Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Calling 2009

New Years Eve 2008. Like everyone else I am taking stock. The year ahead feels `safe' - in the sense that I can, to a reasonable extent, forsee what may and may not happen in my own organisation. In fact, it could even be `good', if we get certain decisions right. And, unlike a lot of people I know, I am pretty sure I will be working this time next year, if not New Years Eve 2010!

So how do I see the risks? One is that my organisation, like all of them, was built on a booming economy and an expanding public sector. Being successful in such conditions is not an act of genius.

Keeping it up in a major recession will show how many of us have been swimming naked. My hunch is that the downturn will provide the jolt to our sector it has need for a very long time. Performance will matter more, both individually and organisationally. My fear is that a lot of our organisations do not have a way of working in the Robert Peston era.

For Speaking Up, a lot depends on how fast we can do the things all organisations need to do. Understand that we could, with the wrong decisions, go into rapid decline in the 2010s. Realise that value will shape all contracting and grants and reshape accordingly. Deal with problems more rapidly than ever before. Forget old rivalries and collaborate with people who share our mission. Understand what is special about us an power-inject this into our weaker areas of delivery. Rapidly turn nice new ideas that have been hanging around for a while into touchable products and services people will PAY FOR today.

So what of the wider sector? Here's my own predictions for 2009.

1. The End for a significant number of charity brands. Probably not the top ten but a lot in the next hundred. What the public don't really get to know is that our sector contains its own version of Woolies, MFI and all the other crap businesses that were found wanting once the boom ended. The lucky ones will find refuge in mergers that, frankly, should have happened years ago. Others will just spiral and die.

2. Loads of CEOs leaving or being fired. Most third sector CEOs have never led in this situation. Many will not be able to move fast enough or radically enough to sort our their organisation. The job will prove too much for a great many.

3. The end of the sector's easy-going relationship with Government. The lines are already opening up as the sector competes with just about every other for the Government's attention. The truth is that we are quite important to the Government, but not that important in a year like the one we're about to have.

4. The beginning of the end of the civil wars within the sector. The spats of the past (NCVO/ACEVO/DSC/NAVCA etc) were just about affordable pre-downturn. Now we need to work as one as never before. Watch out for emerging discussion this year about common platform, infrastructure and even leadership across the main sector bodies.

5. Winners as well as losers. Not all third sector organisations will have a bad recession. Some will grow, improve and use the `blazing platform' presented by the downturn to engineer some long-needed improvements in their offer. Change is the child of crisis. Expect to see some organisations pulling their finger out in the next couple of years.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Taming the Morons

Last night I went out for a drink with a friend of mine who is a local Councillor here in Bury St Edmunds. He brought with him a publication he'd been sent that week by the Local Goverment Assocation (LGA) produced in concert with RADAR, the disability rights organisation.

The publication in question was a guide to how our Councillors should deal with disabled people. A kind of Debretts' for when you meet someone in a wheelchair. I didn't quite know how to respond to the publication.

It read a bit like the kind of guide you see when you're about to travel to a very obscure country, where certain things you might say or do be deemed highly offensive.

Do Councillors, for example, need to `not stare' and `appear positive and friendly' when faced with someone with a serious facial disfigurement? Or replace the words `moron' and `imbecile' in their vocabularies with `person with a learning difficulty'. Or see people who are mentally unwell as not suffering anything (however obviously they may be)but as experiencing `mental health challenges'.

While it is laudable that we let Councillors know about respectful conduct, I am not sure that publications like this are the answer. Half the people reading will, like I did, piss their sides at the clumsy, patronising earnestness of it. The other half will, in trying to take it all on board, extract any residual naturalness that may exist in future conversations they might have with disabled people.

Yes, where once there may have been quite normal, albeit clumsy, offense-risking exchanges like the ones I witness every two months at our Service User Parliament ("This poor young man in the wheelchair here" etc), there will now be a more stilted and somehow less human dialogue between elected members and people with disabilities who they represent.

For by taking the normal everyday `risk' out of interaction between disabled people and their Councillors, one is also eliminating something core to all human interaction. The net effect being, in weird, unintentional kind of way, to dehumanise disabled people.

