Monday, December 21, 2009

Heroes and Celebrities

Just been watching one of those ITV/The Sun Pride of Britain type events. But rather than mawkish tales of done-good, this was about the courage of those serving in our armed forces. Despite deep reservations about the format ("Here tonight to present the award for Most Courageous Act, ex Spice Girl Emmmmma BUNTON"), the programme, almost despite itself, really worked.

Yes, what this slightly weird juxtaposition of celebrity-format and real, ordinary heroism emphasised was the graphic contrast between the individualism of the entertainment world versus the teamwork and solidarity of the forces. Had this not been ITV and the Sun, I could have believed this format had been chosen simply to underline this point.

Because time after time, the young men and women who came onto the stage, having had their acts relayed through reconstructions, were completely self-effecing, universally praising of colleagues and keen to attribute all success to the unit. None revelled in the glory and, many, you sensed, didn't like the attention at all.

What struck me is that the Forces are clearly putting something into people which is, in my book, good. Concern for others. Teamwork. Modesty. Courage. I don't often get emotional when I watch the telly.

But I do, oddly, when it comes to the things I hear about from Afghanistan and Iraq. The things people do to preserve life and to help their comrades. It moves me to tears, partly because it shows a side to us which is often overlain with other, prosaic concerns.

Life in Bury St Edmunds, even during its more animated moments, doesn't make many demands on one's higher nature. A door opened here, 50p in a cup there.

If things ever did get hairy - if I was in anything like the situations I saw tonight - I am not sure my own selfishness, bedded in through years of ease and habitual self-preservation, wouldn't get the better of me.

I would hope for better, but whether I could deliver a fraction of what I saw tonight, I doubt.

Friday, December 18, 2009

On Trusteeship

Trusteeship. This touches on my life from many angles. I am a Trustee – of Impetus Trust, a social investor. I am a CEO who works to a board of Trustees. I have also set up about five organisations all of which have needed a Board of Trustees to run them. Within Boards I have played all the roles. Chair (twice). Secretary (three times) – but never Treasurers. I have seen good boards, bad boards and goddamn ugly ones. Unlike the Golden Eagle – of which there is only one type – there are as many variants of the Trustee Boards as there are birds in the sky.

I have decided to focus my piece on the very simple question of `What makes for a successful board of Trustees?’.. And I boil this down to five things.

1. It is Non Executive. By this I don’t mean it doesn’t `do things’ but it leaves the running of the organisation day to day to the CEO and senior team. Its focus is on strategy (Are we set up to the right things?), performance (Are we doing these thing well?) and probity (Are we making proper use of the resources at our disposal?). Before it does anything else, a Board needs to do the above properly. Too many boards blur the line. Too many boards sweat the small stuff and leave the bigger questions unanswered.

2. The Chair is in charge. Third sector boards tend to be full of passionate people who like to talk and are full of ideas. They are also full of differences of view and contain competing swirls and eddies of opinion. The Chair brings all this together for the benefit of the staff employed to run the organisation. The CEO needs to know, once all the debate is done, what the Board wants delivered. A strong Chair will do this. A weak Chair won’t protect the CEO enough and she ends up being buffeted by a board that doesn’t speak with a single voice.

3. It is professionalized. Most people on boards join without a lot of previous experience of governance. They believe all sorts of things about their role. Seldom is there a role-description. Training? Induction? Appraisal? You’ll be lucky. This is wrong, just as it is wrong to neglect these for employees. You want a high perfoming Board, you need the same kind of inputs you give to a senior team. They do all of this at Impetus Trust, which has been my best Trustee experience to date.

4. Information for the Board is first class. Trustees are responsible in law for an organisation. Therefore the quality of reports needs to be strong. In order to do their job well, the CEO and senior team have to give robust financial, operational, sales and HR data to trustees at least once a quarter. Further to this, they must also explain `risk’ – where it is, what can be done to mitigate it – both in these immediate areas and strategically for the longer term. Trustees depend hugely on this information to do their jobs well.

5. The Chair/CEO relationship. A chestnut I know but the heart of any effective organisation is a smooth interface between Governance and Delivery. Where there is respect, trust and an understanding of each others’ roles. A good Chair will understand the CEOs role in developing strategy and a good CEO will respect the sovereignty of the Board in the choice of strategy for the organisation. I have witnessed these relationships at their best and worst. A charity can withstand a toxic situation – but never for long. Indeed it is one of the biggest risks to the success of the mission and needs, therefore, to be reviewed regularly by a third party on the board.

I hope this offers some insight from my 15 years with Boards. Although the Trusteeship model often frustrates me it is also a huge resource, it keeps us all honest and, more broadly, enriches our civil society. Long-term we need, I believe, to up the game of boards. I long for Paid Trustees – really strong professional trustees – who, like first class private sector Non Execs – are brought in to show the level to which volunteers need to aspire – but, sadly, we are a million miles away from that right now. I also have worries long-term about what the conservatism of Boards might do to the responsiveness of our sector to the massive opportunities in the 2010s and 2020s for an ambitious and energetic response to the breakdown of the big state.

But that is another blog for another time….

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Trust or Contract?

What will be the dominant ideas in public services in the next decade? Local or industrial-scale? Community-run - or conventionally managed? Delivered mostly by ordinary people – or qualified professionals? Funded on the basis of trust – or ever tigher contracts?

Looking into the 2010s there seems to be two boats racing down the river towards us toward the open sea beyond the next election. One is the Good Ship Community, a gaily painted river boat. It is captained by Tory Iain Duncan Smith but on its pretty decks we see all sorts of people who share a belief in small-is-beautiful, in bottom-up community solutions. They share a passionate belief in the unleashed power of social capital to solve entrenched social problems – and a belief in trust over contracts as the basis of efficient public services.

The other boat is the HMS Contract, a large pleasure-cruiser whose wake slaps the boughs of the Community. Its tougher-minded crew share the other boat’s belief that the state isn’t the best solution. But they are signed up not to a million blooming flowers of local particularism, but, instead, a vast `scaling-up’ of proven solutions, a new Super-DNA of `what works’, all delivered in a business-like, professional way - and sealed with contracts. They admire the intentions of HMS Community but don’t really think it is a serious approach to large-scale change.

Both vessels are ploughing towards to open sea with hope - and not a little momentum. Though smaller, the Good Ship Community has the backing right-of-centre politicians. Its offer of hope, its trenchant critique of big, top down approaches and its potential financial savings make political sense. What the Good Ship lacks right now in method, it makes up for in its plucky appeal to trust, mutual care and social entrepreneurialism .

HMS Contract isn’t nearly as loved by the politicians. But the bigger boat already has huge momentum. Its crew knows that there will be an immediate imperative, from 2011, to save billions by quickly moving large tracts of the public sector out into new bodies which are not only more efficient but also more responsive and innovative. The sheer industrial-scale of this exercise will, believe the crew of HMS Contract, require heavy-lifting of major players from both the charitable and private sectors.

The timescales and big numbers involved here – tens of billions – will, almost certainly, invoke a high managerial nature change-process. This would mean, in turn, that HMS Contract would be far more `fit for purpose’ than the more charming, but far less easy-to-engage Good Ship.

And what the crew of HMS Contract will tell you, sotto voce, is that local, social capital-based solutions just won’t be quick enough to put in place and won’t be sufficiently uniform, predictable or measurable enough to stop politicians worrying about standards. And, on top, they might not be particularly cheap.

It is true that both sides have some testing questions to answer. Can indeed a Trust-based approach to public services, in which contracts play little or no part, guarantee real-world delivery? What about accountability when things go wrong? Might small community ventures soon get strangled by the bindweed of bureaucracy that comes with money from the state?

And, to ask a very hard question, might this fragmented approach to change risk the repeated wheel-reinvention that happens when you don’t just take the proven best model and run with it?

However, HMS Contract also faces tough questions. Could the heavy transaction costs associated with the contract-culture actually result in more, not less waste? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the place in public services for of the millions of ordinary citizen who aren’t professionals or managers, who just want to do some good for others in their community? While the Good Ship welcomes this citizen-army on board, it is harder to see their place on HMS Contract.

It is my hope that the answers to both sides’ questions lie with the other. In collaborations between the Good Ship and HMS Contract which bring the best of both to bear.

We shall see.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Close Down Risk, You Close Down Possibility

Last week in my role as local Councillor I knocked on a door. I was conducting my Street Surgery which sees myself and a team of four knock on about a hundred doors each week to see how we, as Lib Dem Councillors, can help. Better than a draughty community-centre any day!

Anyway, at one door I spoke to a young-ish woman who told me very clearly that she plans to set up a self-help group for young people with mental health issues and COULD I HELP? Delighted I said of course, I had a locality budget and could help with room hires, leaflets and general promotion. Great she said, that's all that would be needed as she'd do it all voluntarily.

Fantastic, I thought, as I walked away with her contact details.

But when I got home I realised I had spoken too soon. Because what I hadn't considered was the bureaucratic bindweed we, as a society, now choose to wrap around ourselves to protect ourselves against the risk of this woman being either a thief or an exploiter.

First of all, I can't give an individual money - not even a few quid, not even if I act personally as guarantor if it all goes wrong. She has to open a bank account (tried to do this recently??) for the group and preferably register the organisation. Secondly, therefore, I have to find an intermediary organisation. They, in turn, need to insure the activity so they are not liable and the woman herself would need to be trained in their procedures and vetted using a CRB check.

If this woman is still up for this after all this palaver I will be surprised. I hope she is - but will understand if she isn't. When I started Speaking Up, you just didn't need any of this stuff to just do things. I could put together groups without any of this stuff in place.

