deliver social good. This would attract more private operators working into sleepy sectors which are presently dominated by charities.

Whether you agree with Rob or not, you cannot argue with the evidence of Advocacy Experience.

My explicit purpose in seeing Rob is to learn more about how he runs a profitable advocacy business as Speaking Up actually loses money on the types of contracts that Rob is doing handsomely on.

I also believe, longer term, that we might benefit from a much closer-tie in with AE, if we could keep Rob and take their profitable business model into other parts of our own organisation. But this is very specuative and, in a recession, my mind is focussed more on other things.

Evening and I meet up with old mates in the Footballers Arms near where I grew up. The place is like a school reunion, an evening full of double takes and overdone bonhomie. Had I knew in advance that half my year would be there I would have suggested an alternative.

What is clear is that living up here definitely ages you quicker. 40 looks like 50 in places like this. Mainly because of the smoking and bad food I think. Pub-banter I find difficult and pretty dull as its all the same, in every place at all times. Just like there are only three film plots there are fewer pub conversations....

But seeing my mates was good. Though we are all now in completely different walks of life, I just feel very comfortable with people I have known for 30 years.

Today (Saturday) I have been told to wear a suit when I visit the Executive suite at Reebok Stadium where I am the special guest of the CEO of Keyfund, Hannah Eyres, a fellow Impetus charity, who is a also a Bolton fan. A more loyal one than I it has to be said.

Its a long way from going with Dad in the late seventies sitting on wooden benches, eating filthy pies watching Peter Reid, Sam Allardyce and Len Cantello win us the Second Division Championship. This morning I feel like an excited child on Christmas morning. Although I am cynical as the next person about the way the game has gone, the tingle of excitement when I take my seat has never gone, nor ever will.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Day in Lincolnshire

Think of Lincolnshire and you see flat brown fields, long roads and old towns packed with new people from all over Europe.

Speaking Up's brand new place in Lincolnshire sits in the middle of countryside with Lincoln Catherdral towering in the distance. I spent a good day there yesterday. Morning was passed with our excellent leader there Ruth Ingamells who has led the team from two people to god-knows-how many now in a very short time. Ruth is a spirited Liverpudlian who once auditioned for the part Anna Friel got in Brookside 20 years ago. So you get the idea...Thankfully she didn't get that part so had ended up working for us. And what a good leader she is. The atmosphere up there, even through we're going through a lot of change, is really positive. She sets the tone. She supports people but also takes no nonsense either. And her skill in dealing with our Commissioners is legendary.

Went for lunch with about half of the team and managed to get several volunteers to run workshops and events for our Big Day Out event in October. Talk about up for it. I now have a didgeree-doo playing workshop, a visualation workshop and a movement workshop. On top I have a genuine Eastender in Colin Haywood introducing our `Marketplace' (in true Romford-market fashion) and two buskers in the shape of Glenn Gibbs and David Lawrence.

With staff like this, you're never going to lose are you?

Later on I met with Carolyn Kus, the Assistant Director of Lincs County Council Adult Services. Occassionally you meet people in the public sector who blow you away with their vision, courage and practical intelligence. Carolyn was one such person. She has already driven forward the personalisation agenda further than I have seen it done elsewhere. What particularly inspires me is that she doesn't seem daunted or phased by the challenges that seem to lead other public sector managers I know to have a bottle of vodka in their desk drawer. Members? They come round to it. Unions? We have them with us? Carers? Difficult but we talked to them. See how it is done.

From my Ambassador and Futurebuilders hats, I was really impressed to hear the efforts made to develop the market for third sector organisations. Again some real, tangible things. Who said you can't change things from within the public sector? Come meet Carolyn Kus!

We parted promising to share respective books - the one she is writing on stategic development of management team, mine on how to change the world. For once, I left a public building feeling inspired, not disappointed or subdued.

Some days as a CEO are like this. They go well. People recognise the good stuff and live with the bad. I need days like this as we are going through a lot of change - Growing Pains, essentially. A million organisations have gone through it but it feels unique to us and its toll on people can be really heavy.

I phoned one of my Trustees on the way home, the superb Jon Sparkes, the CEO of Scope, a charity facing huge challenges. Jon never fails to put Speaking Up in perspective when I am worried. We are, he says, a financially stable, successful organisation that is relevant to today and tomorrow. We are simply going through the pains of growth. Imagine what the opposite would be like, he says, just before my phone cuts out.

