Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fire Fighting

Yes, except this Fire Fighter (its been on HELL of a week for me, hence no blogs) can't retire at 48 on a full pension. Nor, however, do I have to run into burning buildings, granted.

There has been surprisingly little fuss about how well protected people in the public sector are not only from recession but also from the poverty in old-age. At one time, we all had good pensions care of excellent private and company policies funded by a rising stock market.

That is history now. To buy a pension at 65 that will give me, say 20k per annum I will need a fund running into hundreds of thousands of pounds which, in turn, would require me to put about £800 per month aside, or 20% of my income.

However, were I to join the NHS or a local council, I would simply pay about 7% of my salary into the scheme and have a defined return of about half my salary upon retirement. Or, if I was on the money I am today at 65, about 30k.

Can this be right? Is it healthy to have a two-tier system in which one section of society enjoys a massive privilege by dint of the sector they have chosen to make their career?

I think it is wrong that you can't find a company pension scheme for love nor money while my younger brother, who has just joined a council in the north of England at age 29, be retiring on twice what I will, while probably finishing work on half my earnings and having put far less aside.

Worryingly, the pensions timebomb is nowhere on Alistair Darling's long-range projections. Today, there are more retired policemen taking a pension than serving officers. Soon, the same will be the case in other emergency services, local government and the NHS. Public Sector Baby Boomers will get their final slug of luck and retire happy and secure, again at the long-term expense of the rest of us.

For some reason, this isn't being flagged as the scandal it is. In my view we should close all defined benefit pensions for the public sector to new entrants and reduce entitlement to a third rather than a half of final salary so that we can actually afford to pay all these people.

This will hurt me too by the way. My wife is a public sector worker who will do very well from the scheme. But I think if want social cohesion we can't afford to have a class of people retiring affluent at 60-65 while the rest of us work into our 70s. Its just not right. The Unions, with their puported interest in social justice, need to say this too. But they won't, of course.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sick Bredrin

36 hours in the capital now back in Suffolk and its five to midnight.

Wed AM: Met with my Polish mentee Karolina, a young social entrepreneur with incredible talent who will, I am sure, run the world (or at least Poland) one day with enormous energy and skill. She is a fast learner, not scared to take risks and learns from her mistakes. Just needs the breaks. She'll be fine.

Wed PM: Futurebuilders Investment Committee. Talented committee, always a good use of time. Lots to decide. Always colourful, never dull.

Wed Evening. Meet Malcolm, my college friend now teaching in a West London Comp. Thirty odd nations in his school. Find out that "Sick" means "good" in street-speak. The school's ageing liberal head ("go play Connect 4 in the mentor hut") has been replaced by a bully ("you lot have been patronizing these kids for 30 years") who is chasing results and after Malcolm's ass because he is now the (reluctant) NUT rep.

I ask about Malolm's week. Heavy.

1. Two sets of Catholic Polish parents being told (via a translator) that Magda and Iva, their 14 year old daughters have been impersonating each others' mothers in calls to the school to the last month to say they are ill when they have really been round at 21 year old Omar's house, shagging him.

2. A Kuwaiti goatherd (age 11) refuses to sit at a desk because he doesn't know what one is and prefers the floor. The kid, like all kids, is learning English really quick is now describing his leather jacket as "gangsta" rather than "cool" or "fashionable".

3. Black History Week has been "taken over", to the chagrin of most parents, by a militant Livingstone-era "head of cultural cohesion" who was rapping in assembly that the BLACK man Obama has now taken over the WHITE House (his emphasis). Much to the chagrin of theSouth Asian families who don't see themselves as "black". Needless to say, Remembrance Day wasn't marked by the school, again to the bemusement of the White British, Polish and West Indian parents.

4. The final nail in Malcolm's week has been finding out that his favourite colleague has been probably shagging a former pupil (with whom he now lives) since she was 11. The cops are involved and he's having to weigh how to play it with his erstwhile colleague.

