Saturday, February 6, 2010

Two Conferences, One Message

My week started at Voice 10 the annual social enterprise shindig - this year in Cardiff. Stars of the show were Peter Holbrook, the new SEC CE, and the Social Enterprise Mark, the new badge of respectability for social busineses.

The Mark is discussed in depth on the Social Business Blog but I would say, for now, that I am still to be convinced of its utility. I hope I am actually wrong here - but I am not quite sure it's going the way of Fairtrade or the Soil Association marks, which have been transformative in their fields.

Voice is a good place to meet people. Social enterprise has a lot of good characters. People who care - but also get things done. This, really, on reflection, is why I come.

My week ended at the Guardian Public Services Summit at the Grove, Herts. This is one of those rather plush country conference centres with a golf course, White Company toiletries and enough fluffy white bathtowels for a Premier League football team.

This was a good conference, opening with the former Canadian PM Paul Martin telling delegates how he cut a quarter from public budgets, prioritised spending (rather than taking equal slivers from all budgets) and used social entrepreneurs to address a range of long-standing needs. His advocacy of social enterprise was perhaps the surprise for many of the public sector delegates. His big message, one I hope, the Tories hear, was the need to open up both public and capital markets to the social business sector. Right on,

My favourite presentation was from Participle-founder Charlie Leadbeater. Participle are working with Swindon Council where there are 316 chaotic families. The chaos in these families is added to, Leaderbeater told delegates, by the welter of professionals working with these families, from the police, schools and health services. Each child from one of these costs Swindon about £250k per annum. The results we get from this are well known - low achievement and often a life of crime and replication of these problems in the next generation.

After months spent among these families - living among them and listening to them - Partciple came to the conclusion that two keyworkers, costing around £50k would do as much good as the current arrangement. That's quite stunning. The reason, he says, is that public services spend 70% of their time dealing with the accretion of processes and systems which have arisen around vulnerable children. And, over time, adversarial relationships with these families have resulted in massive `gaming'of the system, which further increases direct and transactional costs.

The legacy of this event, if there is one, the take-away message is that there is no real way to adapt the system incrementally if substantial savings are to be made or outcomes improved. Therefore it all comes down to whether it is possible to reboot the public sector as something quite different both in shape and core purpose.

It has taken a crisis of this scale to generate these kinds of thoughts. It may well take another crisis of an even bigger one to generate the kind of radcial innovation at scale to overcome what one writer recently termed `The Blob' - the huge, pervasive and powerful collection of interests in keeping the fundamentals of the public sector just as they are.

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