He is right, as always.

A Social Enterprise By Any Other Name?

Speaking Up was mentioned last week by Debra Alcock Tyler, CEO of the Director of Social Change, as an example of a charity seeking to rev-up its own profile by adopting the brand of `social business' as opposed to the `for good' brand-leader, that of `charity'(

Debra's argument runs a bit like this. Charities are `for good'. Businesses are `for profit'. Anything in the middle confuses the poor old public who don't like their heads being messed with. Social firms are really charities. They should 'fess up to this rather than pretend to be something else. Period.

Sorry Debra, but the times they-are-a-changing. Although you are not alone in seeking to conserve the status quo, the world is fast moving on. Old ideas (like charity) are having to hold their own against new ones which the public quite like (eg. social business). We are in a period of transition that will only be apparent when we look back in a few years time.

So rather than accusing us of finding new words for old ideas, Debra needs to ask a deeper question: `Why is the concept of charity is slowly but sureley losing traction with both the public and those seeking to change the world?'.

Here are three reasons why social business is not a reheated version of charity.

Firstly, social business is, at its core, about self-help and entrepreneurialism as a vehicle for change rather than relying on the charitiable goodwill of others. Social business is a very different thing than charity, a Victorian concept which has its origins in the idea of doing good works unto others-less-fortunate.

Charity has its place - don't get me wrong - but its very much of the 19th and 20th centuries, not the one we're in. People now seek empowerment not alms. Trade not aid. Rights not charity etc. The concept of charity, I'm afraid. is pretty much exhausted. The `brand' will follow.

Secondly, social business is based on the idea of exchange: offering services in a market place. These services may have a social purpose, but they are are voluntarily purchased by a third party and bring with them an obligation of delivering to the customer.

Again, this is very different to charity where the idea is that you are given money to serve the objects of the charity. The line in the sand is clear.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the social business sector is dramatically expanding the boundaries of the `for good' sector well beyond the closely guarded borders protected by the traditionalists of the voluntary sector.

This little republic is highly conservative, perceiving a 'for good' sector which is very small in relation to both public and private sectors.

We in social business just don't accept this lack of ambition. By contrast, we believe in building a much bigger and more diverse `for good' sector. This means casting the net a lot wider beyond the usual lines of demarcation.

On one side, we embrace progressive for-profit businesses that make a difference, as well as profit. As Tim Smit says, the world's problems are too big to be left to charities. Without business on-side we might at well give up.

This progressive, environmentally-aware business sector is growing all the time and should be encouraged rather than treated with ultra-scepticism.

On the other side, we encourage charities (like Speaking Up) which are moving away from a charitable model to a business model that enables far more reach than if it stayed reliant on grants.

This model has seen Speaking Up grow from £0.5m to £4.5m in five years and help 4000 rather than 400 people. Its genesis was the leverage created by marrying third sector passion with the private sector methods brought to us by the Impetus Trust, a group of former venture-capitalists.

But the tired `three silo' world-view (for-profit, public-sector, charity) represented by Debra is instinctively suspicious of anything like this. For Debra, it seems, you are either on the side of the angels (a charity) or in league with the devil.

OK, perhaps that's a little harsh. But business isn't there just to supply tax for public services. This is to ignore its potential as a force for change.

Now for my potshot: What is most delicious to me is how voluntary sector stalwarts like DSC are actually fast-becoming more like social businesses than they would care to admit.

I feel proud when I see how much more they are relying on trading income and contracts and how they become more business-like with every passing year. Particularly as governement grants dry up and market opportunities open.

In fact DSC so getting good at social business that someone should consider entering them for this year's Upstarts Awards!


Friday, August 22, 2008

Does Mission Really Matter?

Does being a mission-driven organisation make any difference to delivery? Its a question being asked a lot right now in the context of third sector organisations.

On one side, the third sector, for once in its life, is united in its stance that, YES, mission matters - and that this entitles us be chosen over the private sector when going for Government contracts.

On the other you have the Parliamentary Select Committee led by Tony Wright MP saying that the case that third sector service delivery still needs to be made.

While Wright probably does need to get out a little more, I believe his point is one that needs to be addressed in a more honest way by third sector leaders.