It seems that in the 15 years since I set up Speaking Up we have moved from being country that said "You know what - we trust and admire people like you enough to give you the benefit of the doubt - at least at first when you're trying to get going" to "We assume that anyone is capable of the vilest crimes and therefore we will treat everyone at every stage as though this is possible - and live with the risks that this approach itself creates".

And that risk is that "social capital" - the vital elixir of trust, participation, civic goodwill and contribution is extinguished at source. Where the effort to close down risk also closes down possibility.

Now, is that, on balance, a good thing, or a bad thing? I know where I stand.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


A week. This is as long between posts as I have left it recently. The reason is that life has suddenly gone up a gear, two even. The main thing is the potential merger I am working on. It's getting close to final decision-time and, as you'd expect, there is a lot of last minute stuff to do.

On top of this, my other juggling acts continue. Impetus Trust. Futurebuilders. School Governor. Writer. The Council. Thee latter is fine but takes a steady day or so of my time each week, including evenings and weekends. Not least here my efforts to kick-start a local development trust to take on a building currently owned by the council.

My role here is to use the role of Councillor as broker/bringer-together. What I notice is that people do kind of accept your right to act. If I was doing this just as a new person from the community, it would definitely be more of a struggle. More on that another time.

The week has brought me into close contact with a wide arc of people, which kind of says a lot about what is good about my life.

On one side of the arc sit the folks currently managing Southgate Community Centre,the local people I meet every week during my Street Surgery sessions and the young "MPs" with learning difficulties recently elected by their peers in Suffolk.

At the other side of the arc sit Phil Hope, Minister of State for Social Care, the new CEO of Mencap, Mark Goldring, Peter Holbrook, the new CEO of Social Enterprise Coalition, Phillip Blond, the Tory policy guru, and, next week, Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems.

At various points of the arc in between I meet people running our services, like Amy Jones, our incredible HR director and Paul Morrish, my talented Director of Business Development. Like Steve Cook Editor of Third Sector, Kevin Curley who leads the umbrella NAVCA for small organisations and Richard Corden who runs the Compact Commission and Simon Duffy, the inspiration behind personal budgets in social care.

I am very lucky to have the opportunity to hear from and speak with all of these people. That my job and various roles gives me this unusually rich picture of how life looks now.

What do I take from this fish-eye lens? One thing stands out. That we're at the end of something and the beginning of something else. Quite what that new world looks like is unclear but the parameters of recent years are starting to shift - and fast. From the 46 year old IT technician formerly on 50k who can't get near a job to guys running major organisations, everyone feels very uncertain and also fairly anxious about what lies ahead.

All we know is that it will be different. Making this feel like an opportunity is, for those with nervous dispositions, like myself, hard-going at times. While part of me is entrepreneurial and loves a challenge, a less publicised side of me actually likes the routine and predictable. The Danes have a word for it - hygge. Cosiness, stability, security.

The next few weeks look like being very important. Both are busy as hell and all feature very importantly in terms of the long-term outlook. I need to be at my best. December is often like this for me - a make or break feel to it. So I have been there before.

Doesn't make it any easier though, somehow.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Three-Eleven. This chilling-sounding number refers to 31st March 2011. Just over a year hence. When Government spending for the next three years will be set. When the world as we know it today, begins to end – and cuts kick in.

For those too young to remember, there are broadly two approaches to cuts: Salami-Slicing and Downsizing. Salami-Slicing takes a bit off everyone, so that everything looks the same - just 10% smaller, slower, worse .

Downsizing, on the other hand takes three forms. One is just abolishing recently added bits of Government spending that nobody will miss. Another is just offering less of something than before and asking the parent, patient or householder to make up the difference. The third is to still offer it - but find someone to do it who is better, faster and cheaper than the state.

We will, of course, see both Salami-Slicing and Downsizing from the next Government. What will be interesting will be the mix. My guess is that Downsizing will be the main order of the day. Because you cannot, in reality Salami-Slice 30% from most public services any more than you can take a blade off a helicopter and expect it to stay in the air.

You need a whole new way to fly.

Enter the third sector. Many of us are very nervous about Downsizing because a lot of what we do is discretionary - added-value, icing-on-cake type stuff. Activity easy to slew off without bad publicity. So should we be living in fear? Well, some of us, yes.

But the opportunities presented by Downsizing may well exceed the risks. We do things differently. We We speak to the needs of our time. The sheer weight of former state services that might fall our way could dwarf current Government funding to the sector. A future Niagra next to today’s gentle stream.

David Cameron is right about one thing: it’s all over for the big state. Never again will the Government be viewed as the natural provider of all health, education and welfare, offender-rehabilitation services. Yes, Government will fund, yes it will commission and keep us all accountable. But its clock is ticking down. Ours, by contrast, is coming up to the hour.

And there are other trends too which push our way. The Iain Duncan-Smith `Broken Society’ agenda plays straight to our incredible community sector. New money will flow here, if nowhere else. New bidding consortia such as 3SC, will help innovative third sector players to find those new ways to fly. And new social enterprises will shoot off from the NHS and local government as these sclerotic empires are, at last, broken up.

So Three Eleven need not chill your blood. Indeed it may even warm your heart!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Public Interest

Last week in a quiet police station in Bury St Edmunds, a phone rang. It was a man well known to the police, a section one offender (a sex offender to most of us) calling tosuggest that the newly bought and equipped children's home that Suffolk County Council were about to open next door to him might not be such a great idea, given his history of multiple rape, long-term imprisonment etc.

That this gentleman made the call should be applauded. That Suffolk County Council didn't do the usual reckie to make sure that the children in its care were being placed somewhere safe is, let's say, a rather large mistake. One in the eye for multi-agnency working (the police sort-of knew where he lived, apparently).

Those four children all currently live in my Division. I am their Councillor. My job at these times is to speak for their interests to those in control - their `corporate parent', Suffolk County Council.

So I write a fairly nice letter to the Cabinet Member for Children's Services. No reply. Another to the Director of Children's Service. Same. To the Leader of the Council. Zilch. I write to the local paper. No, they won't run this story. Half a million quid wasted (they can't sell the house now, of course). Kids made vulnerable. Massive management failure. Sorry, not interested. Spooky. Are they all Masons, I ask myself.

In despair, I contact the Chair of Children's Scrutiny Committee. Can I raise this at our next meeting? I ask. She's not sure if the rules allow this.

Local democracy in action. Had I been ranting and raving I might have understood people going to ground. But my letters were, if anything, understanding and placatory, suggesting system-failure not blame.

As those kids' Councillor I now feel, after pretty much a week of silence, angry and ignored. Parties with 55 of 75 seats don't need to listen to Opposition Members. Scrutiny is sidelined and chaired by their own side. Resultingly the Council becomes, more like a private members club than a representative body.

And when this kind of culture is modelled at the top, in which other views are ignored and the usual checks and balances are disregarded, it easily takes hold lower down.

From which arise the kind of royal fuck-ups that see us opening children homes next door to serial rapists - then acting like nothing happened.

Bad? It's disgusting.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Ownership State

A new day, a new piece by the brilliant Phillip Blond. This time about how to change the state. Blond,predictably, attacks the sclerotic, centralising Target State. But he also attacks the New Public Sector of outsourcing, managerialism and internal markets.

Instead he proposes the Ownership State. What does he mean? Essentially, he sees a third way between the privatisation of the state and a Government-owned public sector. The `Ownership state' sees the conversion of public bodies into lots of little John Lewis Partnerships. Employee-owned in the main. Profit-making. Democratic. Front-line-led.

Blond clearly spent his years of obscurity reading very widely. For you see in his work all sorts of influences, including the radical `empowerment' gurus like Ricardo Semler, Henry Mintzberg and Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Theory now put into practice by companies such as Harley Davison, Google and Goretex.

What do I think? On one level I find Blond very inspiring. He captures the problem very clearly and his solutions are original. Nevertheless, I find myself, as a product of my time (choice, competition, management-leadership), a little unconvinced.

However hard I try, I struggle to see public sector workers becoming more productive if given less rather than more management-guidance. And, having seen the chaos in some so-call democratic organisations, I have an abiding faith, however misguided, in role of a strong, insightful leadership in setting direction - and then incentivising and tracking it through solid operations-management.

But, as Blond says, my way has failed. We have tried all this stuff in the public sector and it's still there, on the floor, failing. Perhaps we do need to go one step further. Try some new stuff, like his employee-owned `civil companies' in which management `facilitates' and front-line staff `lead'.

Fills me with horror, but, hell, it's not as though we have much to fall back on.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Meeting the Monarch

My turn came. [Voice from side] "Mr Craig Dearden-Phillips for Services to Social Enterprise".

I walked three paces, turned to face the Queen, nodded, walked forward. Her hand hung the medal on a clip that had been affixed to my suit and, he asked me how things were going at Speaking Up. "Shall I tell her about the merger?, I thought for a nanosecond before saying "Very well your Majesty".

Then she said "I believe this isn't your first Award". Wasn't sure quite how to respond but just said "No Maam, but nothing really touches this one!" before a hand was offered to shake, I walked backwards, nodded again, turned and walked off the stage.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Worst Generation?

No, I don't mean the young. I actually mean the old. Or old-ish to be precise: the Baby Boomers. Born between 1945 and 1960.

Why so? Well, unlike their parents, the wartime generation, which, essentially "gave", this is, arguably, this generation that "took". While the generation that followed (Generations X and Y) tend to "cope". In the global time lottery, the Boomers won the star prize: Rising house prices, a growing state, free higher education, good pensions and a massive rise in living standards.

Meet your typical sixty something - Roy. He divorced at 47 (2 kids, then 13 and 15, now in careers) now living with Linda, his former PA who is ten years younger than him. Roy retired at 60 on a final salary scheme and now regularly travels the world with Linda. They own a five bedroomed house and two cars. Roy is investing his inheritance, which his parents (both now dead) scrimped-by over 50 years, in a couple of properties in France. Not that he will be leaving anything for his kids (this is his money) and he wants to live till he is 100!