Which I am sure wasn't the idea at all.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ego and I

About a year ago, following discussions with those who know me and care for me, I decided to raise my own profile as a third sector leader. It made sense. I had things to say, a book coming out and an urgent need to bring new investment into my organisation.

This has involved doing the usual things: a regular colunm in Third Sector, occasional pieces in national newspapers, the odd profile spot in the wider media, a range of non Exec roles and not a little networking.

The effort worked. I now have a bigger profile. I take part in the debates and, I hope, ruffle the odd feather. But it has come at a price. During the first half of the year I neglected my organisation. People felt, with me out promoting my book all the time, that I had, effectively left. As a result, they didn't feel I was there for them. And if I wasn't `there', why should they be? My appraisal mid-year said it all. Either go and do it now or stay and be a proper CEO.

My response was to reallocate my time, get my eye back on the ball and re-engage with my organisation. Still do the other stuff - but make sure people knew that, when it got sticky - my priority was to be back on the farm.

Whether I have succeeded or not I don't honestly know. The vibes are a lot better, I know that. And I feel a lot better. The heat and light of being out all the time is enjoyable at the time but can, when you look back, feel like slightly frittered time. There is something important about having a proper job and not just being part of the London-based scene. You really can spend all of your time working the media, the conferences, Whitehall and the seminars. Although I find it agreable enough work, it doesn't feel quite like real work, if this makes sense.

And then there's ego. For most of my adult life I have experienced, as many people do, an odd combination of both high and low self-esteem. I have always, on one level, known I have some ability and that I can do most things I apply myself to do. On the other hand I easily default to to the `I'm not good/clever/interesting enough' mindset that has kind of been there from the beginning.

This year I have probably received more praise and recognition than in all of the years of my life combined. This has had, in the short term, a very positive effect. But it doesn't last. You kind of end up where you always were. Whereever that happens to be.

The year I have had has made me ask the hard questions about why I do what I do. I think I now realise that some kind of search for recognition has always been part of it. That achieving social good is also part of an agenda which is quite strongly linked to my own psychological needs.

Where does this leave me going into 2009? A bit less personally ambitious perhaps. What the bit of recognition I did get showed me that while immediately gratifying, the focus on self that it brings is not particularly nourishing. Indeed, the thought of focussing on myself a little less going forward brings with it a sense of relief.

The only fear this leaves me with is that I know that I, like many others who have made things happen socially, is that without my demons pushing me so hard, I may actually be less driven to make good things happen.

Which is something I may just decide to live with.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Moving On

Not from Speaking Up but from my old house to my new one. We did this ourselves, which reminded me why the removal industry continues to thrive. Our house move, like everybody's I talk to, was a bit of an on-off saga, with an added bit of last minute, solicitor-induced tension. It is not something I intend to do ever again.

Not that I should ever need to. We have moved to a house just on the edge of a beautiful public parkin the countryside just 2 miles from Bury St Edmunds. Foxes bark in the night and there's that blackness to the night that you get outside the towns. The house is an 1860s cottage which has been recently extended to create a family home. It is little short of perfect for us.

Moving all our stuff made me realise, as we all do from time to time, the amount of waste we create in the course of our lives. We did ten runs to the tip as the accumulated detritus of our lives piled up behind us. We really are high-impact beings.

All this is on my mind as we ponder whether to have a third child, where to work, how much to drive, commute, earn and consume. Even a modest life generates a big demand on resources and tons of waste, never mind a really profligate one. Will it be seen as responsible in 50 years time to have three or four kids. Will the Optimum Population Trust be seen as sages ahead of their time as we all hunker down to a one-child policy?

Becoming 40 soon (well, in a few months) is prompting all sorts of questions. I have recently decided pretty much that I won't spend my 40s commuting to London every day to head up a national)(something I hadn't discounted till now). But this raises a lot of questions about how I spend the next 20 years of my working life. Presuming that Speaking Up, at some stage soon, will require fresh leadership, I have to find a way to balance my ambition to make a difference with the needs of my family life and the fact that I want to live in a fairly sustainable way. Portfolio is one option but I seem too young for that. Another is to start a new enterprise just now is a high-commitment, high risk, low income option. Without major backing I couldn't do this just now in the way I did at the age of 25 when I started Speaking Up.