For if the sector is asking for a level playing field, there surely has to be a more compelling case than one which states that mission-driven organizations are somehow `better' for end users?

Scratch away at the big claims made for the sector and the slightly messy truth is that, yes, while mission indeed DOES influence results, being mission-driven alone isn't nearly enough either to win confidence in our basic competence or guarantee those additional benefits that we use to sell ourselves.

Let’s be clear about this: Being mission-driven in and of itself guarantees nothing to end-users in terms of decent delivery or additional benefits to users. Public-sector organisations, remember, have comparable ideals to many third sector organizations.

Yet no-one seriously claims that this ethos on its own makes them any good at delivery. Indeed publicly run organisations are now synonymous with inefficiency, lack of innovation and being dominated by provider interests (unions etc).

So it goes in the third sector where you will find tens of thousands of dreadful organisations delivering third-rate services, wasting millions, failing to understand their clients, being run in the interests of staff and generally Getting It Wrong.

Some pretty big and famous names included.

Yes, please let it be said. The third sector is a real mixed bag. And in 15 years in it, I have seen the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Baddies and the Uglies come in two main types. One is the small organisation that runs on passion alone. They think that good intentions alone are enough on which to base a service.

The other is the donation-stuffed larger charities with PAs for everyone, marble offices and end-users who are too powerless to ask for better.

Both fail the customer badly. One by screwing up on delivery by not being professional enough. The other by having no economic reason to particularly care.

What I am driving at here is that, regardless of which sector you come from, being professional, well-managed and economically dependent on good delivery are pre-conditions of success.

Mission-related benefits only kick-in, and are only of any genuine value to anyone (including the user), when execution is right.

Only then can you successfully invoke the exceptional trust you can generate in your users; the great acts of voluntarism your mission inspires; your ability to attract resources from all sectors of society; your ability to co-produce services alongside users.

Now then, these are all things that private and public organisations struggle to do.
However, the private sector will always be near or better than us on professional management, efficiency and customer service.

Because these are their only potential sources of advantage and hence survival. For this reason the private sector will work very hard to show themselves to be better on delivery than we will ever be.

Therefore our job is not to carp to Ministers about level playing fields. Rather it is to at least match the private sector on delivery if we are to trump their offer with the ace-card represented by our mission and the benefits to users flowing out of it. If we fail to do this, our ace is useless.

Take the next Olympics as an example. GLL, a social business, are pitching to run the acquatic centre against considerable private competition. Their pitch, if they win it, will have successfully covered the delivery question before the social dividend is even discussed.

Because people buy on delivery. The Government, you me, everybody. The extras conferred by mission are only meaningful once this has been dealt with and we have successfully won the argument on delivery.

To do this we need to make tough decisions as a sector in the next five years. There are too many charities coasting by on public donations that don't run tight-ships. Too many charities which are divorced from any kind of pressure to innovate or improve. And too many that think MBA is a dirty word and that passion will get you there.

To deal with this, we need more mergers, more closures of crap organisations and greater media scutiny of the excesses and failures of some of our nation's beloved charities.

While I am not optimistic about this, I am hoping very much that the recession will do some of this work for us.

And right now, it is important now that we are honest with Government as a sector about our strengths and shortcomings. If we want a level playing field, we need to be able to play on it.

We can then insist that if are indeed as good as private providers we should, by right, win on the basis of added, mission-given value.

But we continue to plead, as we do now, plead for a bigger slice of the Government pie based on mission without actually being the best on delivery, our claims will, quite rightly, be enfeebled.

Does mission matter? Yes, but not as much as we like to think.

Why Consortia Are Nearly Always a Bad Idea

One of the test-questions of whether you are a good third sector organisation or not seems to be `Do you like working in partnership with other organisations?'

Say `No' or `We're rather not if avoidable' gets you Anne Robinson treatment. You are the Weakest Link - Goodbye.

Being jolly-up for `partnerships' and `consortia' therefore is all part of what being a good charity or social enterprise is all about.

But is this actually sensible? I think not. Partnerships, for me are simply a tool, a means to an end. In my book, they're a bit like SAGE accounting or Investors in People.

But for some reason they are become an end in themselves.

Sadly, this is dangerous territory, encouraging collaboration where none is needed and over-complicated, bureaucratic arrangements leading to inefficiency and failure in delivery.

