Friday, July 25, 2008

A Good Life on the Cheap

What I mean to say is that the good things in life are cheap - or even free. Take this evening. I got home early from work. The sun dappled our garden while we played with the children on the grass (I am now Hide and Seek Champion). Then we gave them tea outside, took them for a bath and put them to bed. My children are my biggest treasure. Time like this feels gifted. I can't get over how lucky I am.

As the sun set I jumped in the car to Ickworth country park, run by the National Trust (free entry for locals) and attempt a sub forty minute 10k in the glorious fading light of a summer evening with Kate Bush's `Big Sky' (circa 1986) streaming into my ears. I run past corn fields with the stalks aching under the grain. I see two foxes and, I think, a badger. Although it took me 42 minutes,I actually felt deeply happy and natural. On arriving home, I wolfed a tuna bake we made earlier for about 50p and a big glass of water before watching Newsnight and heading up here.

Why am I boring you with the details of one 39 year olds man's perfect summer evening in Bury St Edmunds? Well, it comes back to something I spend a lot of my working time now thinking about. Self Directed Support. Personal Budgets. Personalisation.

What's the link? Well, all the talk about self-directed support is about money. "Will the money be enough?" "Isn't it all about cuts?" "How will people spend their budgets?". Actually, its not, primarily about money. Its about getting people who have extra needs to the point where I was tonight. Where they can enjoy the free stuff that life gives to you. The stuff that money can't actually buy.

My early experience of working with disabled people was that they had money stuffed into them, albeit in the form of support-workers and bricks-and-mortar. But that was it. No choice about how to spend that money. And little effort made to find the things for people that really mattered most. The relationships, the leisure activities, the freedom to just go-do.

The money that exists in social care, on its own, isn't enough to do much with in terms of buying twentieth century 'care'. That is true and will always be true.

However, combined with the aspirations of the person and the free or near-free resources all around us it is possible to create feats of alchemy. Massive multipliers. Leverage on a scale not yet seen.

We're seeing the results in many people's lives, like that of Speaking Up Trustee Darren Fitzpatrick who uses his budget to unlock access to the things he likes doing. Going to town. DJing, doing voluntary work. Watching planes take off and land at the local airport.

Darren's life is rich and full. On probably 20% of his support package as a `dual diagnosis' mental health patients four years ago. He came on one of our programmes to make his own way in life. Like me, he has exactly what he wants. He just needs a bit more cash than I do to access it.

Its called a Personal Budget.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is Growth Good?

I am forced to ask this question quite a lot. Mainly because I am something of a `Growth Junkie' - but also lead a complicated organisation that is dealing with the complexities of growth.

The answer is that growth is mostly good but sometimes isn't. It depends on a few things.

So when is it good? Very simply, growth is good when you've got a good thing that works well in one place and has definite potential to go to other places. This week at Investment Committee we backed an organisation that has, to date, won a single contract to do excellent work in one location to go and do it in several more.

If they succeed it will take them to £30 million in five years. But they've cracked the biggest location of its kind in the country and, with the right team in place, their model can easily be transferred. Tens of thousands of people will be better off if they get this right. Good luck to em.

But, as I told them on the day, they are in for a hell of a time. Growth is not always just a simple matter of being ambitious and pressing the accelerator. Growth doesn't always result in the brilliant stuff you do in Place A being conjured up on the ground in Place B. Indeed it is often a pale imitation. If a model hasn't been properly understood, when you just can't bottle the `secret sauce' that makes something really work, it just won't translate. You need managers to replace entrepreneurs and a machine in place that really understands the business of putting new, high quality work on the ground. That's always the big challenge of replication.

Another is having the organisational capacity to grow. I think this is the biggest challenge in third sector organisations. Even when we have bottled the secret sauce we're often not great at growing models to scale.

When I talk about capacity I am mainly talking about financial resources. Undercapitalisation is probably the biggest single problem facing our organisations today. There are still too many funding and finance bodies with too little money. Ideally there would be a handful of bodies controlling significant pots but we're a long way from that yet.

But the other problem I believe is with third sector cultures that can, in themselves, be inimical to growth. People often just don't want to grow their organisations. This is often through fear of dilution or losing something of the essence of the organisation. It is frequently due to quite understandable fear of the strains this will put on people and systems.

And, occasionally, it is because of an over-sentimentalised view of being small, coupled often with dislike of `growth for growth's sake. This is something you just don't get in business. It drives me crazy and has been the bane of my life.