And the grandchildren. Well, he's so busy he doesn't see them that much. It's never been the same with his kids since the divorce. He does get involved in the community. Sort of. He rings the local council when the leaves are building up on his path. But he's far too busy to sort it out himself. Things to do, you see. Golf, Bridge, garden.

Recognise the caricature? Well, that's because you will probably know someone who fits the mould. For this was the generation which thought it could have it all. Not just materially, in other ways too. You, me, the state, society, the earth even, could be said to be paying the price, now and tomorrow, for the life-choices of people like Roy.

The awkwardness on my part in writing this is, of course, that this is my parents' generation. My dear parents who I love dearly. In truth, they don't fit this caricature particularly well. They are still married. Their pension, like many, is in a mess. They live relatively modestly. And they structure their lives very much around their grandchildren.

But this doesn't detract from my broader point. The generation that lived before and the one that followed face bigger challenges. They took, we cope.

Those born after 1970 face the environmental crisis and the evidence-able knowledge of what happens when families go wrong. We know that flying around the world for fun is literally going to suck the air from or grandchildren's lungs. We know we will probably never fully retire.

Therefore we go about our lives with a little less hubris. Unless, we're completely ignorant, those of us under 45 know that it's not just about us.

The worst generation ever to have lived? Probably.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Playing a Straight Bat

We always like bosses who say it how it is. Or do we? I count myself as a heart-on-sleeve CEO. One who is happy to have an open conversation. To this end, I have been sharing my fairly unedited thoughts on the future environment with my staff through our newsletter.

In the last one I basically told people that I thought the game was up in terms of doing things the way we have this last ten years. The money I believe won't be there in anything like the same amount from 2011. I asked people for a conversation. About changes in working practices. About using volunteers. About working only with those in the most dire need. Stuff that needs to be considered, at least.

It's interesting what power does. Being CEO, my words were taken not as an invitation to a conversation but a pronouncement. A decree that we would do all these things. Quite a few people were genuinely worried that now going to happen an my announcement was simply my way of telling them.

I haven't yet responded to the staff who wrote to me, which include some of our key people. I think I will firstly apologise for scaring them. I know that often CEOs only say ANYTHING when the hammer is just about to fall. And even then dress nasty stuff in nice-sounding language.

But, in my response, I will also highlight that I was actually seeking dialogue. The truth is that we do have time. About 18 months to rethink things. Enough time. And that we need them to help us to do this.

The learning for me is that it maybe isn't always possible as a CEO to say it just how it is. People bring their own fears to the table, understandably so given the previous experiences of many people. A CEO friend of mine winced when I shared the story. She did the same thing once and people thought she was announcing the end of the organisation!

Two conclusions. One is that the CEO role brings a responsibility to take extreme care with one's communication. You are seen as all-powerful and anything you say on paper has an atmosphere of diktat about it.

The second is that people don't always prefer bosses to tell it how it is, whatever they might say. Enjoying Alan Sugar is one thing. In one's own workplace I suspect it might be a different matter.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Customer or Citizen

I notice, upon viewing some correspondence between officers and a resident here in Hardwick, that we refer to people as customers of the Council.

While I see, on one level the logic of this – the need to instill modern ideas of service into Council employees – I am wondering whether the language of “customers” is the right one to be used in the public space going forward.

A time in which we need to see ourselves less as “consumers” of public services, more as citizens with responsibilities as well as entitlements. The social capital agenda which we are all seeking to develop I believe increases such a need for a change of language.

A language of responsibility, of reciprocity, of contribution. "Citizen" I think fits better this need than "customer". If we’re asking people to partner with us, to co-produce or to do more for themselves, we may find ourselves tripped up badly by the customer mentality.

I say this not only from conviction but from experience. Even a few months into my time as a Councillor, I come up all the time againstpeople who see the Council as the would see a service centre run by Dell or Hotpoint. “We pay, you deliver” is the mentality.

So people won’t pick litter, clear leaves or call on their elderly neighbour because that’s, in their words “Your job”.

By treating people as consumers rather than citizens, I fear we are encouraging an attitude of mind which could be incimical to our aspirations as a Council - to build the kind of place we are seeking to create. One of citizenship, as opposed to one, simply, of consumerism.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tough Choices Ahead

Reading the latest from think-tank the National Economic and Social Research Council (NESRC) makes me realise that hardly anyone gets it yet. We are all in denial, of some sort. Kind of believing that what we're doing will, somehow, be spared or beyond the scope of cuts. It's a natural human reaction, to bury one's head and wait for the hammer to fall.

And fall it soon will. When the Government will probably either a) Raise income tax by 7% (not likely) b) Cut all `middle class benefits c) Start to reduce ordinary public spending to pre-1997 levels to bridge a £100m annual deficit. Fewer health service staff and police officers. Crumbling schools again.

Is this inevitable? Yes and no. I am a pessimist when it comes to achieving change in the way the state does its business, so part of me believes that it will be every bit as shit as I imagine.

But a part of me believes that we can waylay the looming cataclysm. Use the coming horror to galvanise a response that takes public services - and people themselves - to a better place.

The most important thing is to change the state. Locally and nationally, the era of diktat is now viewed mostly as a failure. Robbing all involved of energy and costing a fortune. Creating a litany of complexity, a destruction of trust and a system that, in the end, grew its impact far slower than its expenditure.

But we must also change people. For we have become consumers alone, when it comes to public services. I pay, you do. I see this all the time in my work as a Councillor. People won't brush leaves from their path. They would rather spend the time complaining to me to get the Council to do it.

This `entitlement' attitude is particularly prevalent among many (but not all!!) of the 50-65 year olds I encounter. The Baby Boomers. Very different to the wartime generation who, I find, just get on with it. And the young, who seem more willing to get stuck in and sort things out.

Lots of questions but do I have any answers? I am beginning to feel that the ship of my life is beginning to steam in these directions. For all I rail against the state and call for its reduction I am not doing this from a Sarah Palin small-government place. Pro-state and anti-state in this country have meant Left and Right respectively.

Now that the state, in its current form, has been discredited, we need a new place for those who see themselves as `progressive' (and I number myself thus) to gather, exchange views and engage - without being branded as right-wing wolves in sheep's clothing (a view recently expressed far more eloquently by Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA on his blog)

For what is it worth, this is what, of all the ideas I have seen put forward by others, what we most need to do on both sides of the equation:

The State
1. Reduce the number of civil servants across all Government Departments by 25% over the next five years and freeze most public sector pay for three years.

2. Break-up the NHS into smaller, free-standing institutions (like Universities)and integrate PCTs into local authorities. Sign over the asset base to these new institutions. Allow private operators and social business to challenge the NHS for all contracts.

3. Allow all schools to opt out of local authority control and move to a voucher system.

4. Promote the Easy Council concept - and out-source as many services as possible.

5. Move all social care users to personal budgets by 2015.

6. Abolish most regulatory quangos and hand their responsibilities to central government or local authorities.

7. Keep all public sector pay under £200k pa - this may encourage the concept of public service among public servants.

8. Move all care-management services into existing or new community-based organisations that were mostly run by non-specialist, non-professionals.

9. Raise the retirement age to 70 by 2020.

10. Restore the 10p tax and reduce corporation tax to 10% on small businesses of up to £100k turnover.

The People.
1. Issue a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities to all users of Government services.

2. Expect some form or voluntary or community service from all people - and use the organs of the state - and local budgets - to encourage this.

3. Offer seed funding for a Development Trust for every locality.

4. Allow people to set up schools which can obtain state funding if demand is there.

5. Put information online as to spending priorities and trade offs (again Matthew Taylor's idea, not mine).

6. Use PR to choose all elected officers and run regular ballots on contentious issues.

7. Reduce the number of tiers of Local Government from up to three to one for all areas.

8. Offer start-up capital of 5k for any unemployed person to start their own business.

9. Accept that you will need to either pay for your own care in old age or pay for the insurance required to cover that eventuality from your own resources.

10. Redefine yourself from `Consumer' to `Citizen'. Ask not what your country etc...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Breakfast with the Minister

The place. `Fifteen' in Hoxton. The time. Eight thirty AM. The people. Twelve or so Social Enterprise Ambassadors plus Third Sector Minister Angela Smith and her entourage of four (yes, I know) from the Office of the Third Sector. The purpose. To tell Angela to keep this mainly pro-bono programme funded beyond 2011.

But let's start with the food. Breakfast was distractingly good. A kind of muesli-porridge followed by sausage and bacon baps and lashings of scrambled egg. The kind of food it is very difficult to have in front of you while politely waiting for someone to finish their spiel. I resisted at first - but couldn't stop myself. Fifteen it is definitely delivering its `taste bottom-line', as well as its financial and social ones!

We kicked off with intros. Very interesting to hear how people's businesses have grown, including bag-maker EAKO, toplining £2m from only half a million just a couple of years ago. Then Angela. She was, I have to say, very energetic and likeable. Quite chilled and healthy-looking for a Minister too.

She clearly grasps the sector - her own VCS background helping a little here I think. Unlike previous Ministers, she is keen for us to mark the ground clearly between what we're doing and the rest of the third sector, despite the similarities in some of our organisations.

Sam Coniff, the suave Founding CEO of marketing social business Livity chaired magisterially as ever and there were presentation on both public services and young people's services.

The theme across both was the need we have for our wider social offer to be taken seriously by commissioners who are often working to extremely narrow service-specs. Social clauses are a big requirement and we let the Minister know this.