Anyway this is all a bit serious and I have two fractious kids to feed so I will go now.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Avoiding the Next Baby P

How can we avoid the next Baby P?

Here are a number of proposals you probably won't see on any document coming out of DCFS next year.

1. Involve the Third Sector. Not in the actual care-proceedings, but in the work with families - the `preventative' work that if done well stops children being damaged in the first place. At the moment, all of this work sits with Social Services, leaving them in a conflicted role as both nurturer of families and, if things go wrong, taking the kids away. Clearly in the Baby P case, social workers were confused about who they were there to help, resulting over-identification with the Mother, to the cost of Baby P. Better perhaps to let the third sector do the nurturing and bring in the social workers once things get really bad.

2. Rename the social work profession. `Social worker' sounds like a legacy from the 1970s. It is a low status occupation that people avoid. Only this week I was talking to a talented man now in his 40s who considered it when younger but couldn't face the lack of status it conferred, even compared to teaching. Indeed initiatives like `Teach First' and the injection of better management and leadership into teaching have raised it from a Cinderella profession to the job everyone now wants to say they have done. The same is needed for social work.

3. Integrate Child Protection Teams and Police Family Support Teams. A lot of what is happening in families-gone-wrong is criminal - or is about to become so. The skills of the police - and their unsentimental view of the world - are valuable assets in dealing with devious people who harm their children. People in these integrated teams need to be at one remove from local politics - as the police are, well paid (as the police are) and given the kind of status the police have (a lot higher than social workers).

There's a lot that could then happen in terms of leadership, management, recruitment and training that would free child-protection from a lot of the social work ideology and local authority politicking which has blighted the protection of children like Baby P. The Third Sector could play a vital role in providing the ongoing low-level support to families which comes under the label `prevention' and let the new integrated police/child protection teams do the heavy stuff.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Plotting the Perfect Merger

Well, if you don't believe me, that well-known third sector prophet-of-doom Dame Geraldine Peacock (winner of the most Wonderful Person in the Universe, several times) said last week that about 60,000 UK charities would `wither on the vine' very soon.

This is bound to happen. In 1994, when I first started Speaking Up there were about 90,000 charities. Now there are almost twice that number. 1994 was also the year the economy really got going again after the recessions of the 80s and 90s

Therefore, I believe 2009 will be the Year of the Merger. There is nothing like the threat of imminent vapourization to get people over themselves and into a sensible conversation with the organisation down the road with a similar name, mission and area of concern. And not before time. Our supporters have for too long been paying for too many organisations, all with their own CEOs,offices, IT systems and so on.

One of the biggest barriers to charity mergers is, I believe, ego. The people who found and run organisations tend to think, on some level, it is about them. I know this because I am one such person myself. My ego is, in many ways, tied into the continued success of Speaking Up. Left unchecked (and mine is pruned constantly by my excellent board and senior team), this is dangerous and leads to Little Republics.

So if you're going to merge with the people down the road, what's the best way to do it? Well, the first is to pick people you feel you can work with and a culture which blends well with your own. A fratricidal feud will create mutual destruction very quickly.

The second is to pick an organisation that has something you want (a great infrastructure, a good balance-sheet, a sexy brand or great reputation)and which also views you as desirable in some way. Don't merge with a Titanic - or wait till you're so badly-holed that no-one will throw you a line. Act early.

The third is to get some of the big questions out of the way first. Is this a merger or a takeover - be honest. If you're more than three times the size of the other organisation, it is probably a takeover. Call it spade.

The fourth is to sort out who gets what jobs. Ideally a new organisation will take the best people from both sides but fear about this gets in the way of even the most logical mergers.

Fifthly, involve as many people as you can in the actual decision. Mergers can feel the ultimate in being `done unto'. Let this not happen to you. Give people a say - a vote even.