Indeed, `Empire-Builder' is a term of abuse in this sector, as though you are committing some offence by trying to grow and that the good people, those with real integrity keep it small and beautiful. This is proper bullshit - but you hear a lot of it in the sector.

So what are the answers for ambitious social entrepreneurs and third sector leaders? I would point to three things. Things I have learnt through not getting it right myself. The first is to be very realistic about the costs, risks and stains involved in growth. Don't deny them, under-price them or underestimate them. Growing is a painful, risky and costly business. Especially in our sector. Fly too close to the sun and, yes, you will fall.

Second, sell the vision to your top team. Insist that growth is happening but also acknowledge the people in your organisation who have to deliver it. They will often be the ones with the worries. It is tempting to shout these people down but your growth strategy will actually have a stronger chance if you hear people out. This doesn't mean conceding to their worries, it just means taking due account of them because hidden in them, often, are some of the keys to success you will have forgotten about.

Third, make sure everyone right through the organisation understands why growth is happening and why it is good. For the average staff member, growth means disruption, change and more work than business-as-usual. While growing companies create opportunities, they also unsettle people. What isn't often explained is why the growth is necessary. And that standing still will, in all probability, result in a very negative set of changes further down the line.

`Permanent change' has been a fact-of-life for many sectors now for a long time. Its still early days in parts of the third sector. Only when we can get people to realise that the only alternative to Permanent Change is Rapid Decline will we be able to sell growth to our workforces.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Making a Killing

Meet Pat. She's 49 and lives somewhere in the East of England. Her son, Jonny, was born 26 years ago with profound disabilities. As an adult, he needs 24 hour care. Jonny lives in a residential care home run by a massive private firm which bought out the smaller operator that opened in a few years ago.

When I spoke to Pat today, she was worried that Jonny might die in care. Now dig this. Jonny doesn't have a fatal illness. Pat was talking about neglect. Not feeding him. Not giving him enough to drink. Not keeping an eye on him at night. Not giving him prescription drugs. Just not really being that arsed, to be honest. This wasn't hysterical parent stuff. I have known Pat for nearly decade and she's one of the steadiest people I know. If she's worried about Jonny, something is proper-wrong.

On Monday, Jonny goes back into the home after ten days with Pat - and a stay in hospital - to help him gain weight. Pat is terrified. I asked her why she doesn't pull Jonny out and she tells me she feels powerless. `What about personal budgets?' I ask. Pat asked six months ago and was refused because Jonny'sneeds were `well provided for'. Now, even following a meeting with the top brass in the council, Pat is being told that the county council isn't going to allow any new personal budgets till 2009 in order to allow them time to get their systems in order.

So she's stuck.

I give Pat some advice on how to negotiate with the council. I remind her she's not powerless. Her story ("I Thought My Poor Disabled Son Was Going to Die in Care") would be an editors dream and she needs, in a very understated way, to let the council know that if they don't give her a personal budget today, she'll take them on in public to get one. Not only will the council have to accede, they'll have all sorts of nasty stuff coming out about their own shambles of an organisation and the incompetence of their own own commissioned provision. Which, by a supreme and devastating irony, is `highly rated' by the Care Inspectors.

Pat worries about a backlash on her, something which she says has already started (organisations nearly always find ways to label complainents mad or bad). I tell her not to worry. All the media will be interested in will be the David versus Goliath of her highly photogenic disabled son(and her not-bad looking mother) versus Nasty Care Inc.

Trying to be positive, I ask her about the time, say in 2009, when Pat gets the personal budget she's been promised. Will she set up a personal package for Jonny with her own mortgaged flat, personally staff and all the bells and whistles? No. Because that means Pat herself would be taking total personal responsibility for three employees. The five o' clock on a Friday problem (when the weekend person calls sick) would become her problem to solve. So too would the care worker who went on maternity or sick - with nothing in the personal budget to pay them. No, Pat says, she'd look for another provider. I am surprised but she reminds me that she's a single working parent with not a lot of time on her hands to fix the Friday 5 O clock problem.