I used my spot to say that our offer is well-suited to the age of austerity in which we can no longer afford full-price public service. Her response, perhaps predictably for a Labour government minister, was to stress that we shouldn't be primarily competing on price. I didn't want to say that I am already am . Forced to by commissionrs , even this early in the game.

Photos outside and then whoosh, she was gone in the Ministerial Prius. Overall we acquitted ourselves well. We come across as a dynamic, can-do bunch. Not your typical charity sector miserabilists.

So well done to all, especially the young woman who organises us all, Pauline Milligan, who is classy - in every sense.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Man from the IFS

Two years ago I had the privilege of sharing a platform with Carl Emmerson, who is the Deputy Director of the highly respected Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS). He was telling a rather uncomprehending crowd at NCVO that it was game-over for big public spending increases. And this was before the crash.

The IFS, for those that don't know it, run a model of the UK economy that at least rivals that of the Treasury. Some would say they predict things better than HM Government. Which is why you will often hear Carl or his boss, Robert Chote, on the radio in the morning. In short, the IFS normally get it right.

My motivation in catching up with Carl was to find out what his thinking was on the forward picture for public spending. I know what my instincts and my patchwork-knowledge tells me. But I wanted Carl's view - as a non-political, independent economist.

What he had to say was interesting. Basically, the UK's tax-take has dropped massively to the tune of about £100m pa - or roughly 15%. This is a recurrent deficit that we have to bridge. This is different from the Deficit we hear about on the news - which is the bill so far. The £100m, without corrective action, is what we will spend above what we get in EVERY YEAR from 2010-11 onwards.

Therefore we have choices. One unlikely choice is that we become Sweden: we accept current levels of spending, jack up taxes to Scandinavian levels and just live with that.

The other more likely one is that the Government immediately both raises certain taxes AND withdraws particular benefits (or Transfer Payments as they are called by economists) from groups who don't need them. Things like Universal Child Benefit, child tax credits and other "middle class" benefits come to mind.

These changes, if they are to be made, are likely in the first budget of any new Government (probably weeks after its election).

This led me to ask Carl whether a new Government would seek to implement departmental spending cuts too in that year. Carl thought probably not because budgets for 2010-11 will have already been set - and anyway, it would be likely, given the suddenness of any immediate changes that the "wrong cuts" would be made.

2010-11, therefore wouldn't be the year for actual cuts, beyond the immediate cash saving mentioned above, but the year in which cuts were planned for implementation in 2011-12, the first year of the next three year spending-period.

Interestingly, he pointed out that all of the cuts mentioned by the Tories only constitute a very small amount of the total amount to be saved annually. The truth is that the news will get a lot worse. Governments will probably need to tax more and spend considerably less for a long period.

Politically the question will be whether this period can be allowed to go on for the best part of a decade - or whether the next Government will seek to get it mostly done these next five years - to allow some light at the end of the tunnel rather than a message of "four more years of pain" in 2014.

If it is to be a shorter period, it will be altogether nastier to take out the effects of a recurrent £100m shortfall - and to pay down the existing deficit too.

I asked Carl about whether turning off the taps now, as Labour argue, would stymie recovery. He doesn't think it would be possible to do that in one go anyway and that the "now or later" question will be resolved by the fact that later isn't very far away now.

Might this kill recovery anyway? This worry, he says, needs to be offset by the risk that the markets (whose activities have a big bearing on interest rates) may be made very jumpy by any Government or prospective Government they didn't feel was committed to keeping the growing fiscal gap under control. From this point of view, a Government with this commitment and a firm majority would be the most welcome. Not the best of news for Liberal Democrats!

What was most striking talking to Carl is just the size of the gulf between what we are spending recurrently and what is being brought in - a gap currently funded by Quantitative Easing of monetary policy (or printing money). We cannot just grow our way out of this one. And while we cannot continue spending, it is worrying that neither party is publicly talking about how we can bridge that Grand Canyon.

Indeed if we were building a rope-ladder right now, even George Osborne's proposals would only stretch a few metres across!

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Guy Garvey of Elbow caught me by surprise today. No, he didn't call by or email. Rather he was on my Ipod. It was a chance meeting. I was out running and set to "Shuffle Songs".

On he came. Then, something in the way he was singing kicked in and I was suddenly, not knowing why, losing composure and feeling emotion run into my face and strange tears clouding my vision as I scooted across the ploughed field. It passed in moments. I don't `lose it' on any level very often and, even before the song had finished, my brain got to work on why this man's voice and words had reached into me the way they did.

And I think it is two things. One is the artist. I think Guy Garvey puts everything into what he does. He is authentic and, somehow, quite inspiring. An artist who has always been true to himself.

The other, I think, is to do with me. Garvey reminds me, physically and in manner of my younger brother, with whom I have a loving but slightly awkward, occasionally brittle, sort-of unfulfilled relationship.

On top of this, I am thinking a lot at the moment of an old friend of mine back home in the North-West who is nursing his mother in the last weeks of cancer. While this isn't front-of-mind stuff for me at all, today, listening to Garvey, who is from my home-town, brought this sorry, sad picture into sharp relief.

Then, as quickly as it had come over me, it all subsided as I was Shuffled to another track.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Would Charities Work Better if They Made Profits?

At first look this seems a rather daft question. Charities for profit? Isn't that a contradiction? Well, yes, and no. The public would certainly find NSPCC plc a hard one to throw into the bucket for. So, on one level, yes it is a non-starter.

But I raise the question because I there is a hypothesis I would like to test. Which is this: Would NSPCC deliver more social bang for buck if it were owned and managed as a for-profit venture? Part of me, you see, believes it might just do that. And if that were so, what would that mean for the charity model of raising money and spending it?

First though, how on earth might a private NSPCC deliver more for children. Well, I am fairly confident that it would very quickly focus the business on areas where the evidence suggested most gains could be made for least investment. Charities are, in my experience, not as skilled at focus full stop. Nor do they like to kill programmes that are good - but not quite good enough. Secondly, a private NSPCC would definitely have fewer staff, less bureaucracy and a more simplified and faster decision-making structure. Almost without doubt. Thirdly, a private charity would be better at driving down costs and would do this instinctively, rather than as a nice-to-do.

But there will never be a private NSPCC so why bother even thinking about it? Well, it's not quite as simple as that. Many charities now do work in fields that for-profit companies also operate.

Take my own sector, advocacy services for vulnerable groups. While charities predominate, there are a few private sector players, one of which is owned by a professional friend of mine. His business is is carefully organised to make profit (which he then puts to a variety of good uses on top of providing for his family.

But my friend believes, correctly I think, that his broad focus on profit actually leads the company in the direction of getting it right as a service. On processes. On delivery. On costs. On people. On measureable impact. Yes, a profit focus actually helps, on some level, to get these others things right.

I say all this because we have struggled, as a non-profit minded organisation, for to get some of these things sorted quickly. It is only now, when the medium term future is less certain (i.e. our top and bottom lines are under threat) that I seem to be able to generate the impetus for change.

Indeed, I have often wondered, in my darker moments, whether if we were run for profit, like my friend's business, we would have resolved the drag-factors on our business which only now we are starting to resolve.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, I think what comes out for me is that we need to rid ourselves of the fantasy that profit just takes from delivery. That third sector organsisations are somehow better because we don't aim for profit.

This is lazy thinking. The truth is that many charities that could make a profit toput to good use actually refuse to do so in the misguided belief that it is always better to leave costs in the business. If charities produced profit-targets - and stuck to them - I am personally fairly sure that the sector would, in a very short time, be delivering the same for a lot less money.

So yes, while I agree that charities can never be run for private profit, I do believe charities would, overall, do more good if they set ambitious targets for profit (to be reinvested or whatever) and pursued them with the same vigour and focus as would a private sector business.

Fuck You Money

I was having coffee with a work-friend of mine last week. He is in his fifties and spent the first thirty years of his career in business making a lot of dough. His motivation wasn't the superstar lifestyle or hob-nobbing with the wealthy. Nor was it to just to achieve a particular score on the board.

Rather he wanted what he terms `Fuck You Money'. Enough cash to be able to say and do what he wanted. Never to have to answer to anybody again in his life. To express himself and be himself. He set this goal fairly early on in the game. He tolerated colleagues and environments which weren't really `him'. But he knew what he wanted and that the sacrifice would be worth it.

Don't get me wrong, this guy isn't in any sense retired. He works hard, but does only the work he chooses. On top, he also studies, travels and takes an active interest in his kids.

While my path will be different a big part of me identified with him. I too would love to get to a point where I have the total freedom my friend enjoys. For many of us, only a late and lucky retirement brings these kinds of benefits. How wonderful to enjoy them with twenty odd good years left in you.

I guess this is what `Fuck You Money' is all about. I wonder if that is the real privilege of becoming wealthy. Not the toys it can buy you, but the liberty it can bring.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Do I Have Another One in Me?

I have been asking this of late. Not another child (Katy makes those decisions) but another big venture. Ten years ago, you see, I burned with the desire to grow a large-ish social venture. I ached for success. I wasn't very happy. Speaking Up was kind-of therapy.

Today, I want to burn with the same ire. But, in truth, I don't. Not just yet anyway. Life has somehow got in the way. I am a lot happier now. I have, sort-of, proved myself. To myself and to others. My interests are more diverse. My energy levels are not quite what they were. I have grown conscious of the limits of organisations. I now understand that resources do not solve problems.

If I don't go on to do another one, however, part of me will feel rueful. There are, I know, a queue of financiers out there looking for great new ventures. I could put together a team relatively easily. I know so much more now than I did then. I could, I am sure, make a much bigger splash this time round.