Listening to Malcolm you see how much Britain has changed since we were kids (I am nearly 40). He cannot be alone with a kid. The school has thirty odd language spoken and kids are scanned at the gates with metal detectors.

The staff group churns every five years. At six years in, Malcolm is a grizzled veteran on the team. Yet he insists it isn't a depressing place and that things have been getting better. His account grips me, perplexes me but also lifts me too, all at once. When I talk to Malcolm I realise how far I am from any kind of front line. He deserves at least an MBE.

Today, do a workshop at a middling conference at Westminster then off to Coutts to a reception for social enterprise. Coutts have invited wealthy clients to hear from top notch social entrepreneurs.

I don't speak but hear excellent presentations from Rod Schwartz of Catalyst Investments, Kevin Brennan the surprisingly good new Third Sector Minister, Penny Newman of Cafe Direct now Fifteen and the guy who set up Whatif?, the innovation firm.

I muse on social business. Most of the Coutts clients present don't mix business witb doing-good. They do both but keep it strictly separate. Blending them is a new message. The speakers do this well but I can see just how novel this idea is to many of those watching.

In the toilets I speak to one of the SE Ambassadors who is v cynical about the event, telling me that quite a few people had left saying it was essentially a charity-bash for rich people. Tough but perhaps a little true as well.

Get home at midnight having missed the kids like crazy for 24 hours. I long to go and hug them bu I can't without waking them up. So I blog instead. Goodnight.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Broken Bones, Broken System

At the end of a perfect paper trail lies the shattered corpse of a dead baby. The facts scream out at us. 60 visits from professionals in the last year. Procedures not followed. One on four social work posts unfilled. Silence from the 150k a year leaders of these services.

OK, so, beyond the recycled headlines what is wrong here? I know a lot of people in this world and this is what they tell me.

Firstly, many local authority children's departments are poorly led and badly managed. This creates a vicious circle of declining performance. A friend of mine leads a local child protection team in the East of England. Upon taking over the team, he had several vacancies, two staff on long term sick, two about to leave and a number of people he personally deemed incompetent on this team. `How many strong individuals did you have?' I asked him. Two he said. Out of a team of eleven. And he counted himself in this number. `What kinds of problems does this cause?' I continued. He he told me there were people in his team who had problems with the language and reading the subtleties of communication (they were recruited from overseas), other who couldn't write reports, keep basic records and manage relationships. confronting parents and tended to opt for the least distruptive line-of-approach.

Secondly, according to my friends, the system used tends to create a situation whereby all the agencies get involved and the process is followed but nothing happens. Accountability gets blurred and people engage in blame-passing. The professional cultures of the different authorities jar and communication is often poor. Inter-agency working - the glue that binds the system together- is just not happening in many areas.

Thirdly, there is a culture of `working with the family' which sometimes gets in the way of the necessary hard-headedness to say to people that you think they are are lying and you're not giving them the benefit of the doubt. A lack of worldliness and toughness is common among social workers, I am told.

Now, if this is a child protection team in a fairly well-to-do part of the world what it is like in places like Haringey? I imagine that chaos and complexity of a place like that is very much reflected in the way its public services operate.

Is there an answer to this? Yes of course there is an answer. It was never inevitable that Child P was going to die. There were countless opportunities to remove him which were lost. The local authority has a lot to answer for and, yes,senior heads should roll and the department taken out of council control for a time. Outsiders need to get in there and turn the place over.

I just can't believe there has been no resignation. If anything truly terrible happened in one of my services I would hope I would do the decent thing. Even if the Director of Children's Services was not personally at fault (which I doubt) it is right and proper that they stand down. Just like the Controller of Radio 2 did over a far less offence.

The Government also is to blame. They have set up these `Safeguarding Teams', , inter-agency panels led by the council, which oversee the way councils are dealing with `at risk' children but placed them within LAs rather than at one remove. This is wrong-headed. In the case of Haringey, reports into how the case was handled would be signed off by the same person whose department is under scrutiny. Total madness.

