Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Heroic Help

Heroic Help
One of the third sector’s unsung success-stories of the last couple of years is the charity Help for Heroes (H4H).

Set up in October 2007 by former Royal Greenjack Bryn Parry and his wife, it started as a sponsored bike ride. Today, only two years on, it has now raised many millions to directly help wounded servicemen and their families and is a household name.

There's a few things I like rather a lot about H4H. One is that it clearly provides something nobody else, particularly the Government, is delivering very well right now: direct, practical, timely help for wounded men. Help that the wounded themselves praise to high-heaven.

Especially when compared to the bureaucracy and insensitivity they often face from the Government. Indeed the contrast between HM Government and the no-nonsense, low-overhead, empathic approach of H4H could not be more stark.

Another is that H4H have drawn public attention to a forgotten group. While 200 service personnel have now died in Afhganistan, there are now estimated to be up to 4000 very seriously wounded men (and they are almost all men) who will need care-for-life, often with brain injuries as well as physical ones.

Little provision has been made in the public finances for them long-term. H4H, while scrupulously apolitical, has skillfully guided public and media attention, onto the issue.

A final thing I really like about H4H is that it has come in from left-field within the existing charity world leaving certain other forces charities feeling red-faced.

Good. That is what new organisations are supposed to do. Filling gaps and shaking up sectors that clearly hadn't been quite on the ball. All sectors benefit from competition and vigorous new entrants. It raises everyone’s game.

Or, in the case of H4H, actually changes the game. For H4H has, in quite an extraordinary way, caught the public mood, which was previously lacking means of expression, and turned it into something incredibly positive and powerful.

For me, H4H is primary evidence of the UK’s strong civil society and the openness of our system to motivated individuals to make good new things happen.

Wouldn’t it be great, therefore, to see Parry and his team headlining this Autumn’s conference platforms, rather than the predictable parade of top CEOs, think-tankers and quango-heads?

Fat chance I suspect. Because the chattering classes of the third sector tend to avoid discussing the our military heroes very openly (it is deeply unfashionable, I sense). But the truth is that we should all actually be garlanding Parry and H4H for their impact – and showing us all how it is done.

Because H4H represents the very best of the third sector and, yes, I will say it, the very best of Britain

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Am reading Tolstoy’s `Death of Ivan Ilych’ – a book that starts with a death – an agonizing one with `screams that lasted three days’ – probably cancer.

Then it charts the life of Ivan Ilych, an outwardly successful, conformist 19th century Russian judge who forgoes any forms of domestic happiness or emotional life for security, career-achievement and social respectability then, on dying, finds himself utterly alone, his colleaugues planning their promotions, his wife indifferent.

Only his peasant nursemaid and young boy enable him to sob and weep and be held, as he wants to be, by a family and friends that care.

The lesson? Don’t live your life to impress others and conform. They don’t care and your life will be wasted.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Elephant in the Room

I have been wondering for months whether to say this or not. To risk what people will say and think of me if I do. Yet it is something that privately people say to me all the time.

But I am going to say it anyway.

Our employment laws - and the way they have been interpreted by the courts are - I believe, are unjust.

I don't say this just because I am biased (which I am) but also because I actually care about justice.

So these laws...where do I start?

Perhaps most obviously, they make it unreasonably costly and difficult to deal with any kind of issue involving employees, be it organisational change or dealing with underperformance or indiscipline. Everything has to be treated like a legal process (which, of course, it now is, even in the very early stages).

Employers often live in fear of these laws ( I know, I am one). For these laws act as a stealth-tax on our income, time and mission/profit.

I am making a strong claim here so let me make a few statements and see what you think.

1. It should be reasonably easy for a company, or charity, to part company with somebody who isn't delivering their side of the bargain. Shouldn't it? Am I wrong here?

2. It ought to be possible, without a great deal of fuss, or expense, to make reasonable changes to people's jobs to suit the changing needs of users and customers. Wouldn't you agree? But it isn't.

3. It ought to be quite possible for a company trying to stay alive to keep its best people without risking all sort of legal hassle. But it isn't. Quite the opposite in fact.

Instead many organisations are faced with a legal minefield in any of the above situations.

Dodging the mines means expert navigation from HR experts and lawyers. Organisations least able to afford this - like small charities - can end up in a lot of trouble.

Not, I hasten to say, for doing anything particular bad or immoral (not forgetting that some employers are shits). But, quite often, due to breaking fairly minor rules around consultaiton or accommodation to people's sensibilities about what they think their jobs should be.

And I should know because I have been there more times than I like to remember. Indeed in our early days, one such case almost brought down the business.

Yes, the whole future of a charity which now helps 5000 people a year put at risk because the law said we didn't consult someone `properly' about their redundancy. That cost us several thousand pounds we didn't have at the time.

Did the punishment fit the crime here? Was this `justice'? While there are aspects of the American system of capitalism I abhor, its lighter touch on employment law is something I would welcome.

I would welcome opinions, anonymous or not.

But if you do agree, and I believe most people actually do, then let's break this conspiracy of silence and tell the truth as we see it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What If...Steve Jobs Ran the Public Sector?