So will I? At the moment, I am thinking probably not. Working with others who are doing the leading - perhaps. Non-exec-ing - certainly. Advising, consulting, I am probably your man. But doing it all again? Not easy to imagine. You never know, a long holiday, a bit of respite from fatherhood, a bit of premature hair-loss and, who knows, I may be all revved up again. Yet it seems distant and `other' right now.

Which, on one level is right pain - as a lost part of me wants to be an entrepreneur again. But on another, is probably a sign that I am now, ten years on, boringly normal.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Just Giving Deserves its Profits

A few weeks ago I wrote a column in praise of the excellent charity Help for Heroes (H4H). Today I am going to disagree wholeheartedly with their public criticism of the excellent Just Giving, a private company which has enabled over half a billion pounds for charity.

What is Just Giving's crime? It charges 5% commission on donations. It is privately owned. Run for a modest profit. Pays its CEO and staff very well indeed. Simple as that.

This, we are told, is wrong. Instead, H4H is advising donors to use another site, one that doesn't make profits. A site that has been around now for a long time but, strangely, hasn't raised a great deal of money. And which, despite its relaunch, will take a very long time to scale the heights acheived by Just Giving.

It is on issus like this that I despair about our elements within our sector. Surely what matters about Just Giving isn't that it is profitable but that it has transformed giving in this country. Everyone knows someone who has used it. It is a brilliant innovation. Gone are the days of sponsorship forms, running after people for money and maybe getting round to claiming Gift Aid. Just Giving takes care of all of that. Charities should be falling all over these people in gratitude, not criticising them!

The oppobrium comes, I think, from a deep naivete about the way things like Just Giving happen in the first place. The founders had to develop new technology. They had then to get take-up to high enough levels to cover massive early outlays. And, on a personal level, they had to put their reputations and, probably, personal lives on the line for several years. Just to stay alive.

Now they are successful, yes, it all looks very good for them - the two owners have 10% each of the company. But it was not always thus. Not that they were motivated first by profit - both had a bigger goal: to transform UK fundraising. It was just that they figured the best way to do this was through a profit-pursuing company.

So come on, if you are one of those people nodding with agreement at the criticisms of Just Giving, ask yourself this. Would you prefer a return to the dark-age we were in before their appearance? Would you be happy for that half a billion to have been, at best, a hundred million - with next to no Gift Aid collected?

Thought not. So let's judge achievements, not mechanisms. Ends not means. And recognise a brilliant success story for what it is.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Getting Personalised

This week I met Simon Duffy, the founding CEO of In Control and Winner of the Royal Society's Albert Medal (previous winners include Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, Tim Berners-Lee).

Simon has recently moved on to set up a new initiative, the Centre for Welfare Reform. Though he would probably eschew such an accolade, Simon is one of the most influential people in the world right now in the world of social reform.

For it was Simon who persuaded the UK Government to try out personalised budgets, which are now the centrepiece not only of social care reform but also the latest thinking in education and health. Pretty much single-handedly, he changed the terms of political discourse on the issue of social care in this country. A Game-Changer, if ever there was one.

What makes him thus? Well, Simon is one of a uncommon type of person who can not only think in new ways but also deliver real change on the ground - and use that to augment his thinking. In the UK, we tend to split into either eggheads or pragmatists. Simon is both, which makes him special.

He is also radical in that he doesn't feel constrained to think in terms which speak to current policy fashions. He is further along the curve - and if the mainstream doesn't buy in just yet, he doesn't particularly worry. This gives him an uncommon freedom among intellectuals, many of whom are tied into the needs of the Beltway.

His new initiative is the Centre for Welfare Reform. Except it isn't `new' in that it builds on his core idea of positive citizenship. It also shares the critique of government made by InControl, namely that the system we have now is the hugely wasteful relic of a by-gone era of industrial-scale solutions delivered by a big state. The net effect of this has been the pulling apart of the`free' supports that people most require: Their own dignity as citizens. Their families. Their communities.

Sounding familiar? Well, this is what Simon was saying before even New Labour came along. But instead of just changing the system by influencing government (he's through with that after the experience of working with civil servants on In Control) he now wants to make real things happen and start the revolution from below. By working on new initiatives that show how, at a very local level, the big concepts can be played out.

Coming from most people this sounds wide-eyed stuff that would make you smile. But Simon Duffy isn't a person to be underestimated. He doesn't bend and, to a point, doesn't care what people think about his ideas.

But he's done it before - and he might well do it again. Watch out World.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Our Friends in the North

Sometimes the day you've just had sets you up for the one to come. This morning I am full of energy. Brimming in fact. Up at daybreak I ran through the first light which, within a couple of miles had become yet another sky blue Autumn day.

Yesterday till lunchtime I spent at our Youth Parliament for South Yorkshire, held in Barnsley. Here elected "MPs" with disabilities got into some serious dialogue about public transport with politicians (three local Westminster MPs), Councillors (about 5 attending) and various senior officers and transport company reps.

The young people acquitted themselves extremely well. Presentations were professional, brief and to the point. The responses were less brief but, generally of a high quality. The Parliament has a really interesting mix of purposes: empowerment, confidence-building, awareness-raising, creating new networks and, of course, building commitment towards change. Because it doesn't have any `power', it has to rely on influence - and this is I think what the dynamic of the day was all about. Very impressive and a reminder of what I am here to do.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Full Stop for Full Cost Recovery

Full Cost Recovery. As a business-term, it sounds like something from a Czechoslovakian foundry circa 1973. But it is actually the pricing system for services from the UK third sector.

Full Cost Recovery. Think about that term and what it says. In effect, the message is "You owe it to me to pay the full cost I incurred in producing this service". No more, no less. Not what you want to pay or I am willing to accept. Just the "full costs", full-stop.

This does nobody a service. For providers it eliminates the prospect of profit. Which in turn means you can't build the business. For customers it means you have to pay the costs of production, whatever these happen to be.

So why are we in thrall to this idea? Shouldn't we really be thinking not about how we recover our costs but how we push down our costs so that providers actually want to use our services. I don' buy moral status of the costs of charities. Like all organisations, the cost of charities are subject to drift. To even imply someone else has a duty to meet them is ridiculous.

So let's hear less of Full Cost Recovery and more about how we drive down costs, create profits and grow our impact as a result. Full Stop.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Blackberries in October

They exist. In fact I made a fantastic haul just yesterday. I get pretty excited by blackberries. They are one of the few things you can actually, really eat from the Great Outdoors (I am no Ray Mears). And so many uses. Straight into porridge, or jam, or cooked with apple for a superb crumble.

Being able to get up from my desk and, within five minutes, be able to harvest a box full of blackberries is high on my reason-list for living where I do. While my garden is small, hop over the fence am I am in 200 acres of garden, peopled by the odd jogger or dog-walker.

Here I am in a classic Victorian park, planted 125 years ago with a range of native American cedars, redwooods and other `rare breeds' of trees. These tower above the oaks and sycamores, providing landmarks of where our house is from the fields and hills around.

Living here I think has told me that my location - as near to nature as possible - is as important to me as my actual dwelling. We could probably double the space for the money we spent to be here, but, I don't think I would ever swop this place, even for a suburban mansion. I am perfectly placed.

This is our first Autumn here. It isn't properly underway yet as the Indian Summer is clinging on but the first coldnesses are upon us and within weeks the blackberries will all be gone.

Until next year, of course.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Free Schools - Why I Support Them

Be in no doubt: The Tories are making the running at the moment. On welfare, they recognise the need for bold action and a step-change to making work pay. Likewise on education their free schools idea is a winner.

I say this not because I don't believe there will be huge difficulties. There will be. All sorts of problems will be caused when the first schools open - admissions, the challenge to existing schools, duplication, inequality - you name it. They will be legion.

But to dwell on these - as many will do - is to miss the larger point. Which is that free schools will break the current stranglehold that local authorities have on what is available to our children. Free schools allow resources to follow demand. They encourage diversity of provision. They pass economic power from people like me (or rather the educationalists I am elected to watch-over) to parents.

The reason I am probably sounding so fundamentalist on this issue is that the ecology of schools in my own town - Bury St Edmunds - is about to be completely destroyed by a local authority following a particular line that all schools should be two-tier.

This is regardless of the fact that just about every parent in the town (well I would say 85%) favours the current system. Three new County Councillors, myself included, were elected on a platform of local choice and opposition to this imposition. The money for change has pretty much dried up from Government. But still the juggernaut rolls on. Because, Suffolk's Tory leadership tells us, they have a democratic mandate to do whatever they like to education.

My own view is that it actually isn't up to politicians to tell people what kinds of schools people should send their kids to . Schools should conform to what parents demand of them.

Further to this, the effect of free schools will be to add a much-needed competitive edge to a system which seems stuck into the idea that we should have just the right number of places for the number of kids - resulting in even mediocre schools being guaranteed an intake. Competition, be it in the private or third sector - raises everyone's game - and shows the poorer players for what they are. Presently such schools are protected and just given exhortation to improve. Not good enough by my book.

While the new Free Schools will be disruptive, I think their presence will make Councils far more concerned than they are now with what parent, rather than Whitehall, wants.

Are you listening, Suffolk County Council??

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Brutal but Necessary

As you probably know am a County Councillor in Suffolk. The word here is of cuts in spending of up to a third over the next few years. Yes, I said a third. Very soon, we’ll be looking at a very different local authority. Delivering less. No longer about `doing things’ - but making sure they are done .

But just how will this gap between budgets and aspirations be bridged? Well, the talk is all about “social capital” – community self-help, mutual support and voluntarism. This is the headline strategy and there’s even a new cabinet portfolio in its name!

Sounds great. Yet can we generate enough of this vintage stuff in the digital, dissociative 2010s? Nobody truly knows but a sensible guess is that it will be no magic bullet, especially in areas where people don’t look at each other in the street, never mind help old ladies across the road.

