Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday's Endings

Sometimes I get to Friday evenings feeling full of energy and achievement, still wanting more. Other times, I limp past the finish line like a cramped marathon runner, all achy and tired. This was one of those Fridays. It hasn't been a bad week, on the whole. Quite the opposite in fact. A good meeting with my excellent senior team. A successful trip to London and, today, the launch of Speaking Up's Youth Parliament, comprising young people from Cambs, Suffolk and Peterborough. Seeing our excellent teams in action and the enthusiasm of all the Mums and Dad's was lovely.

Spoke to Jim Paice, our local Conservative MP who, unlike Lib Dem David Howarth, fulfilled his commitment to come along. We mused about the £60 billion annual budget deficit facing the next Government and say we're glad that the newly rebuilt school we're standing in will be completed by then. Paice thinks its a lot more than £60 billion, which, if true would mean we're trying to plug a 12-15% gap between known income and planned expenditure in just 2 years time.

Earlier in the week I had been on an ACEVO Working Group looking at how CEOs can better engage staff in their organisations. Although this is considered to be a strength of third sector organisations, the truth is we get more tribunals than any other sector. The group was actually quite good with a range of people from all kinds and sizes of organisation. It was chaired by the genial and super-bright Jon Sparkes, CEO of Scope and also, I am delighted to say, Trustee of Speaking Up. Unlike some clever people who wear their intelligence like bling, Jon is under-stated and keeps it all simple. This makes his gift something to admire rather than grimace at, or feel envy for.

The problem we all face, we discovered, was the disjunction between attempts to de-machine our organisational cultures (more personal appearances, a clearer, more human organisation voice) and the clunking machinery of the Employment Law and personnel rules which many of our organsiations contain. And no time is this clanking louder than in a downturn when the `At Risk' letter go out, formal `consultation' has to take place with about 5000 people who might be affected by 20 job losses and the secrecy about restructure has to be absolute in order to prevent the odd rascal suing you for some breach of employment law.

The solutions are not to be defeated by the machine. To continue to be human. To use your HR people to formalise informality and to keep beating away at the message that there is no conspiracy. Many of us too are seeking to involve staff in strategy and create an organisational conversation. We, for example, use a fortnightly e-bullet called `Heads Up' which I use to flag up where I see things, a sort of CEO blog, but not one that has been put through the internal PR mincer. Just a fairly straight-up account of the issues. Unsurprisingly to me, I know people read it and, to a point, appreciate its tone and content.

My final stop in London is at a well-known social investment company which I love very much (and its not that one) which was doing some market-research on its own positioning in the sector. One of the exercises was when the names of all the agences were thrown on the table on cards and we were asked to group them. There were commercial banks, `charity banks, social lenders, equity-investors grant-givers. Interestingly this organisation did bits of all, with the possible exception of grant-giving. Their positioning was as a boutique social finance agnency which, if they didn't do it, could find you a man or woman that could.

A necessary force, I thought. But what is still missing from this market in my view is a social investment agency that goes much further down the risk pathway than loans, or performance-dependent returnable grants (or quasi-equity). Its the Angel investor market. Those people, like David Gold of Glimmer (he's the only one and he's very small) who say, `I like this idea, this person, this acorn, and I'm going to take a flyer on it'. Very few people do that. The organisations getting social investment tend to be those that have three or more years track-record. This is a blockage on social innovation, one which a Social Investment Bank would not, I believe solve, due to the degree of risk. One in ten successes, while the norm in venture capital, would not, I suspect, impress the Treasury.

The week ends as the week began, in the bedroom upstairs, trying, against tiredness to negotiate clothing on and off the body of my lovely one year old son, Wilf. He's laughing tonight, particularly when I make parping noises on his belly. He loves play, the rougher the better. This boy goes to sleep the second you lay him down and shut the door. I then go read to Ruby, two stories (she always insists on two). Fortunately, tonight's are mercifully short and she's practically asleep by the end. As always, I rub her back, and we run through all the people who love her, something he joins in after a while. She is an adorable child. I think, briefly of David Cameron who lost a child this week. I struggled to contain myself when I heard that news, as I think a lot of people did who have children. You know what it means for the rest of your life, the sense of loss that never goes, that shadow on your heart. I feel a huge sense of sorrow for Cameron and his wife. And, then, predictably perhaps, relief that it was not my child that died on Wednesday morning.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Getting up Close with Personal Budgets

Yesterday I spoke at an event put on by third sector CEOs body ACEVO about the challenges and opportunities presented by personal budgets (PBs) for social care.