Finally, the social work profession needs to take a close look at how it works. There is a strong feeling among the public that social workers prioritize the wrong things and that political correctness plays too much a part in decisions. Especially in big London boroughs where social work teams do not reflect the local population. We have to support social workers to make the right calls and not to fear being accused of racism or being anti-poor people.

And the third sector? Could we make a better fist of child protection? I am sure we could add something to the mix but I am not sure if the sector's skills and capacities are yet fully up to the challenge. I suspect we could easily end up , if commissioned drawn in the laybrinthyn madness of local authorities' ways of working. Nearly every local authority I have encountered has an internal culture that is, to put it politely, unhelpful to the disposition of its duties. I fear we could end up toxified bv that as I doubt they would give any third party the freedom to operate in any way differently or even slightly beyond their control.

I end my week with two children in the house sleeping. One is just a couple of months older than Baby P. When I saw those images, I saw my son. His soft skull, his simple needs, his beautiful eyes and soft skin. Just like those of Baby P.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Day with the Lefties

Spoke today at the conference of London Voluntary Sector Resource Centre, the VCS umbrella for the capital. Sharing a platform was Andy Benson of the new National Coalition of Independent Organisations.

Andy is an incredibly eloquent exponent of a view of the sector which, in many ways is right. But rather in the way that Marx was right. The analysis is strong and based on good principle. The problem is that, like Marx, he offered few answers beyond getting angry, solidarity, all that SWP/Respect stuff.

What I liked about Andy was that he is coming from some of the same places as me. He's angry about a lot of stuff. He believes in freedom of expression and the primacy of civil society. He is a sceptic about the state and brilliantly funny about the rot mouthed by Government about empowerment, capacity-building and so on. He is also very perceptive about the way commissioning can turn the sector into a dumb servant of state ends, no longer an independent, free voice.

But that's as far as it went. He's also, quite oddly, a bit of a statist. Asked about the need to break down public sector monopolies, he talked about the loss of central control this would entail. What I couldn't quite square is how this champion of community wanted to protect failing state monopolies whose existence impoverishes the communities which he champions.

While there were supportive pockets, the audience overall was probably the most left-wing I have encountered. It was a bit like speaking at a fringe meeting at Labour Party conference, circa 1982. I was heckled when I dared to slag off our beloved NHS (yes, the one that is particularly adept at killing learning-disabled people, normally through neglect)or when I spoke about the potential for community organisations to deliver public services.

This bunch of conservatives (for that is what they actually are, for all their self-styled leftyism) actually prefer things the way the are now. They would rather we all choke up even more in tax to pay for the falling productivity and Stalinesque management of these failing bureaucracies than turn them over to a diversity of providers and empowered citizens using personal budgets.

If the choice is a bigger state these guys would go for that every time over a smaller one and more empowered communities. Or at least that's where leftiness inevitably takes you. Personally, that's not what I want. I think we all deserve better than that. The people I work with certainly do and, until someone proves to me otherwise, I will do everything in my power to place choice and control back into their hands and away from the state.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Third Sector Obamas

What does Barack Obama mean for third sector leaders? Any leaders in fact. I have been obsessing over this ever since his election. Obama seems to easily answer the question of what good leadership looks like. A question which, somehow, can seem hard to answer when faced with the sea of ordinariness presented by many of our so-called leaders.

So what does he do? He raises one's sense of the possible. He makes one feel understood. He conveyes a sense that his purpose is really your purpose. He seems to transcend the limitations of what was previously seen as possible. He clearly stands for something greater than his own pursuit of power. Obama is not alone in having these qualities. What is unusual is that he has all of them in abundance.

Now, the third sector. How many Obama-like figures do we have? How many boards seek Obama-liked people to lead their organisations? How many people working in TSOs have CEOs who raise their motivation in the way that Obama lifts the Democrats?