Steve Jobs - the man who founded and runs Apple - is a hard man to please.

He is the ultimate hard-driven entrepreneur - a narcissistic over-achiever with the kind of personality that believes he can, literally, change the world by force of his own will.

He is known at Apple for asking the impossible - then getting it. The company's phenomenal innovation - which puts the rest of the industry to shame - is widely credited to this man's drive and the ridiculously high standards he sets.

For example, not only does he insists that all Apple devices look beautiful on the outside but also on the inside too. Even the sealed units the buyer never sees.

Jobs however is no tech-guy. He doesn't understand circuits or programming particularly. He is the ultimate user and his genius seems to be in getting people to produce the kind of gadgets that make us all gasp with awe.

So, onto my main point.

Jobs has made Apple into a company that achieves far, far more than should be possible. He works by a mixture of terror, exhortation and the inculcation of the very highest standards.

Is Apple a one-off, or could Jobs transform public services for the better?

The parallells, on first impression, feel ludicrious. Ipods and bin-emptying are not the same thing.

But over-achievement? Customer delight? Genius in design?

Public services could use a bit of this.

Jobs would, of course, have his work cut out. I suspect that the culture of consensus that dominates most public sector bodies would come under massive attack from day one.

He would also struggle, I think, to inculcate the notion of excellence into organisations for whom excellence was something limited to corporate literature sent out with the Council Tax bill.

But it would be an interesting experiment. One the world would, I am sure, learn something from.

And until we receive the public sector equivalent of the I-phone, it is something I will call for, however silly it makes me look.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Plane Glory

My boy is mad about planes. He's only 20 months old but everytime he sees one he points and starts yabbering.

So today I took him to an airshow. I wasn't expecting a great deal beyond boredom and nowhere to change his nappy yet, goodness, was I wrong.

Watching all manner of aircraft take off, jig around in the air, pretend to be dog-fighting, about to drop a payload etc was riveting (as was watching Wilf's delight with proceedings).

The crowning moment came with the Spitfire. It did a kind of duel, not with a Messerschmitt but with an American Mustang (much the superior plane, being 5 years later).

Seeing the Spitfire rise, bank and descend against an azure August sky made my heart soar and my eyes prick with primitive pride.

For these aircraft, and the people in them, during a period of only a few days,over similar fields and skies, sixty-nine years earlier, basically gave Hitler pause for thought. Aerial defeat would have made a sea-borne assualt on the UK eminently more possible.

As the Spitfire touched down and its pilot emerged, I didn't think about the few to whom we owe so much etc but about the fact that sometimes our lives contain very short periods - days, hours, minutes that are of definitive importance.

Not to the future of the free world perhaps but to ourselves, the people around us and, for the odd person, wider society. Moments which shape everything else forever.

I can think of two, maybe three in my own life. Two are intensely personal, the third being the day I decided to leave my job to set up Speaking Up.

And then Wilf distracted me from my reverie with a squeal that announced the arrival of a Lancaster Bomber...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Do Intentions Matter in Social Enterprise?

Do Intentions Matter in Social Business?

I was talking the other week to a mate of mine with a commercial background who told me he thought that social enterprise was a was a `slippery concept'.

His big point is that the line between `social business' and pure, for-profit business' is actually misleading.

`How so?’ I asked.

`Well’, he said, `think of mobile phones in Africa. There is this company he knows that is mad for making money. So mad in fact that they risked a lot of capital, time and energy on sticking mobile phone infrastructure across a load of African countries. Tricky places to do business. Lots unpleasant Goverments to deal with. High risks’.

He continued `The company is doing OK and money will be made. But the bigger net effect is that lots of African entrepreneurs are now able to develop businesses, build up the economy etc, thus producing a lot of more `social benefit' than, say, a maize-growing co-op run by a social business. A “double-bottom line”, if ever you've seen one!’

`So’, he asked with a flourish,`Which is the more convincing social business? The one doing more good (whatever the starting intentions) - or the one with all the right intentions, ownership models etc.?’

I sat and I pondered. One on hand, my friend's view is a rehash of Adam Smith - the idea that selfish intention translates into communal benefits.

On the other though, he raises an interesting question: Might he actually be right - to a point? That certain ordinary companies' outputs - like the mobile phone one - can also produce quite clear `social benefits' which, were they produced by a social-firm, be celebrated in the end of year social accounts.
And, leading from that, could such a firm be rightfully garlanded as a social business?

The response to all this from the majority in the social enterprise world would always be that the mobile phone co. is not social enterprise. Both the lack of social intent and private ownership would count them out, regardless, it seems of how much good they do.

Where am I ? What it comes down to, I guess, is whether a social business should be defined mainly by the production of socially accountable outcomes (in this case the development benefits produced by mobile phone use in Africa) or whether it always has to defined in terms of intention, the way it is run, its ownership structure and so on.
I personally think that outcomes (what really happens) should have a greater bearing than the way things are put together – though I do also think these things matter too.
Therefore for me, the mobile phone company is a kind of social business. Not quite in the same way as most readers of In Touch – granted – but if their business generates massive social returns, I guess it has to has to be, doesn’t it?