The line up was intereting. First up was David Challis of the University of Manchester who was one of the leaders of the IBSEN government sponsored research into PBs.

In essence his research showed that, over the whole sample, having a PB had a very small impact on personal well-being, compared to those in the control group.
However, there were differences within the sample. Young people, for example, fared a lot better, as did people with learning disabilities and mental health problems. But for older people - the vast bulk of potential PB users, outcomes were actuallĂ˝ overall marginally poorer.

Now this could have been an 'old versus new' effect which would erode over time but the big take out from David's work was that it cannot be proven yet that PBs improve outcomes as a matter of course.

What he did say, however, was that the changes that did happen for people who
altered their provision slightly were often reported very positively. The meal you pay the pub to deliver rather than having meals on wheels. Being put to bed by your neighbour rather than a paid carer who might appear long beforeor after your preferred bedtime.

David's message to the third sectorwas that this policy could be a massive opportunity to increase their role, ashe has seen happen in Australia and Japan, where TSOs now do many of the roles currently delivered by local authorities such as assessment of needs and allocation of resources. In parts of Australia, for example, it is quite normal for a charity to be assigned the whole responsibility for social care needs within a particular geographic area.To this end they set up brokerage services, as well as provision.

My worry, and one shared with many of the audience is that in most parts of the UK,local authorities are defending this role and ensuring that, long term, it is they, not TSOs or anybody else have this central role. It is they who have the funded brokerage services running already and so forth. In essence, yet another uncontested service delivery contract won to the only candidate allowed into the process.

Next up was Caroline Glendinning, another of the IBSEN researchers. Her presentation focused moreon the logistics and challenges to the social care provider market when you disaggregate demand in the way PBs do. There are unintended outcomes, losses of efficiency in contracting and all sorts of tricksy problems around who ensures carers are checked-out,trained and doing what they should be doing etc. Hers was aless compelling presentation thn Challis' but the take away, for me, is that every major policy shift has unintended consequences that can actually challenge the whole model.

I spoke about our experience of attempting to get a new support service to people using PBs off the ground in Cambridgeshire, something which we started thinking about in 2007.

For me the experience has been frustrating. The LA seem to be investing most of the Social Care Reform Grant into their own initiatives and , so far, there has been little tangible support. I am not actually convinced that LAs want to see TSOs in this space. As providers yes, they ok with that. But working closely with users to shape their budgets, no I remain unconvinced of their will to fund this happening outside of the LA. I hope I am proven wrong.

Final speaker was Stephen Rose of Choices Support, a 35 million pound charity which he has grown from an acorn. Stephen is the opposite of the self-centred, bucaeering social entrepreneur. His low key, modest approach seems almost unbeting of a person of such achievement. His key point was that TSOs themselves can, as providers of services, get involved in helping to broker change for individuals they support. Choices has, he told us, broken its 35 million budget into 6000 individual accounts and they now offer brokerage for free.

Did the session change my views of PBs? I think I now appreciate more fully the role that service providers will play in acting as brokers, despite a degre of conflict of interest. I also now think that any solution we develop may need to have a provision-option built into it. The session also brought to mind that in order to really get momentum into what we are doing - and our process has been relatively slow - we need to obtain development capital quite soon. One way to do this is to partner with a large provider and this is something to which I think we now need to give proper consideration.

Overall I believe that by 2019, PBs will be the norm for most people whether these are held as a cash payment or, at the other end of the scale, within the Local authority. The third sector will be providing more than it does now though I somhow doubt we will see an Australian-style handing over of responsibility from LAs. Nice though that is to envisage, I suspect that is to hope for too much.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

30 Hours in Town

This week I am spending two days in London, trying to pack a month's worth of networking into 30 action-packed hours.