The answer to all these questions is `Not Very Many'. Yet what would TSOs look like if they had leaders with the kind of qualities that Obama has shown?

I count myself as among the deficient. I have, over time, moved from being a leader to a manager and, of all the skills I have sought to develop, I have majored on the technical (understanding balance-sheets, HR, operations) rathe than the inspirational.

I know I am not alone. I think the necessities of the job sort of push you into these directions. It certainly changed me from the idealistic young man I was early on to a slightly harder-edged bloke with a big sense of life's limitations, a sense which, at times, drags my vision down with it.

Perhaps I am being a little hard on myself here. I do feel hope, I do still burn with an honest desire to make good things happen. But leading and inspiring others to join me, while once felt easy, is now more of an effort, knowing, as I do, just how hard it is.

And I guess Barack Obama knows how hard it is too. Yet where he is better than me - and most people - is that this knowledge isn't getting in his way.

That's why he inspires me.

Monday, November 10, 2008

One Way Traffic

This week I learned that a another former employee of mine is off to work in the public sector. Very talented person, big job, good luck to her. She is not the first. In all I reckon I have lost about ten in the last two or so years to public sector jobs. In the opposite direction about two.

No-one can blame the staff. In the public sector they get good money, job-security and a gold-plated pension, often for doing work not a million miles away from what they did for us.

However, what this does indicate, for me, is that the public sector is probably doing too much in relation to the third sector. Most of the people I have lost are doing roles which could be delivered far more effectively and economically in the third sector. Tenant participation. Youth action. Customer complaints.

But no, they have ended up `in house'. Not because they should be there but because councils are permitted to grow their own workforces without recourse to competitive tender. So no matter how costly or poor the service is, there is no mechanism for its replacement, as is the case if, say, one of my services doesn't make the cut.

My feeling, after watching councils-in-action for 15 years now is that they can't really be trusted to do the right thing. With a few very notable exceptions, they are generally poorly led, both at political and officer level, and do not have any real concept of how to work with other sectors, private or voluntary.

Indeed one of the councils I have watched at close quarters has shown, at times, a sectionalism towards its own provider interests which, if this were a particular southern European country, may attract a much ruder label.

This has to be stopped. How and by whom I don't know. One of Thatcher's brightest ideas was, upon Community Care coming into being, to guarantee 80% of social care going to other sectors.

In one act, this prevented the nationalisation of social care, a move which would have been as disastrous as it would have been inevitable had the NHS and LAs been left to do what they wanted. Thanks to her, we now have a thriving, diverse and pretty efficient social care sector. I don't often praise Maggie but she knew vested interests when she saw them.

Something similar is needed now. Because I want my youth workers back.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Wilting Rose

The Windsor Leadership Trust's annual lecture was given this year by the Chairman and CEO of Marks and Spencer, Sir Stuart Rose.

I was really looking forward to the evening. WLT events are normally very strong. In previous years I had seen bravura performances from leaders such as Allan Leighton and Sir Ian Blair (just in the aftermath of 7/7 so totally fascinating).

Tonight however was different. Sir Stuart was, well, simply dull. He had very few insights to offer beyond the usual golf club cliches and tired military metaphores. He just didn't come across as a man running Britain's best-loved firm. Neither did you get a sense of how he had come to be the man he is. No sense of the inner drive or exceptional motivation which catapults people to high profile jobs.

In terms of the concept ofleadership itself, I sensed that he wasn't particularly interested. He is clearly no intellectual but, at the same time, obviously knows, on quite an instinctive, practical how to lead. Perhaps what was most frustrating was that he couldn't really articulate this in an engaging way, leaving his audience unfulfilled, as testified by the dearth of questions at the end.

I am probably being a little harsh. Rose is under a lot of pressure right now as the media paint his recovery as another M&S false dawn. I agree with Rose that M&S is a much better business now than it was when he took over but its clear, from the whole body-language, that he feels he is entering the last year or two of his reign.

