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.