Wednesday starts sedately as I read the Guardian's excellent Social Enterprise supplement. Great pieces by my friend Martin Clark, author of `The Social Enterpreneur Revolution', Andrew Mawson, Patrick Butler and superb Vox Pop from Rob Greenland of The Social Business, Kresse Wessing of EAKO and Rod Schwartz of Catalyst. It feels that we're finally on the front-foot as a sector now, confident and clear in what we are saying. And people are now listening as the world-as-they-knew it collapses around them.

First up I meet Peter Mason of Secure Healthcare at the Commonwealth Club. Peter is a public innovator, one of those genuine social entrepreneurs who thinks and acts big - and has the skill to let others come in behind him quickly. His passion is offender health care and his business will, he hopes, soon win enough major contracts in UK prisons to be a key player. Peter does a lot of consulting, something I notice a lot of the more established people now doing. For him, consulting is low-input, high-impact activity, something that his profile and personal brand enables him to do. Impressive.

Next up it is Futurebuilders Investment Committee. These meetings are all incredibly interesting, particular in the current economic situation and the resulting Government action-plan for the Third Sector.

Then on to meet the excellent Clare Gilhooley and her development director from Cambridge House in Southwark who are a major advocacy provider as well as providing a range of community services in Southwark. Cambridge House is a `community anchor' type organisation that, strategically, has to balance being dependent on its local focus with a need to develop diverse income streams from places a little further afield.

The day ends with dinner with Craig Morley who is now CEO of the newly constituted (last week) Challenge Network. Set up with funding from venture-philanthopists, the Challenge Network will be piloting full-time volunteering as part of a `national service' experiment which at least two of the man parties are interested in. So it could all get very big very quickly.

I first met Craig in August last year. He was working for Rio Tinto, the mining group, in a strategy role, having spent a good part of his career with Proctor and Gamble. He was looking at a new career in the entrepreneurial third sector and had, by chance, seen a piece on my book in the FT. So he got in touch. That led to him doing a big piece of probono work for us, then a review of structure and then, at the end of the year he went to work for Challenge Network.

Craig is, I think, the type of person who we, as a sector, need to be more skilled in bringing into our organisations. The training he has had from the likes of P & G, brings skills we just don't have the money to nurture in our own people. And the commitment of somebody who has given up a larger income to work for causes they believe in is, in my experience, often higher than many people who are `lifers' in the sector. It is great to see Craig succeeding in leading a dynamic third sector organisation and good to know Speaking Up played a small part in him getting there.

After six hours of sleep I get up, cross Russell Square and meet David Gold for breakfast. David is CEO of Prospect-Us, but more importantly, he is what I term an `angel' for emerging social entrepreneurs. His support for people and projects through Glimmer of Hope is one of the biggest untouted stories in the sector. David is fabulous at picking winners, backing them with his own money and, perhaps more crucially, his time and networks, and seeing them right through to independence. He is also a lovely man who makes you immediately feel like you matter. In a tough world, people like David are islands of warmth and authenticity. A superstar.

Next I am going to the Office of the Third Sector to meet Tamsyn Roberts who is one of the civil servants working on the social enterprise side there. I am keen to get a deeper sense of how the OTS works and how, overall she sees it all going from a Government perspective.

And finally I am popping in at the offices of Permira to see Paul Armstrong and Jane Gilbert who are helping us write a consultancy brief. They are frighteningly efficient people who always add value to any discussion.

Then its home by six to see the kids and Katy. I miss them so much and even a day away feels too long.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is Employment Law fair to Anybody?

Sir Digby Jones recently called for a `bonfire' of red tape in relation to small business regulation. He reserved most of his fire for the `Health and Safety' at work industry which has grown amid the welter of EU directives.

My particular ire is the red tape attached to the regulations around employment. Now before I start, I do not think the balance between employers and employees is particularly out of kilter. A touch perhaps, but this isn't my point.

My contention is that the way the regulations operate, say, around redundancy, redeployment and so on don't actually help either employer or employee. That `fairness' in its legal sense, doesn't really translate into fairness on the ground for real people, or indeed, fairness to the employer who, amid trying to stick by the rules is taking a lot of time and resource out of the operation.