I nearly asked a question about his reaction to the election of Obama and what he made of Obama as a leader. Then I didn't. Because I wasn't particularly interested in what he might say.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Leadership Lessons from Barack Obama

I stayed up till the BBC confirmed that he had won Ohio. That meant it was in the bag. I went to bed feeling relieved. This, after all, was the country that elected George Bush only four years before.

Over breakfast I heard his acceptance speech in which he laid out the palate of American history through the life of a 106 year old supporter. This woman had been born just one generation after the abolition of slavery and now was witnessing the first black president.

Now the attention is on what Obama will do with office. One cannot help but feel this is going to be a very different kind of Presidency. The engagement he has created in the campaign will, I believe, find its way into the way he uses the office going forward.

I believe Obama won because he is the most outstanding candidate since JFK. What sets him apart is his leadership. The lesson of Obama is that a leader must both embody and stand up for particular values. He or she must also make people feel that what is happening now is about them - not about the leader - as Obama did in his acceptance speech.

One think I think Obama understands is that leadership is about raising the sights of others. This in turn motivates real change. Presidents often come in with strong ideals - like Carter and Clinton - then don't have the traction to make good of the office. By contrast, Obama grasps that if he is to succeed as President he needs to mobilise people and use the office to reach out, rather in the way he did as a candidate, to set an agenda for people to follow.

Obama is taking office at the turning point in US economic power, at the end of its period of military dominance and at a time when the world is facing its biggest ever challenge, that of the environment.

Ironically, America has elected somebody that could, if we all had a vote, be President of the World. God Bless America.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Exit Strategies

The Managing People conference last week, hosted by Directory of Social Change, was looking at the problems of why there are proportionately more Employment Tribunals hailing from our sector than any other. The answer, in short, was that we have a more `stroppy', rights-aware workforce who, if wronged, are quick to go to law. Coupled with this, we are not good, as a sector, at settling the matter with people before things go nuclear and you're staring at your former employee across a courtroom.

So what do we do about this? Although its probably unfashionable to turn to the private sector at this present moment, let's look, for a second, at what goes on here. Three big differences stand out about the best private firms. Firstly, they are better at the technicalities of employing people. Taking on staff these days carries liabilities which many TSOs just don't understand. Slipping through the ice is incredibily easy, as I did myself a few years ago when I got a `consultation period' wrong and ended up in a Tribunal. I, of course, never even knew I had to have one!

Secondly, the better firms are better at heading things off at the pass. Most Employment Tribunal situations arise because, somewhere along the way, things have gotten out hand. Emotions have risen and communication has quickly broken down. When this happens, TSOs, I have noticed, become paralysed, fearful of making contact in case this itsself opens up legal liabilities. I remember in one charity in which I was a trustee, where a dialogue was probably all that was required to settle matters. The charity remained ice-bound and ended up paying out £10,000 and being on the end of some harsh words from the Chair of the Tribunal.

Thirdly, private companies are, in my experience, much better at cutting a deal. Most of my friends work in private companies. In their world, there is a recognised financial cost for settling disputes which everyone understands, including the employees. This is because of the hassle of a Tribunal. People are willing to pay quite big money to avoid being put through the trouble. So quite simply, there is a `price' for resolution of disputes, dependent on the dispute and the industry. One bloke I spoke to confided that if he wants shut of somebody he knows he has to pay out £30k to the person involved. While forcing people out without due process isn't to be encouraged, it is worth considering that agreements which benefit everyone are probably something to be encouraged.

Given these lessons what can be applied in our sector?
1. Find a HR advice line. We should all make sure we have access to decent HR advice. This needn't be a lawyer or a member of our Board. There are now lots of HR advice lines which cost very little. We had one for years and although the advice is always very cautious, it means you don't get caught on the simple stuff.