Pat's situation asks big questions about a lot of things: What the hell is happening in registered care homes? Why are councils not allowing personal budgets in 2008? But it also asks questions of the whole idea of personal budgets as a liberation package. Pat is a qualified professional. Middle class, well educated - you get the picture. If Pat doesn't feel she can handle all the responsibility of a personal budget - even when she's worried about her son effectively being killed by her care provider - then who the hell is going to be taking them? Pat would rather just find a care provider who is a lot less likely to kill her son than take on the package herself. And who could blame her?

What we perhaps need instead are organisations to which Pat can take her budget and say `I want complete transparency on this, complete control of the dials in terms of changing what's spent and how, a big say in who works with my son and how - but not the full-on responsibility of being an employer'.

Whoever can put these sorts of packages together - offering a step-change in choice and control for individuals and families, while taking away the worrying liabilities associated with running a small business will, I think do very well in the new world. Existing care providers could do this, but can they change their spots from do-ers to to do-ers with? Can their business models bend enough to allow these kinds of flexibilities and involvement? I think not. Which leaves the field open.

Pat and Jonny's story is here because it brings together a panopoly of issues in our social care system in 2008. The care homes that are killing people. The councils that cannot make the leap to personal budgets. The new systems and ideas for a new world of self-directed support which are a turn-off even to the most desperate families. I didn't hear desperation today but I heard powerlessness and a real fear of what the future holds.

It made me shudder.

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.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Because I'm Worth It

How often do you hear the phrase "because I'm worth it" in the context of charity chief executive pay? The "Biwi" mentality is now thoroughly enmeshed in the fabric of the third sector. I'm all for "professionalisation" and business disciplines, but what this doesn't extend to is the idea that third sector CEOs should be treated like their "equivalents" in the public and private sectors, or that charities feel they must offer bumper salaries to attract the top management talent.

Let's get the equivalence bit out of the way first. There is no real equivalence. My dad, a director of a highly successful international sales business, gets a fat salary (in the good years). If things go well, he leans hard on the chairman for a big bonus. And so would I in his shoes, because in next year's recession, he might be out on his arse.

What about the public sector? Again, no equivalence here either. Its senior people have a much crappier time than most CEOs in the third sector. How would you fancy running the Child Support Agency? Or HMP Wormwood Scrubs? No, thought not. These jobs are the employment equivalent of having the contents of your wheelie bin poured over your head, be it from the media, politicians or, occasionally, a member of the public. Huge problems. No solutions. Heart attack material.

Now, the third sector. First of all, many CEO jobs are actually quite nice. Everyone loves charities and thinks you're a saint for working in one. You can pretty much pick and choose what is either above or beneath your charity to undertake. There's no proper media scrutiny and everyone feels sorry for you if you screw things up and the charity hits hard times.

OK, getting the money in is a pain, but hell, if you're any good, it's always achievable. And yes, things sometimes go badly wrong in charities (a spat with your chair, occasional redundancies, a life-sapping employment tribunal), but charities seldom go rapidly down the tubes leaving you on Job Seeker's Allowance. In short, many charity CEO jobs are a walk in the park compared with senior jobs elsewhere.

So, that's equivalence out of the way. Let's talk about the money and motivation. What makes third sector organisations distinctive is that they are not just in business to deliver good human services for profit. I have the highest regard for some profit-making companies' achievements, but if there were not serious money to be made from helping people, these organisations wouldn't exist. That, for me, is still the line between the private and third sectors.

What sets our sector aside is mission and motivation. The missions of our organisations are, in effect, the response of civil society to an issue or need. People join our organisations to express their support, either as donors, volunteers, staff, trustees or, yes, chief executives.

If recruited to a charity, therefore, you are not just a hired gun. Your acceptance of the top job is an ethical decision. And as such, you should be happy to take a big hit financially, because you're in a job aligned with your values.

Nobody's saying a charity CEO should get 20k (as some of the public seem to believe). But neither should you be paid silly money either. Nor should you use interest from elsewhere to bid yourself up. If someone tells me they've been offered more elsewhere, I suggest that they follow the money elsewhere. Because if they felt anything for our mission, they would take a reasonable salary and get over themselves.

Obeisance to money-driven hiring practices is where I think some charities have got it wrong. It feels like it's going the way of local government, where the big CEO jobs now offer £200k. This is increasingly seen as the "price for talent". Yet this is nonsense. Big pay guarantees nothing. More than any other, our sector needs leaders who inspire passion, not envy. People who embody the cause. My fear is that our major charities will end up recruiting bloodless accountant-types on supersonic salaries who see the CEO job as a numbers game. Our volunteers, staff and trustees need and deserve better than that.