So, on top, will be the tried and tested stuff - but this time turbo-charged! A pay and recruitment-freeze. A mass cull of expensive in-house people. And out-sourcing of traditional local authority mainstays such as schools, care-management and children’s services.

Enter the third sector. People, quite rightly, don’t trust the private megacorps to organize education and care. Their track-record is patchy. By contrast, charities and social businesses are trusted, have the right cost-base and draw in community effort. They have it all to play for.

It will all be very brutal. But there might be something better – and more financially sustainable – at the end.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Every so often, you have a day that takes you back to your 1970s childhood. When the sky is blue, your cares seem not to exist, pleasures are simple and everything flows.

One such day for me was Saturday as I hooked up with five old friends to climb Whernside in the Yorkshire Dales. We had come together from all points of the compass on Friday night to meet in Kettlewell, a stone-built village tucked between high ridges of millstone-grit. We have all bar one been at university together and our friendships span the last 20 years.

One of the good things about men as they get older is that they become less competitive and almost more feminine in their approach to friendship. There is great care taken to include, no bragging or ragging people to discomfort - the things about all-male company I have often struggled with in younger years. Also, beneath the beery bluster, there is a shared recognition of our connection and its meaning as the years take us forward.

The Dales were magical. Tucked away in the north of Yorkshire, they are less trodden than the Lakes and the Peaks but just as captivating. In the bright September sunshine, we ascended Wherneside and rested at its peak, with the Lakes rising visible on one side and Wharfedale spread out beneath us. We all sat in silence for a few moments, surveying, each in their own place, in tacit appreciation.

If there is one thing I have learned as I have become a little older, it is that life is precious. Even the difficult, anxious times. A choice between life and no-life, even a trying one, is, for me, no contest. The fact of life is a joy and a privilege, something lost on me in my youth, but something I now feel quite fiercely.

And never more so than at moments like this.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Brilliant New Face at SEC

I was delighted and not a little relieved to see Social Enterprise Coalition appoint Peter Holbrook as their next CEO.

Peter is the right choice. He is a successful social entrepreneur with a recent track record. He has achieved miracles in a short time in the least promising areas. He is an inspirational speaker. He can lead teams. He is deeply strategic. He embodies the best of our sector. And finally, he is not an inhabitant of the semi-political world in which a lot of social enterprise people seem to live. He is `real' - and represents a new type of leadership for what is now a bigger sector.

He inherits an organisation that his predecessor brought a long way. But it is also an organisation in need of adaptation. To a new Government, to a new economic period, to a growing level of interest in social business from the public and private sectors.

Peter has some big strategic questions to answer: Does SEC focus on `socialising' mainstream business or growing more orthodox social enterprises? Should SEC be more active in promoting social enterprise as an alternative to public sector provision - and if so how far should it go? Does SEC widen the tent and loosen its criteria for membership or do we go down the RISE line and keep SEC very much in the existing (and growing) social economy.

Whichever way Peter and the Board go, there will be risks. We could miss out on the possibilites offered by the private sector (Liam Black's point). Equally, we could end up looking like a coked-up version of CSR. We might end up transforming the face of the public sector. Or just end up creating pale imitations of the dross that is most publicly provided services today. More worrying for Peter is the fact that he has to balance the wishes of a movement rooted what I call the `left-field' social economy (the co-ops, the social firms etc) with the need (in my mind anyway) to accommodate models of social business that also involve private ownership.

Is is a complex set of challenges. On top of this, he has to get SEC off a diet of Government funding and gain it a reputation for being a shit-hot resource that all social enterprises want to pay to be part of. Not easy in the hardest time we've all faced.

However, if anyone is able to do this it is Peter. He has worked across sectors. He is someone we can all buy into, whatever our views. He can, I believe, create unity and manage conflict while taking us into new directions that recognise the way the world is moving.

While tempted to say what I think he should do in his first year, I have too much respect and liking for the man to add more to the pressure of expectation I know he currently feels.

What I do want to say though is that we must all of us get behind Peter. We may not agree with him on all things but he is the very best leader we have and he deserves our wholehearted support. He needs a couple of years without people on his back or publicly telling him how to do his job. Let's give this man the very best chance of success.

Handle with Care

I sometimes get asked to do talks at local events on the social enterprise agenda. This is what I said at a recent on I did in Suffolk:

We have an opportunity – Suffolk County Council will have a quarter to a third less resources within 5 years – but the same amount to do. It cannot afford to do it.

They are talking about growing social capital as a solution. I am not sure most Tory Councillors could tell you what social capital was, let alone how they are going to grow it to levels that take up the slack of an over-expanded state. In truth there will be a hole where services used to be and a bit of money to fill it. We could be part of that solution and still do OK I believe

However,we need to be cautious about the public sector. Suffolk grew from 18,000 to 31,000 employees during the boom years. They looked after themselves. Other sectors grew too but not nearly by so much. Rather than put new business out to other sectors they took it on themselves.

Now that crisis is here the business isn’t there for them – and they want to find others to help them.

Fine, but I think you can see we’re dealing with an organisation with interests. Therefore we need to take care. If they want us in, they need to share risk and be a banker to risk-taking if necessary.

We also need to push them on the bits of business they would like to keep (the ones with safe Government money attached, I would predict).

What about social care management? What about children’s homes? Fostering services? Children’s centres? All expensively lodged in the public sector. We can do it better, cheaper I am sure of that.

But we cannot take all the risk or be taken to the cleaners – as Councils will tend to do once you’re off their generously funded books.

Finally, we are a tiny barely understood sector and need to develop alliances. The public don’t know who we are. Councillors think we are just part of the third sector. So too do most businesses. We are not significant players.

Therefore we need to build alliances with other sectors – especially business whose strengths tend to offset our weaknesses. Not all businesses are the same and we need to be sensitive to that.

To expand into what are currently public services will require working across sectors and not being precious what whether or not something qualifies as a social enterprise. Look at Serco and Turning Point if you want to see the shape of the future of public services.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cameron's Love Bombs

We (the Lib Dems) will be doing well to hold onto our sixty-odd seats. Gains in the northern cities will be wiped out by losses to the Tories in the South and West.

Rawnsley is right, there is an `Anyone But Labour' mood out there which is pitching people towards Cameron, whose progressive rhetoric is capturing the attention of the under 40s - who are temperamentally liberal.

Our best - and only - chance is to try to paint Cameron as being like Blair - the ultimate politician, not particularly worthy of our trust. And contrast him with ourselves the `straight-talkers'.

We will also have to use Mr Cable to full effect. His resonance with voters, particularly older ones, is enormous. As a Councillor I knock on doors a lot and the esteem and trust people have for Vince is massive.

At the moment though, I am not optimistic. The Tories have momentum and in Cameron a leader who just about cuts it with the public.

2010 will not, I fear, be our mould-breaking year. 2014 or 2018 however maybe is - as Labour will, effectively, be finished in many parts of the country after next year's rout.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Strictly Wasteful?

I have spent most of the last two evenings watching `Strictly' with my wife, Katy, who loves it. As someone who tries to a probably-unhealthy extent to fill every hour with worthwhile "stuff", you can imagine how this must be for me. The programme's conclusion (after about 2 hours - it is interminable) fills me initially with relief then that crushing feeling that I will never get that time back. An unenjoyable indulgance, like the fourth pint or the second pack of McCoys.

So why was I in there watching Strictly and not in here watching the Lib Dem conference online? Well, it is to do with being married. Because if I didn't watch `Strictly' I wouldn't have done a single thing with Katy this week. Or, rather, a single thing we didn't have to do (sort out the kids) or that I wanted to do (she goes online when I am writing/blogging/working in the evenings.

Watching Strictly therefore is my way of saying that I know it's not all about me and just plainly and simply being together in a way that we are not most of the time. Therefore, no this time is not Strictly Wasteful (though I still mourn the opportunity-cost) but actually Time Well Spent. For without it, I might end up without my dancing partner, which wouldn't be good at all!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Social Capital & Social Fantasy

`Social capital'. This is the talk of the moment. It is the idea being bandied around by panicked councils as a solution to the fact that the state is now in retreat.

But the talk about social capital in relation to the pending crisis is a bit like the talk about `technology' as a solution to global warming. People don't actually know what it is, how to make it happen and how it will actually address the kinds of problems we face.

For now it is just a word people are using as a proxy for a solution that isn't actually in place yet.

But is `social capital' a solution? Let's start with what social capital actually is. Essentially it consists of the sum total of mutual support, positive networks , and community activity in a particular area. Social capital is intimately linked to levels of trust and feelings of safety and satisfaction with ones environment.

It tends to be high where communities are stable, self-confident and cohesive. It appears to positively correlate to affluence though there are some very mutually supportive communities in the poorest areas too - where other factors lock in social capital - such as strong community institutions or a shared history.

So, logically, social capital can be further developed and relied upon more as an alternative to the state more in areas where it is already existent ie. affluent areas like Bury St Edmunds and poorer but for historic reasons, socially cohesive areas like, for example, West Belfast.

And, to continue this line of thought, it will be less plentiful and reliable in areas that are already fragmented, troubled, untrusting. This means, therefore, that social capital will be lowest in precisely those areas where it will be most needed - the poor, fear-filled estates of East Manchester, West London, Liverpool 8.

Where does this leave us? Well, it seems to me that the idea that social capital will somehow bridge the gap left by the state is somewhat fallacious.

Even if we devote some new resources to generating social capital, you're actually assuming that this can be generated as a prior thing to those aspects of society which actually produce or reinforce it: success, confidence, trust, community.

Of course this isn't how it works. Success begets success and vice versa.

Yes, the idea of social capital saving the day is I think nonsense. There isn't enough of it where it is needed and you can't just magic it up from the desperation that defines the most run-down parts of the UK.