2. Keep dialogue open. The instinct to freeze once someone mentions the word Employment Tribunal needs to be overcome. Dialogue before the lawyers get involved is the most likely route to resolution. Once you're in a legal dispute, you've lost, even if you go on to win because of the distraction it will cause you.

3. Cut deals. For a lot of people, a deal which allows them to leave with their dignity intact, three months' salary, a decent reference and a handshake is preferable to the stress and uncertainty they will face in a Tribunal. Most employees do not want to take a dispute public and realise the damage this can do to their CV. A deal which leaves them satisfied - even when you think you might win in a Tribunal is better than beating them in a public setting. By offering a resolution you are not admitting liability. You are simply setting out a better way forward for all parties. Though contact a lawyer to set you straight on just how to do this.

I have to say that when I think about it, were employing people in this country the risk it is now when I started business at Speaking Up I may have thought again about it. So far, I have had one Tribunal and settled with about ten others. In nearly all of these cases, I felt confident that we were on sure ground but I just didn't want the hassle. So I made a deal. Not the best way, perhaps, but it kept cost down and kept us out of the papers. And, of course, freed me to focus on the business in hand.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Workaholics Anonymous

My grandparents worked 12 hour days six days a week in Lancashire's cotton mills. My 64 year old father who is a company director flies out to Japan 8 times a year and runs around like a thirtysomething. So its little wonder that I have a strong in-built value around hard work.

For most of mankind's history, my proclivity for slogging would have placed me in a highly esteemed position. I am the kind of person who would have dug moats, gathered crops or hunted boar until someone told me to stop. In more recent corporate times, I would have been viewed with awe, a Duracell Man, a prized company asset.

However, these are not my times. Modern thinking about work and life renders me a saddo. A workaholic. Someone `out of balance' with possibly something worrying going on in my head, something I am escaping through work. All said, I am not `normal' and my example is not something to be passed on to others.

As a result, I have kept my problem secret. I store my night-time emails so they go out in the day. I implore my colleagues to `look after themselves' and get home on time every night, then secretly indulge in my private life of work.

So why did I do this? Well, its partly because I believe that it is hard work, more than anything else, that makes things happen. Talent is fine. So too are ideas or great skills. But alone these are worth little. Only when mixed with frightening levels of graft do mountains move.

Look at the evidence. Think of anyone who has made a big impact on the world, or even our sector. What marks almost all of them out is prodigious work rate. These people have the same time as the rest of us. Of course, they use that time well but they all work extremely hard.

Now, I have made a much smaller impact than most of the people I admire. I have established a successful organisation, Speaking Up, that has made a mark. And when people ask me `how I did it', the answer, more than any other, is that I worked and worked and worked some more. For a long time, it was my life from the moment my eyes opened till they closed again 18 hours later. That is what it took. It isn't like that now but for many years, this is how I lived.

The current obsession with work-life balance is, on one hand, a mark of a more civilised, gentler society. But I also think it is linked, in a way, to the wanting-it-all culture: `I can have my big job, salary and also have this amazing life outside work'. The truth is, I think, that it isn't really possible to deliver incredible results in your work and have a wonderful life outside work too. You can't have your cake and eat it.

My life today is a case in point. A lot of what I said right at the beginning is now a little bit historic (well, if six months ago is `historic'). Now that my two kids are on the scene, I am about half as productive as I was before. The time I had spare to work is now gone. I can't work at night any more because my kids wake us up. My `life' is coming ahead of work, probably for the first time in twenty years.

This means, for me, accepting that I can't move any mountains for at least the next couple of years. The stuff I would like to achieve, the new projects I need to throw every cell of myself at to make happen won't happen till at least my kids get beyond their second birthdays.

In the meantime, I am going along, doing OK, doing what 98% of us do all the time, rarely getting out of fourth gear. Its fine, its my choice, my kids need me but I don't pretend that I am really getting much achieved. Not really when compared to earlier times. It isn't what I would call a work-life balance, its putting life ahead of work.