I can't use specific examples for obvious reasons but I wonder if I am alone in this observation?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Bankrupt Britain

Reading the Sundays used to be so much fun. Now they just make me anxious. The Sunday Times profiled `Bankrupt Britain' a report by Malcolm Offord, a respected city economist, which states, essentially, that getting the Government's books under control will mean real cuts in annual public spending of 60 billion by 2014 and 100 billion by 2020 plus, probably a top rate of tax of 50%. On a similar note, both the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and Capital Economics point to annual shortfalls of 60 billion on the Chancellor's numbers.

Using today's level of spending as a start-point, this would mean a cut of of ten percent by 2014 and fifteen percent by 2020. This means a very different decade for the public sector. While the 2000s were years of massive growth, particularly in health and education, the 2010s will probably see not slow-growth but real cuts. Not just freezes in recruitment but redundancies in schools, hospitals, social work departments. It will also mean the end for gold-plated pensions.

It will also herald a new era of public sector reform. This never really got going in the 2000s, partly because there was enough cash coming in to conceal low productivity and reduce urgency but also because, politically, the Government was divided on the issue. But the blazing platform of the recession and its aftermath will change all that. The `social contract' between taxpayers and the public sector is already changing. People will not accept a decline in the quality of public services and will expect reform to bridge the financial gap.

And what will this era mean for the third sector and social enterprise. For many, it will not be pretty. The first instinct of public sector managers is to cut external contractors, particularly smaller, weaker ones, to the bone. Blood-ties to colleagues in public services will see that it is external partners' budgets which are first in the queue for a kicking from commissioners.

But, for those, that survive that kicking (which I believe, anecdotally is already starting) there may be opportunity in adversity. Because of this recession, we will, I believe, find out just what `bad businesses', in truth, many public sector agencies actually are. We will see just how shockingly wasteful and ineffective councils and the NHS can be. Indeed, Sir Digby Jones forthocoming programme, which features Jobcentre Plus, will, I believe, be the first of many. And, on a deeper level, the truth about large parts of the the public sector will come out: that it is inherently prone to inefficiency and, in many cases, unjustifiably protected from competition.

Once the cat is out of the bag (and it will come out, I am sure) the search will really be on for new solutions. Because the truth, and it is something that many of us working close to public services have known as self-evident for years, is that even with less money, a lot more could be achieve than is being achieved with public money right now. The next Government will follow the intimations of Liam Byrne and spin out large numbers of staff into new entities which have three years to thrive or be taken over. Contestibility will reach into places previously considered `inner sanctums' of state dominance - schools, health, welfare.

There will be blood on the tracks, sure. Unions will be very upset. So too will those silly people at the Association for Public Services Excellence. We will see a lot of good people, for the first time, thrown out of work. But, it could also herald a step-change and an opportunity for fantastic providers from the third and private sectors to introduce delivery models that give the public the services they have deserved for a long time.

Will our sector be up for this challenge? Parts of it will not. Indeed, it is not for all organisations to be leading public service reform. There are others whose cultures and practices are so similar to the public sector that they too will be burnt up when the crisis hits. But, there are many who can and do deliver, and which will further improve once the opportunities open up. My experience of public sector tendering tells me there will be no shortage of organisations seeking to take up the challenge once things properly open up.

So, if you're in the public sector, it may be time to don your hard hat and get your business into shape. For your recession is only a few months away.

Friday, February 13, 2009

At the Heart of the Matter

What is the "right" way for chief executives and managers of third sector organisations to respond to a downturn? Are organisations that are based on "values" obliged to behave "better" than others when faced with challenges such as large drops in their income? And, if so, what does "better" look like?

Like many chief executives, I am struggling to make sense of these questions. My organisation, like many others that grew in the boom years, now faces a less certain future. There's no immediate threat; unlike a lot of public limited companies, we don't have any debt, we have committed "owners" in the shape of our trustees, and a lot of our income comes, for now, from the state.