So, if you do find the perfect merger partner, how should you behave? I would say that if you are the larger party it is vital to behave with grace, respect and generousity. For a merger to work the smaller party must never feel bullied or dominated. Be open to ensuring your partner's identity finds its way into the new identity. Indeed there may well be a case for keeping their brand, as has happened with two charities recently merged into a much larger one.

The final thing I would say is that you might want to find some help. Mergers are difficult to get right. Due diligence is important and some facilitation will be needed to get to the issues. Sadly, there's not a lot of good stuff written. But there's plenty of CEOs out there doing it now. So talk to them.

Whatever you think about mergers they are going to become the norm in the coming year or two. We are entering very bleak times, the depth of which few yet appreciate. The trouble this time is that it isn't clear we will come out into clear growth in three or so years. We just don't know. Such is the crisis.

In this environment, we must behave responsibly - and this means many more mergers.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Justice for Baby P

The people who actually killed Baby P are languishing in prison cells, hopefully sharing with people who help them feel what it means to be scared.

Those who mismanaged the resources entrusted to them to save his life have now stood down, or in the case of the hopeless Head of Children's Services Sue Shoesmith, been sacked.

While it was Roy Keane's resignation I was expecting today (he has, after all, lost four home game for Sunderland), I felt lighter as I heard the read-out speeches from the Councillors who oversaw all of this.

I have a funny attitude to these Councillors. On the one hand, I know how little they have to do with what actually goes on in Services. The ones I know are all old duffers in their 70s and 80s who are intellectually and educationally inferior to senior officers of the council.

The brighter ones I know do their best in a job that is basically voluntary and in which they do not have nearly as much influence over what happens as senior managers.

Their principal job as Councillors is to make the right pick. Get this wrong and they are buggered, as they clearly were in the choice of Shoesmith whose radio appearances said all you needed to know.

An identikit LA manager, Shoesmith showed incredible sensitivity to the plight of her staff and very little emotion around the fact that a child on her watch had his head gounged, his fingertip cut off, his earlobe torn and his back broken under the watchful gaze of her department.

One of these wonderful staff, only a week before Baby P gave up the fight, wrote in a report that "Baby P's mother feels stressed out by the accusations made about her". Bet she did.

No, its senior managers I mostly blame. Complaisant non-leaders like Shoesmith who don't really cut it as senior managers because, when it comes down to it, they put their own survival above their own responsibilities.

But not all the blame goes there. Back to politicians for a second. National politics is dominated by young men like Ed Balls who has never run anything in his life outside Whitehall. He will just bash out a new set of rules that are as bad as the old ones and feel he has made a difference.

What local politicians spend an awful lot of time and energy doing is politicking. Both within their parties and between. If even half of this energy went on the oversight they are elected to provide we might have half of Baby P type cases.

Indeed there is a strong case for local government to be mostly politics-free. You'd find a lot more people wanted to do it and this would mean that in places like Suffolk which are, essentially one-party states, people of talent who don't happen to be members of the Conservative Party would step forward and actually make local government a dynamic place rather than some geriatric version of the student union.

Yes, better quality people who are elected for what they can do rather than the colour of their rosette would realise that report after report setting out new processes and systems will never make these problems go away.

This atrocity happened four years after Laming, a few streets away from where Victoria Clumie died. , supposedly after the system was overhauled by Every Child Matters. Today's OFSTED report sounds tiresomely like the one written by him after the death of Victoria (or simply `Clumbie' as George Meehan, ex-Leader of Haringey called her today).

No,what we need are councillors, MPs and politicians who don't just call for a different kind of regulation. We need people who understand that what's wrong in child protection is more about people, culture, systems and leadership. We have the best rules in the world, its just that the set-up around them is warped: Council child protection can't easily recruit the right kind of staff because people of talent don't want to work in them. Everyone knows that certain councils are toxic, bureaucratic and badly managed, a one-way ticket to a personal crisis yourself. So the wrong people go there and, hey, the best ones end up being promoted into management and then senior management. Next thing you know, Sharon Shoesmith is running the show and, Christ, how does that make you feel?

Next time I talk about this I will, I promise be constructive. Right now I just still feel angry.