So far so philosophical.

But ask yourself this. The phone rings. Its a 21 year old who had just been given £5m in their trust fund to change the world. He wants your advice.
Knowing what you know now , how would you advise them to do with it in order to make the biggest social benefit? £5 million into a series of CICs - or into those funky guys putting mobile phones into Africa who are looking for their next slug of investment?

I think I know what I'd be saying.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Its 1989 again

Or you would think so given how many times I have heard or seen the Stone Roses in the media this week. Yes, its 20 years (where did that GO?) since the release of THAT album. I was a student then. A second year politics undergrad at Newcastle. As usual I was a little late getting on to them, missing not only their local gig at Uni but also a chance the year before to see them in a dive in M60.

Listening to the album now it still sounds very good. But is it great? Is it up there with the Beatles, Dylan and the Clash? Is it great art or just brilliant rock music? Ask me 20 years ago I would have said yes to all three questions.

Today I am not so sure. I am not sure the Roses represented anything much beyond a kind of Manc casualism. While something in their music touched me when I was 20 it doesn't move me today in anything like the same way, now that I have heard a lot more.

No, I think the Roses are great mainly in the sense that they were perfect in their time. Like Oasis in 94, like the Arctic Monkeys in 06. I am not sure people listening new to them now will quite see the fuss. Yes a great album by a band which had a new sound and some striking songs but not, in the wider musical scheme of things, a band of unusual innovation, statement or emotional reach.

Still, you can't really beat ` I Am the Resurrection' - go to Spotify and play it NOW.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On Denmark

Just returned from a fortnight in a sleepy suburb of a town I am sure you won't have heard of called Soro, not far from Copenhagen.

Two weeks in a non-touristed area of a new country gives you a sense of how a place works. You use the roads, the shops, the trains. I also talked to people. Taxi drivers, people in shops (they all speak English). I happen to have a Danish friend who has also lived in the UK.

So what are my main impressions? Well this is a Sensible Country. People drive with their lights on in the daytime. There is a strong sense of`rules' both on the road (where traffic accidents are uncommon) and off, where people have a Germanic sense of order, cleanliness and public solicitude.

The Danes themselves are, overall, more relaxed, quieter, less ostentatious and possibly a little duller than Englanders. They are, generally, well educated and
the society as a whole is definitely less divided socially than our own (though this is changing I am told).

In terms of politics and society, Denmark typifies Continental Europe. Taxes are high (about 50% of basic income) and unemployment benefit is about 80% of your work income. People work less intensively than in the UK and there is, generally, more gender equality, with Dads doing more at home than in the UK. While there is a much-talked about problem with free-riders (people `taking' the system for all it is worth), many Danes regard that as preferable to the kinds of problems created when an underclass has revenge on its mind.

Would I live there? Probably not, though I am not sure I would mind living there if I was born and raised in Denmark. There is a stronger form and structure to life here which the person I am now would fund a little too rigid. Careers are more traditionally defined and Danes change jobs far less. Professions are stronger. The state is, clearly, a bigger force than in the UK or US, where you're more `on your own'. The upside of this is clear: a safer, cleaner and probably less pressurised society than our own (Denmark is, apparently, the happiest country in the world). The downside is that the place lacks `edge' and you have to pay about £30,000 for a new Ford Focus (the state adds a whopping sales tax on just about everything).

My contact with public services was interesting. The libraries in Denmark are not like ours. They are a bit like a swank version of Waterstones that include funky play areas for kids. Its all open plan, lots of PCs, a swing for the kids and staff moving around, interacting, not sat behind desks. Everyone uses them. That's the key, I think. In the UK, they are for the committed, the elderly and the vulnerable. Staff are surly and god help you if you ever bring a book back late. Most of us, frankly, stay clear of the places.

On the trains, they are, again, quite swank, but no nicer than when I first went there in 1999. It was here we had our only crap, totally un-Danish experience when, having lugged our 20lb buggy and two small kids on the train, to be asked to leave the carriage by a young conducter who deemed the train too full (it was about half as full as trains I often travel on in the UK).

Thinking we were about to be escorted to the specialcarriage with the fitted play-area and coffee lounge, I obligingly got us all off but was then told that the next train would be in an hour, we could try our luck then. Needless to say, the special child-friendly Danish carriage doesn't exist! For anyone who has small kids, you can imagine how this felt and how utterly buggered up all our feeding, sleeping etc schedules were for the whole day. I felt like standing my ground, Brit-style, but sensed my fellow passengers would have no truck with a bolshy foreigner trying to flout the rules.

Overall though, the place is better than here for kids, though the UK is fast-catching up. My liking of Denmark comes from its people who are mild, friendly and socially-minded. I would rather lose my wallet in a Danish town centre than a British one. And I think I would rather walk through one on a Saturday night, if I am honest. It is clearly a place more at ease with itself in which there is a sense of perspective. More negatively, I think it is teeny bit boring. You haven't got the kind of diversity and fashion we have. And it capital doesn't pulsate even as much as some of our provincial cities.

Do visit if you get a chance. But take your wallet and a few good books.