There is no magic bullet - it is better we admit this and stop this silly talk about social capital.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Big Splash in My Small Pond

Well, I can barely contain myself. I seem, on a small level to have contributed to a change in direction on a major issue. When I ran for Council, my main issue was the retention of three tier education in this area - something about to be ended by the Tories. The idea was to replace all secondaries using big new Government money and expand primaries on current sites. People round here didn't like this. They didn't believe it would improve things. Or that the money was there.

The Council were late to cotton on to this important truth. It seems an announcement of the climb down was coming at some stage but, as the result of a motion I and a colleague put into the Council yesterday, a statement was rushed out last night, ahead of the motion's being debated next week saying the plans were on ice.

The fact that they have done this reflects some difficult realities on the ground for the Tories here in Bury. In an election where they swept the board across Suffolk, here in Bury they lost three Councillors and myself, an indepdendent and a Green took their place. Since then, the self-styled `Bury Three' have been all over this issue in meetings, forums and the press. We have helped create a difficult environment for this policy to move forward in Bury without the full finances being there for it. Had Tories been in place I suspect they might have taken more risks.

I am pleased because all along people have told me I was chasing a lost cause, this was a done deal etc. This just goes to show that it is important to hold your line until events prove, beyond doubt, that the debate is over. This one isn't quite over yet but looks to be. Plans are on ice until finances become clearer or better - and I can't see that happening give that `Building Schools for the Future' seems to be at the top of any respectable right-wing think-tank's list of schemes to be culled under a new Tory Government.

So a victory of sorts and proof that politics does matter. Even at my level.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Let's Embrace Outsourcing

The 2010s will I believe be the decade that Councils stopped doing things. Or rather stopped doing things themselves and focussed on their core business of making sure things got done. For that is actually their purpose. They are not there to do things. And when they do, they're not normally very good at it (I can say this, I am a Councillor!).

But who would expect them to be any good at any one thing? These are ridiculouly over-diversified organisations. Indeed what other organisation would credibly claim it could competently look after abused children, manage the roads, support carers of older people, redevelop towns and empty the bins? All of these are specialisms. Councils are doing the football equivalent of playing in all positions when in truth they can do only one remotely well.

Barnet, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith, Essex. All of these Councils are leading the way in asking `Why should we deliver this?' and, if there is no compelling reason why, finding someone who can deliver best and cheapest. Although these are all Tory Councils, and I am a Lib Dem, I think history will prove them to be right and that all parties will live with this eventually, rather in the way they did once the Tories did what no-one else thought possible by smashing trade-union power.

The result of Councils asking themselves that big question is that they rapidly come to the conclusion that No, they ought not to be trying to run everything. No other business could run so much well, so why should they? Plus few other businesses are lumbered with the disatrous long-term costs that the public sector still bears (the six months paid sick leave, the king's pension etc). It makes sense to have fewer of these people on the books.

The logical outcome of all this is a much bigger future role for the private and third sectors. Now, the private sector is already limbering up, getting ready to run on the pitch. The third sector dressing-room, however, is a less unified place. Some players are hungry, keen to run into the new territory, seeing the possible improvements that can be made to the dismal offer made by local authorities to vulnerable groups.

Others though, while on the team-sheet, are more half-hearted. They want to do things but have reservations about what this might say about them as players. And a small minority are not going on that pitch for love or money. They line up with the Dave Prentice's (Unison leader) of this world and say that the state should continue to do most things and take the rap when it all goes wrong. Because that is democratic and at least the public sector is accountable.

Well, excuse me, this is where I come in, Mr Coucillor. Public services, just because, they are provided by local authorities are not more accountable to elected members than those provided by Capita or Turning Point. I would argue in fact that in-house services are less accountable. Because, essentially, they are `family'. Giving your family - the people you employ- the hard time they deserve is a lot less difficult than giving it to people in whom you have no other interest than what they do for you (or are saying they are doing). Outsourcing means more accountability, not less.

We stand at an important junction. In 1995, Suffolk County Council employed about 18,000 people. Today that number stands at about 30,000. An increase of over 50%. This is about to change. Not only is there less to spend, we now know that markets must be opened up. It has taken a long time but we're nearly there. The third sector needs to recognise that its time has come and get out on that pitch, determined to win.

Friday, September 11, 2009

In Praise of League Tables for Charities

I know league tables are supposedly going out of fashion. I actually like them. For, whatever their flaws they tell us something. They satisfy our need for comparison. League tables are something people in the third sector get very edgy about. We just don’t seem to like the idea of a ranking. But this, of course, is to pretend we are all equal. That all charities deliver. The truth, and we all know this, is that not all charities do. Many are no good at all. And some actually probably do positive harm. Yet we hold back from saying this, fearful, I suspect, of what it will do to our brand (people trust charities, we mustn’t let them know that many of them are crap).

Personally I would welcome league-tables. Yes, I know they wouldn’t be perfect but that isn’t the point. They would give me an idea of where the organisations with which I am involved either as a donor, a trustee or a CEO, actually stand. Central to these league tables should be user-satisfaction. This would force charities to get some data on what users actually think of their services. Not a perfect measure of outcomes, I know, but a fair proxy that is easy and economic to find out. Don’t find out and this bumps down your rating. This would actually get charities taking users and customers more seriously than they do now.

However, I am not stupid. This won’t happen, I know. The sector is far too comfortable with the status quo to bother with any of this. Its marketing departments know that income depends more on corporate PR and flashy impact reports than the actual truth of a charity’s performance. Leaders in the sector are often cowardly when it comes to being properly transparent about their organisations. When did you last hear a charity CEO say publicly that they felt a particular programme or approach had failed or that their charity actually wasn’t the best thing since Mighty White? In truth, behind closed door, CEOs are willing to be very open about the shortcomings of their organisaiton but never, strangely in public.

As a donor this personally makes me very suspicious. I put money into organisations that tell the truth about themselves, even when this isn’t all good news. Because then I know I can trust that organisation. None of the causes into which I have put money or time would probably baulk at a league table. Openness is part of their culture and intent. It is part of learning, getting better, becoming more efficient, a better servant of the common good. We have allowed our sector to be hi-jacked by our marketing and PR departments, fearful that if we tell the truth support will drain away – or go to others.

A league table of charities would be a great leveler for those charities who deliver bang for buck – but who don’t have the PR machine to pull in the big donations. It would tell us what we needed to know about which organisations large and small actually did the business. I can’t see what any decent org would have to fear from this. So why aren’t we doing it?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Maximum Human Discomfort

Maximum Human Discomfort.

This is the phrase which came to mind today as I wandered around Liverpool St station. I wanted to pee – but didn’t have the 30p in change needed to go. I wanted to sit but there are perhaps 20 seats in the whole place. I wanted a cafĂ© and there’s only a micro-Costa in a far corner.

25 minutes passed this way until the relative comfort and relief of the 1530 to Norwich. Does it have to be this way?

Do London stations have to be this bad (Kings Cross is just as bad?). Staff are dour and unhelpful should you need them.

They could all learn lessons from another main line station – Stowmarket.

As an experience, Stowmarket station is actually gratifying. Not just adequate but a positive contribution to ones day.

It starts with the staff. All helpful and empathic to the needs of the traveler. The shop is well stocked and sells cups of tea for a quid and employs the friendliest person in East Anglia on the till. The toilets are a dream. Pristine, hot water, towels. And free to all station-users. On the platform there is a lovely waiting room, all warm and nice-smelling.

But overall the experience of using Stowmarket station is one which recognizes one as a human being. In this sense it is additive to total happiness in the world.

By contrast, a place where you can’t pee, sit or relax is the opposite. Miserable, inhuman, nearer to a cattle-market than a key travel centre of the UK, Liverpool St station captures the very worst of this country.

When people ask me why I live in Suffolk, Stowmarket station is up there on my list of reasons.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Give Me Sunlight

This week I made good on a long-held promise to myself - to go see the work of Peter Holbrook and his team down at Sunlight in Gillingham, Kent. I travelled down there with one of my Trustees, John Willis, who was hoping to find inspiration for the renewal of Huntingdon Community Learning Centre - something of a White Elephant so far - but packed with potential.

So what is Sunlight? Well, one one level, its very simple. It's a `community anchor' type organisation. It is housed in a big building in the middle of a deprived area and within its doors lie a panopoly of resources for people to tap into, from the offices of of public sector and third sector organisations through to an alphabet-soup of informal self-help groups led by volunteers. On top of this, Sunlight runs a major catering operation and a number of community cafes in the town.

`All very nicebut what accounts for all the media and politician-attention this place gets?' I am hearing you say... `Is it all spin or is this something that merits special attention'.

I am glad to report that, for once, the hype lives up to reality. This is not just another high-octane community centre. There are a number of differentiators from most of what I have seen so far.

1. The business model. There are two aspects to Sunlight - the Development Trust and the Community Interest Company (CIC). The CIC pursues commercial opportunities - and now runs the whole of Medway Council's catering operation. Profit from this is used to support aspects of the Development Trust's work such as their offer of free space to new community groups or one-off grants to residents for key pieces of equipment (e.g. the new set of chef's whites bought for a local lad just off to college). Having profitable elements creates the space to ignite community action which otherwise would founder early through lack of support. The result is a much larger number of self-help groups than one would expect. And that means lots of good outcomes for little financial outlay.

2. The ambition. Most third sector organisations like to stay in their box. Manage public services? No thanks, that's government's job etc. Sunlight aspire not only to provide workspace to the GPs and Social Services teams in the area, tney want to run these services and plough the profit back into the community. The Sunlight team have bid, so far unsuccessfully, to manage the primary care & GPs surgery run from its building - but have been blocked from doing so by the PCT. Should they eventually pull this off - and add perhaps an outsourced Job Centre Plus - you've got a model of public service provision that could be the template for the 2010s and beyond. Which accounts for the interest of one D. Cameron and his team I suspect.