But, like any medium-sized national charity, we will face huge challenges in a year or two, when public spending is dramatically cut by the next (probably Conservative) government. And this will happen at precisely the time when things will be getting harder for the people we are here to help.

Talking to people across the third sector, a variety of views emerges about how best to approach the downturn. Some senior chief executives take a fairly standard corporate line - that their primary duty is to do what is necessary to protect the "business" and its long-term mission. If this means rapid and large-scale job losses and reductions in service, so be it.

This sounds brutal, but isn't necessarily so when we remember that the third sector has its own versions of MFI and Woolies - time-warp businesses that were found out once the good times were over. For the chief executives of such organisations, the recession is the "blazing platform" needed to accelerate much-needed change.

But they are the exception. Most chief executives believe firmly that third sector organisations should have a different approach. One leader pointed to the more complex, "emotionally laden" relationship that exists between charities and their staff - quite different from those in other sectors. It's a powerful psychological contract, which results in staff often giving a commitment to their job well beyond what they are contracted to work, and it's a massive invisible asset on the balance sheet of most third sector bodies. Strip this out and most charities would buckle.

As a result, "engagement" is the watchword for most third sector leaders in this recession. Engagement sounds nice and is almost always "right", but how easy is it truly to engage in the face of impending threats? As I work on my own organisation's response to the downturn, I can see that the urgency of the situation may potentially require some difficult decisions to be made in this sector, long before problems become visible. We will probably need new, leaner business models that take out manual processes; we may need to give up long-held professional practices; serious wage restraint may be needed, as well as more home working and far greater use of IT. There may be more mergers and alliances.

These are all decisions that need to be made sooner rather than later, and should be unsullied by short-termism or the special interests of particular sectors. They require a highly informed appreciation of the medium and long-term challenges. Engagement on all of these is possible, if you're willing to take the time over it.

But, faced with an imminent cliff edge and little quality time available, these are not discussions it's easy to impose on hard-pressed staff, with huge workloads. I can't put my hand on my heart and say I will be able to engage with staff in the way I would like.

What "engagement" for most managers in larger charities adds up to is a heartfelt commitment to communicate change in a sensitive way: to hear people's views; to explain the reasoning behind decisions; to give people as much advance warning as possible; and to seek input from affected groups, where this is possible. In short, to treat people not only with respect as employees, but also as people who have invested a lot of themselves in the organisation.

This emotionally intelligent approach to the consequences of the downturn must be an absolute minimum requirement of any third sector organisation. To ape the private sector, in which the average employee lives in complete darkness, challenges the very idea of a third sector based not on the making of money, but on living values.

To engage fully in the challenges of the downturn will be laudable, but I predict it will remain the exception rather than the rule, particularly in larger charities. For most, engagement will remain fundamentally about communication, rather than about consultation.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Voice 09 Birmingham

It is common to hear these days how Birmingham has changed but what an understatement. This feels like a city reborn, paying homage to the human being in the way that it formerly seemed only to serve the motor-car. This is a city to walk around, where you are never far from great art and where superb modern architecture is offset by Victoriana and, of course, the sixties stuff which now, in its own way, is becoming `heritage'.

Anyway, VOICE 09. Well, I am happy to say I enjoyed myself a lot more this year than I have in previous times. There was definitely a feelgood factor, particularly on the second day, once everyone had arrived.

Highlights. Liam Byrne was, I have to say, very good indeed. Byrne is Cabinet Office Minister, ex Accenture and the kind of politician I wish we had more of: intelligent, pragmatic, nontribal and strategic.

The contrast with last year's Cabinet headliner, Hazel Blears, could not have been sharper. Byrne really understands the potential of social enterprise not just to deal with sharp-end problems but also to become a larger regenerative force. The guy has a `framework', which I really like, and a strong sense of what Britain needs to do if it is emerge from all of this change as a leading country.

David Egger was probably the best individual speaker. He runs DC Kitchen which he founded in order to push the 25% of food which Americans ordinarily chuck away back out to people who might actually want to eat it.

He spoke with passion about the new era he feels we are entering in which the Baby Boomers are turning to public-service to fill the hole in their soul left by the unfulfilled promise of the consumer-society.