Don't get me wrong - there is a place for partnerships. You need them if putting together something where you don't have everything you need in your own organisation. Or if the whole created by collaboration is somehow a lot more than the individual parts.

Yet somehow partnerships and consortia have become a religion. In my own sector - advocacy - consortia are increasingly seen as the answer in an environment where lots of tiny organisations struggle among themselves - and against the bigger players - to get the one big contract.

Rather than merge or subcontract, these very small organisations - which are essentially identical - set up big consortia which put them all together to compete for contracts.

Sensible right? Well, no, actually. Because consortia are always, always dogged by high transactions costs (needing five managements to agree things rather than one), uneven delivery (leading one or more partner to be loathed by the rest), accountability mechanisms. In short, all the energy goes on the partnership, not on the delivery and not a lot gets done.

The really smart commissioners of services know this and avoid consortia like the plague. But others, falling in behind the guff emanating from the Office of the Third Sector, duly try to commission consortia.

The cannier of these dump all the risk of dealing with a messy consortium to a lead provider. The less aware ones end up playing referee and tying themselves in knots trying to hold the ring so that the consortium actually delivers something.

How do I know all this? Simple. Numerous consortia, numerous utterly disastrous, wasteful, demoralising experiences that deliver bugger-all for anybody.

What I don't like most of all about the shotgun weddings represented by most consortia is that organisational self-interest lies at the heart of it. Its not about the users at all. Its about my little republic.

The truth that a lot of third sector organisations need to understand (and the recession will teach this to many of them) is that it isn't smart to hold on to your identity and organisational ego forever.

Often its better just to merge or close. But I don't need to worry. If you're not effective, this next couple of years will put paid to you. Consortia or no consortia.

Its the same for business, let it be the same for us.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ten Years is a Long Time to Wait

Tonselitis (not mine) kept me home today. Spent most of last night awake tending young Wilf who has a nasty dose. Wilf's travails left me half-dead and not getting to London for the ACEVO Working Group on third sector service delivery for the Department of Work and Pensions.

The purpose of this high-level group (including David Freud, the guru who is writing Government policy) is to `make the case' for an expansion of third sector provision during a blizzard of rapid change that will see Back to Work transformed from a sleepy, ineffective public sector monopoly in which clients had bugger-all choice to, we all hope, a new competitive world of fast-paced private and third sector organisations all vying to attract the attentions of thus-far-incapable job-seekers.

Will it work? If Australia is anything to go by, yes it will. Obviously there will be problems to ease out (cherry-picking of easy cases etc), subcontracting to smaller orgs and so on but, overall, by 2015 there should be a lot more people in work and off benefits than ten years of Labour's obese public sector has delivered.

This should, of course, have happened in 1998, not 2008 when Labour had the goodwill and political capital to do what it wanted. But, of course, they bottled it and sacked one of the few sane people in the Labour Cabinet, Frank Field. Now that Hain is safely out of the way (what a preening, vain man he was) we have the young Blairite James Purnell who, like all true Blairites, knows that markets have a big role to play in creating better public services.

The scarcity of people like Purnell in the Labour Party really scares me now. With the Unions giving them now 90% of their election cash their list of demands reads like something from 1975. What, of course, Labour need to do is ditch Brown in the Autumn, elect Miliband with Alan Johnson as Deputy and surround him with Purnell as Shadow Chancellor and Ed Miliband as Home Sec then go to the country in Spring on a radical-centre ticket. They will still lose but not badly. But this isn't going to happen. They will get slaughtered, probably with Gordon still in post but if not someone else totally dreadful.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Back on the Blog

Whizzing back from London on the 1630hrs with the contrasting faces of
Essex (from grim Brentwood to cute Manningtree) flying past outside.

Immensely enjoyable day in London. First up was a visit to the Cabinet Office in Admirality Arch. Set in what looks like an ornate lump of rock is a warren of government offices. While the Cabinet Office is its latest occupant, I felt somehow that the work of the Social Exclusion Unit would have been puzzling and obscure to the grizzled campaigners of the nineteenth century navy. What they would have made of the flotilla of Public Service Agreements now excercising the mind of Government, god only knowns.

sorted the details of Phil Hopes visit with a bright young official and was then on my way. Phil I coming for the best part of a day. Lets hope he doesn't get reshuffled when Gordon makes his Last Stand in the Autumn.