3. The community's involvement. Most community centres are run by well-meaning middle class people and follow a low-risk public sector template. So if you are poor and or vulnerable you can use the place OK but that is very much as far as it goes. You'll never work there, expect perhaps as a volunteer doing something very marginal. At Sunlight most of the staff come from the community. Many are former `users' of the centre and have developed into employees. Sure, this doesn't make for the smoothest of receptionists or the most cleanly polished floors I have ever seen - but it does make the place BELONG to the community. Obviously there are difficulties - the story of an overpromoted local finance officer made me wince - but these outweigh the benefits.

4. The ethos. Ethos is a difficult thing to pin down. It is everything but nowhere is it written down formally. The ethos of Sunlight is clearly one of what MBA students call its `core competencies'. People know what matters in Sunlight and align their behaviour accordingly. One example. In the cafe while we were there a woman three tables away burst into tears following a visit to the GPs (bad news, obviously). Within moments, a member of the cafe staff had come from the kitchen with a free cup of tea and was with the lady for half an hour. This is obviously beyond contract stuff, not in any job description - just the way the place works. No formal Compassion Policy. No Charter of Care or operations manual. Just a great ethos.

5. Entrepreneurial Leadership.
Peter Holbrook, the CEO of Sunlight, doesn't like being talked up. He is very quick to point out that it is others, not him, leading the many facets of Sunlight's work. However, he provides an example of the kind of entrepreneurial leadership that makes the difference between an ordinary place doing ordinary things to an extraordinary place that is creating a new paradigm for how we tackle the challenges of our most deprived communities.

If cloning were already possible, I daresay that Peter and Sunlight would be rich from selling his DNA (as well as being a talented and energetic man, he is one of kindest and most compassionate people I have ever met). However, the fact that we can't yet recreate Peter at scale doesn't mean we can't support people like him to make things happen in communities all over the UK. You see, in the public sector, someone like Peter would probably lose his job or get burned up very quickly. He'd break some rule, take some level of risk deemed `inappropriate' and refuse to accept the glacial pace of change that public sector organisations seem to believe is acceptable. His counterpart - the drone we currently entrust with millions of pounds of public money does none of these disruptive things. But he doesn't do a lot else either. A socially enterprising government needs to say to PCTs and Councils that they have to support the Sunlights of this world (and without tying them up in constricting service-agreements) - or the people leading councils etc will lose their jobs. Sounds a bit harsh, crude, simplistic etc - but I can't see any other way to galvanise change.

6. A Whole Person Approach. Most services in this country are set up by people who have done a very long specialist training and believe that what they do is most important thing in the very world. They then fight with other professionals (who believe the same thing about what they do) for resources and before long you have a whole health and social care system set up around the people leading and managing services. Clients (me, you etc)of course come with a whole range of needs, some of which don't require a professional at all, just the company of others, or support from someone who had been there themselves. At Sunlight, a lot of the things on offer are not professional-led, they are led by residents. There is a recognition that people might want to do other things, access other areas. This is positively encouraged. People are not `owned' - or indeed seen as the `responsibility' of others and shunted off. If someone comes to Sunlight in crisis, having been beaten up and thrown out by their husband, they are not `signposted' elsewhere. There is an immediate and effective response. Someone stays with them through the process they need to go through and they aren't allowed to pinball around agencies or fall through gaps. Very different from the public sector and indeed many third sector agencies.

Overall my visit to Sunlight confirmed a lot of what I already believed. The bits of Sunlight occupied by the public sector were very telling of what is wrong and what any new Government needs to deal with quickly. Offices were large for the numbers employed, though often just full of junk and big piles of paper. You needed key-codes to get in even to offices. Peter I noticed couldn't easily access some areas. The Social Services assessment bit, for example, is full of kids equipment which, couldn't be used by the community even through it is empty much of the time. Although people were perfectly pleasant, there was still a touch of that feeling of `This is Us, you are the public/other, we have our rules and systems, fuck-off and wait till we're ready to see you'. People naturally don't trust this as much as Sunlight's approach. Which is why Sunlight want to take over those services.

And the third sector...well you know I am often critical. But the organisations I metwere welcoming and upbeat, despite the shitty contracts they had with the public sector and being jammed into their offices like sardines.

We drove away four hours later (Peter had given up practically his whole day for us)not only inspired but INFORMED that there is another way with public services. This is why so many people right now are finding their way to Gillingham.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Ordinary Enterprises Can Learn from the Third Sector

I have been asked to give a talk on this in the near future. Here is what I might say....

`How ordinary enterprises can learn from the third sector'. An interesting question as it is normally asked the other way round.

And I am perhaps the wrong person to ask on one level in that I have tended to bring learning in from the private sector to Speaking Up, rather than take my ideas from elsewhere in the third sector, much of which I think is run pretty badly.

But what can for-profit businesses learn from the way we lead and manage the Third Sector?

FIVE things come to mind.

The first is that we are excelent at securing employee commitment - that elusive `beyond contract' dedication. We do this because we are able to tap into people's deepest values. We offer people the opportunity to do paid work which resonates clearly with their personal sense of purpose. Most third sector organisations are able to do this, but particularly the smaller, more shambolic ones. These organisations are often close to the front-line and staff feel near to the issues.

Secondly, we are less hierarchical and more participative. The Third Sector CEO is not the God he is in the private sector. The culture of the heroic CEO just doesn't give. There is a stronger egalitarian ethos in most third sector organisations. As a result, there is a bigger emphasis on consensus in decision-making. People expect to be part of decision-making. Consultation is generally more widespread. This slows things down but ensures there is greater buy-in from those expected to implement decisions. The CEOs role is one of facilitator and broker more than commander.

Is this an advantage? I think it can be. Leaders in TSOs do not often go unchallenged. There is a greater check on left-field decisions. The down-side is that this can block progress, but it also means there is greater scrutiny of what is happening.

Thirdly, we are more stable, less short-termist and go bust a lot less. TSO take fewer risks. They see their mission in long-view. Seldom do they `bet the farm' on a big new idea. They seek to ensure the organisation's ability to do good is protected in perpetuity. We evolve and adapt without necessarily taking organisation-threatening risks. This is in common with many privately owned SMEs so not unique to the third sector. But it is also a result of our Governance arrangements which put the CEO and his team under a Board of Directors with legal responsibility for the mission long-term. The corrollary of this is that the third sector is undoubtedly less innovative and slower to respond to rapid change than it often needs to be- but it means fewer wasteful forays too.

Fourthly, we are trusted and values-driven. Trusted by users, by staff and by donors and commissioners. We are viewed as mission-led. Although our people earn reasonably well, we are viewed as being concerned, principally, with making the world a better place. Third sector organisations feel good to the people involved either as a user, a donor/customer, a volunteer or member of staff. We touch that part of people that wants and needs to be part of something bigger.

Fifthly, we are able to work to a variety of bottom lines. Contrary to what you might think, every third sector CEO has to make a profit. If he doesn't the organisation will quickly cease to exist as reserves are low and the banks don't help us. But we have to operate other bottom lines too, notably our social bottom-line and the interdependencies between them. Managing this balance makes a third sector CEO's task that bit more complex than than a CEO in an ordinary enterprise, I believe. This complexity finds its way into our commercial life too. While we operate in competitive markets we also have to create collaborative relationships with those same organisations we might compete with. Missions such as `Kill Caterpillar' have no place in our sector. Co-opertition is the norm.

Which brings me nicely onto mergers. There are relatively few mergers in the third sector. There just isn't the financial drivers to incentivise them compared to the private sector. While this means that opportunities to merge are often overlooked, it also means that mergers that are not a good idea - where the cultures of two organisations will not work together - don't get off the drawing board.

My own organisation is currently preparing to merge with another. While the strategic alignment has been clear from the off, it has also been critical that we stress-test the cultural fit between the two organisations. If it were wrong (and it wasn't) this would have been a deal-breaker. For the merger wouldn't ultimately have served our long-term purpose. I am personally of the view that a lot of private sector merger activity is driven by short-term goals and doesn't actually deliver much long-term value to either the holder of shares or the customer.
In this sense, the third sector I think has a more realistic view of mergers.

Overall, then, there are a number of things that ordinary enterprises can learn from the third sector:

1. Become better at securing employee commitment by making your company values and actions more consistent with the values of your employees. This means moving beyond rhetorical commitment to company action which makes employees feel they are there to do more than create shareholder value - an important and noble goal in itself, but often not enough to get people to go beyond contract.

2. Become less overtly hierarchical more consensual and participative. This means slower decisions but often better decisions and ones which people feel they own and will therefore implement with more determination. This also helps to build commitment to the company.

3. Take the long view. This is extremely hard for listed companies in which CEOs last on average less than three years.

4. Be trusted by having strong values and showing commitment to making the world a better place. This means going beyond CSR and the usual corporate Greenwash. The young in particular are very sensitised to this. A company with integrity will I believe attract the best `Generation Y and Z' talent in the future.

5. Teach your managers to work to a number of bottom-lines, not just one. We do this and it means that our organisations can account for themselves on a number of levels. I believe in time that all companies will need to account for themselves much more than they do now. Start now by training your managers to achieve and balance different types of success.

My overall view is that there is a huge infusion of learning to be had from the third sector. As part of Social Enterprise Day in November, we are inviting a range of corporate heads to job-swop for a day with a CEO of a social business. The learning of course cuts both ways. I have taken a great deal from the private sector. Your focus, your use of metrics, your professionalism and your ability to move quickly are all facets we in the third sector need to take from you.