This group, twinned with Generation Y(the 18-30 year olds who want a more balanced, less materially driven existence) have the power to push a real change, a change embodied by Obama. A hopeful message, delivered with American polish and professionalism.


David Cameron. Unlike, Bynre, Cameron produced a stump-speech focusing on training and skills, obviously part of the `grid' of party communication. While Cameron's overall message was consistent (Social Investment bank, Social Enterprise Zones, more involvement in public services) I didn't get any sense that the thinking had moved forward that much and his tone was somehow less clearly enthusiastic than it had once seemed.

Also he failed to connect with the audience. He used an autocue and he felt as distant as he would do were I watching on TV. And I was in the front-row. Given that is our likely future Prime Minister, I hoped for better. I really wish he had the team around him to run the country well but I fear he doesn't. A few stars: Gove, Grayling but, collectively, they don't convince. This, I think, is Labour's best - only - chance: `We may have made mistakes but are this lot really up to it?"

Had a very pleasant dinner (the company not the food) with Patrick Butler of the Guardian, Martin Kinsella of P3, Kate Welch of Acumen Trust and Nick Temple of the newly-minted School for Social Entrepreneurs. Of all the goodies announced by the OTS this week, their 500k was the one thing that made me smile ear-to-ear. The School deserve this. They deliver. They do their own thing and they have a brilliant team. I wish them the very best.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Till Death Do Us Pay

Breathless day in London...and its still not over.

Sat in the Library of the RSA where its blissfully quiet and welcomingly warm. A pocket of snug civility in the brusque pace of the London rush hour.

Opened the day at the Third Sector Taskforce (of which I was a member)presentation on Welfare to Work (W2W), . It was held in the glass towers of RBS, of which I now own a very small part.

Our key recommendation was that the sector needs a Social Investment Bank if we are to realise our potentia on W2W. Finance for under-capitalised organisations would bring down a major barrier to entry to charities and social businesses.

On top of this we recommended that strong `nudges' (positive incentives to good behaviour) be built into the contracts held by large, mainly private sector `prime' contractors, from whom charities and social businesses will mainly subcontract.

James Purnell, the Secretary of State, welcomed the report while being very clear that the social investment bank was above his paygrade. However, the word on the wire (gossip, essentially) is that the bank will get something but well short of the billions its supporters want.

The bogey around all of this, of course, is mounting unemployment. Those jobs down the supermarket, retail parks and building sites are now being taken by the freshly unemployed. Indeed, the real worry now is of a new generation of workless people to add to the one W2W was set up to catch. Speaking Up is not a W2W provder and, at the moment, I can't see us becoming one very quickly.

As usual, I blame this mainly on Gordon Brown and his bit of the Labour Party. Had they just let Frank Field do this in 1998 (rather than destroy his Ministerial career) when there were jobs aplenty then the problem would be long-solved. Another case of Gordon's political objectives (dissing Tony, becoming PM quickly) coming ahead of doing what is clearly in national interest. Bit of a theme now, one I am surprised the opposition don't make more of.

I slip out early to meet Damien Hatton, founder and CEO of Street League. Damien started his career as a doctor and noticed how bad the health was of homeless people he saw on A and E. So he set up Street League - a soccer initiative - in his spare time. Several years later he's working with several Premier and League Clubs in England and Scotland and being supported by Impetus Trust to take his model national.

We got on well. His story is very similar to my own, except perhaps I am at a slightly different point on the curve. His next stage is to build a high performing team so he has some options himself for the long term.

My advice, as always, is to recruit people you like and enjoy, who share the fundamentals of your vision and who are good enough to replace you if you ever go. Three massive boxes to tick but essential in any senior team. Left Damien feeling I wanted more, he has a great energy.

Next I go the launch of the Social Care Constitution by Demos at Westminster Hall. The logic of the Constitution idea is that we need, as citizens, to know what is meant by `social care', what we're entitled to, how it can be obtained and, in turn, what our obligations are as recipients. On the stand were Phil Hope MP, Minister for Social Care Greg Mulholland from the Lib Dems and Stephen Jackson from the Tories.