So next time you hear some variant of Biwi, ask that person if they are worthy of their organisation

Commissioning for....Mediocrity

Today I stared from the lecturn at a sea of faces from the public sector. Commissioners of public services. All there to hear about why they should buy more stuff from the third sector. Some faces were clearly up for it. Others looked ready for their long and lucrative retirements. There was willingness, interest even but also a heavy sense that this wasn't going to be easy.

Don't get me wrong, I like Commissioners. The better ones are real social visionaries. They see the power in their hands to improve society. In short, good commissioner is like a fantastic chef. Combining the ingredients, bossing the show with flair and confidence. The really great ones listen to the experts, give clear signals to the market then commission for outcomes. They recognise the need for profit and for everyone to win.

Today's event, however, captured just how far commissioning has to go in this country. Most of those I had lunch with had landed in their jobs from other public sector occupations. Most of them learn as they go along but do things their own way. No learning from the `greats' of commissioning. No standard texts. Just get on with it.

The results are predictable. We now have probably one of the least effective public sector procurement systems in the developed world. Hence all this `smarter commissioning' stuff we're all being wheeled out to promote. But its not enough. This event, sadly, is like prescribing Nurofen for a brain tumour.

Why am I so wrought about all this? Well, its boring stuff but procurement contains within it the seeds of success or failure of public spending. Billions is spent on social need in this country. Nearly a hundred billion on the bottom few percent when you add it all up. Yet the social problems persist. Indeed, we probably have the most expensive social problems in the world when you look at all the money that has gone on maintaining them.

While, of course, you can't blame commissioners for this - they follow a policy direction which is broadly set for them - you can safely say that poor commissioning plays a big role.

So what's the answer? Three things. Externalising certain commissioning is one. Its a specialism. Done well it can transform lives and save billions of pounds. Commissioning for outcomes is another. This is what happens in the best bits of the private sector. The deliverables are specified but nothing else. Finally, pick the right people and make it into a proper job. We need stronger people in these jobs than we have now.

Therefore, I am not optimistic for surge in commissioning from the third sector. It will take a lot more than retraining and a few seminars I know that.

Feeding the Machine

Its been a week since I last blogged. Not been feeling that well. Feeling ground-down by one of the million bugs I seem to pick up from the kids. I used to get a cold a year. Now I feel lucky if I remain 100 percent for more than a week at a time.

Last week was one of those workaday-weeks when I struggle to remember a single thing I did. But straining hard, I recall a trip to Sheffield to meet commisssioner┼č, a meeting about strategy with Jon Sparkes (CEO of Scope) who is one of my Trustees and a day spent at the Social Enterprise East England conference at Newmarket where I was speaking.

First Sheffield. We run a few services up there. Like a lot of northern cities, there is a clannish element to the way Sheffield works. Not being local means you have to be very good indeed to stand a chance of being commissioned.

My take on the local market in advocacy services is that it is moribund and we should, by right, clean up. However, things are seldom that simple and I suspect we will make steady but slow progress. My big hope there is Josie Bennett who leads learning disability services up there. A proper leader she ain't scared to put her neck out and I sensed that out of the roomful of people we met she was the one who really engaged the most.

Sheffield a long day as my meeting with a Lincoln commisssioner cancelled once I arrived there. Diary bungle. They v v apologetic which assuaged my usual visible irritation-borderline rage.

Social Enterprise East conference held at the splendid Rowley Mile venue at Newmarket. For those not in the know, Newmarket is capital of the UK racing industry. Its green courses and 'gallops' dominate the town. Traffic stops here to let the horses - ridden by young stable lads and bedecked in the liveries of their stables
- cross the road.

I bought my first house in Newmarket and grew to like the place a lot. It brings to mind an older England. Its social structure is somehow behind the times. Lots of poor underpaid people who keep the racing scene going and a large group of wealthy people who employ them without much in the middle. As a young middle class non-horsey professional I felt v much a foreign coin in the social currency of Newmarket.

Onto the conference. I spoke quite badly I thought due to a cold and lack of adrenalin. People liked it though which was good.

The event had been very well planned by the excellent Michele Rigby and her young team. Michele brings something very fresh to the scene. Though now heading an infrastructure organisation, she is bloodied in the field having founded Pack-IT which was one of the pioneers of social enterprise in the nineties.

The event itself was populated by the usual eclectic mix at regional events. Quite a few older types - this sector seems to get people later somehow - a fair few mavericks and eccentrics and the odd brilliant person you can't believe isn't really well known.

Got to Friday with some relief. Met Jon Sparkes who, in effect, is a vice chair of Speaking Up. Jon is something of a superstar. Appointed Acting CEO of Scope at 38, he is now well into a massive turnaround there after the charity hit well publicised financial problems in 2005. Problems, of course, going back years.

Jon always good to talk to about people (he is ex HR) and strategy. His view is that we have the next two to three years to show that Speaking Up has potential to be successful in lots of locations. How well we manage to transplant ourselves from one to five places will tell us whether it can be done in fifty.

Our biggest strategic challenge, he says, is to be the organisation everyone thinks of (and naturally turns to) for services, advice and policy around Voice for excluded groups. That is the big prize. Quite right too. We feel a long way from that but it was good to have a trustee framing things so well.

My weekend dominated by Ruby and Wilf. I am feeling very close to both of them at the moment but particularly Wilf. Compared to Ruby, I have seen less of him and been a lot busier since his birth. For this reason, it has taken longer to feel close to him.

Decided recently that enough was enough and that I needed to spend more time with him. Which of course makes all the difference. Apparently, Dads in the 70s only spent 20m a day on average with their kids. Now its two hours. This has to be better for everyone.

Looking back, the time I spent going to football wth my Dad probably saved our future adult relationship, given the strains placed upon it by events. When I compare this to my brother - who didn't really have much one to one with Dad - and now barely speaks to him- I feel fortunate by comparison.

On Sunday my cold gets me an hour or two off where I catch up with the Observer and Speccie.

I always turn first to Andrew Rawnsley who writes so well and is not nearly so good on telly. Ditto Rod Liddle in the Spectator which is my 'guilty pleasure' at the weekend.
Liddle is one of funniest and most talented writers around today and never fails to make me laugh out loud. This weeks piece on 'How to Get Stabbed' was no exception.

The weekend lifted by the amazing men's final at Wimbledon which was a classic. My strongest Wimbledon memories are of listening to Borg McEnroe finals on the radio in my Dads car en route to Tenby or Great Yarmouth.

This final with its parallels of talent, tension, records-at-stake and mental head-to-head took me right back in time. But actually went one better. Sport doesn't get any more classic than this. And the young pretender won the mental battle.

Had the bleakest Monday for some time. Rain soaked the day. Energy levels lower than ever just as I sensed I had beaten my lurgy off. Went to the office and felt my grim mood was all too transparent. Just couldn't raise a smile.

Ended the day with a particularly dour meeting with my excellent COO Kathleen Cronin. I was all doom and gloom while she patiently listened to my angst about deficits and losing contracts in the future. She is a very stable and centred person compared to most I know in the sector. The only bad thing about being 'mercurial', as I am, is that the mercury is, now and then, very low in the glass.

Today woke up at four am and resolved to take a day off this Wed to try to recover from this lurgy. If possible it will be a day of fruit smoothies, Get Carter and an afternoon nap. Plus probably, my piece for 'Social Enterprise' this month. I am down to 350 words there now which is quite a discipline.

Going to speak to a load of commssioners today in Norwich. I have 15 mins on the main stage which makes it feel like a major schlepp.

Will wear my new dark suit to fit in with my mood. I have to be careful not to be too rude about public servants as they pay my staffs wages. But they wear bloody awful clothes, on the whole. Especially the men.


Just signed a letter to a major investor pledging to stay as CEO for two years. Though this definitely my plan, feel strangely empty and distressed having done so. Perhaps its the feeling that I now can't just walk away if I choose to. Or that entrepreneur thing about not wanting to feel owned.

Been thinking a lot about my options as 40 hurtles towards me. Broadly I have three. One is to make SU my lifes work. Fine if it continues to excite me and I can do other non Exec work on top plus writing. Downside is if it just doesn't develop as quickly as I need it to. Second is another business growth job. This would need to feel very special though. The third is to set up on my own as a consultant, writer, speaker etc. Occasionally this feels like the way its all going anyway - I am good at all three - but a lot of the reason I enjoy it all so much is the break it gives me from feeding the machine. Don't particularly want this fun stuff to become the machine.

Well its nearly time to get up. Half a nights sleep is better than none. A travail!