There is surprising consensus on the analysis of this problem (demographics etc) and solutions (need for reallocation of resources towards primary social/health care, personal budgets etc) but very little real agreement about what to do next.

The main challenge is to find a solution that is `fair', giving people people choice and individualised solutions but is also `equitable' and socially affordable. Unlike in health-care, co-payments (personal top-ups) are considered to be key to the future funding of social care, with a means-tested `basic' package provided by the state for those without the means to pay.

The limitations of the debate, pointed out by Simon Duffy, of InControl, are that the `costs' of social care are calculated without full account of how resources could be used differently across a range of areas that, together, contribute to a person's social welfare.

At its most simplest, when I become old, to remain active and independent I may well combine a range of resources to make that happen and in which traditional`social care services' (home-helps, nursing homes etc) actually play little or no part, even at the very end (when I will probably, in reality, spend my personal budget on a trip to Switzerland to die at a time of my own choosing, along, I suspect, with many others).

The theme of today, I guess, has been about how we, as a society, cope with the pressure of being just that - a society. How we square the collective obligations to face up to, and possibly reframe, big social issues with a the willingness of the wider society to act in in a timely and appropriate way. And how we use the state and civil society, together, to `bend' the way resources are conceptualised and used.

Dinner in Islington awaits me with my friend Owen Jarvis of Aspire Foundation before an early morning meeting with the CEO of Advocacy Partners, Jonathan Senker.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What Makes a Good Childhood?

Today saw the release of `A Good Childhood', produced by the Children's Society following a three year study and 30 odd thousand submissions examined by a panel of international experts.

Its conclusions are, as these studies often seem to be, totally depressing. In short, children now are more anxious, depressed and stressed than ever due, in the main, to the corrupting influence of a hypercompetitive society which places self-seeking materialism above all others. It then goes on to list a wide range of measures ranging from the banning of sats to the end of advertising targeting kids.

As a parent I often feel mixed about these studies. For part of me feels sure that the the lives of many of our young people is a lot better than it was in my day. I went to a school where kids were regularly `slippered' (hit with a trainer), bullying was rife and mostly unchallenged and the concept of `self-esteem' was had not yet entered the vocabulary. This seems Dickensian today.

I am not one of these people who thinks it was better back then. Quite the opposite. It was bloody miserable. Especially when I compare it to the lengths gone to these days to ensure schools, particularly, to instil and ethos into their pupils.

Even now, I am often taken aback by how gentle many 15 and 16 year old boys are compared to their peers twenty five years ago. Likewise, when I go visiting schools to send my daughter to, the sheer quality of state schools, and the care taken over everything around child welfare, I find very impressive.

All of this, of course, has to compete with the reality that, yes, society is now more obsessed with looks, celebrity and instant gratification. Being fat or ugly has never been fun, but I am sure it is worse today than it was in my day. Cyber bullying has replaced having your head flushed down the bogs and designer phones have replaced a pair of Farrah's as status symbols.

Do I fear for my kids? Yes I do a bit. The early sexualisation of young people cannot be good news. The web and mobiles are just terrifying for a long list of reasons. Body fetishism scares me. The fact that my daughter is quite likely to feel fat and ugly at 8 is grotesque.

But also, I am not that worried. Awareness of how children actually feel is now there is a way it wasn't in the past. As a society, we now know what a good childhood looks like. There are millions of parents out there, like me, willing to strain every fibre in their being to create that good childhood. The effort being made, which exceeds that made in the past, I believe, will surely count for something?

The truth is, I suspect, that we will see, as with all of these things, an increasingly stratified picture. On the one hand, lots of kids with parents willing and able to create a great childhood. On the other, a great many whose parents are too busy working, or with themselves - or not there at all - who emerge into adulthood insecure, ineffective and unhappy.

My belief is that childhood has always been tough for some people. Each generation has its challenges. My own parents grew up in post-war austerity. Their own parents in absolute poverty and neglect. I grew up in relative prospertity but in a society in which it was still seen as OK to hit children. My own kids are growing up in a high consumption, high pressure society in which status is seen as everything.

It will always be tough. This report can be viewed in historical terms as a report which captures the perils of childhood in the 21st century.