Friday, July 16, 2010

Life in all its Glory

Just about to sign off for two weeks. It's about three months since I left my day job (as CEO of Speaking Up) and, although I have hardly stopped, I feel happier now than I probably ever have.

Can't quite work out why. I think its three things. The first is the powerful drug of freedom from the limitations of daily organisational life. By the end, this was getting to me a bit and I was totally ready to go. The second is the variety I now enjoy. Life's now split three ways between my non exec stuff (including Councillor and Chair of APSU), a third speaking/teaching/writing and a third on my New Thing.

After my break, New Thing will get about a half of my time and I will cut down a bit on the money-earning stuff. It feels like a fascintating time to be venturing out. The First 100 Days of this new government has been incredibly energetic, giving a real sense of seriousness about change. Although some of it worries me, I am willing to go with it, like many people because I felt that Labour was fucking it up really quite awfully. Even without the financial crisis, we'd still be in a major mess.

Blogging, you will notice has taken a slight back-seat. I hope to resume with gusto in August - I really have been running hard recently.

My biggest laugh came this week when I arrived early for a meeting at the RSA and overheard all the staff in the cafe backslapping over some report they had brought out which, somehow, had got loads of coverage on Today and Five Live. The RSA was calling for everyone to be trained to intervene in anti-social behaviour. It sounded like a very weak attempt to sound `Big Society' but which ended up caught in a hare-brained call for `training'for all public sector workers in intervention skills. Something for the Big Society straight from the toolbox of Ed Balls.

Listening to them, quietly in the corner with my laptop, I had to wonder whether any of these immaculately educated people really had much idea of just how scared a lot of people are of getting involved. There's too many examples of it all going wrong for many of us to bother. This they put down to `media sensationalism'. Had someone started kicking off down in the cafe there (not very likely I know!), I wonder how many of them would have been putting matters to right. Most, I suspect, would continue staring at their laptops, as one, quite sensisbly, normally does.

Quite what Samuel Johnson and Benjamin Franklin would have made of this latest output of the RSA I really don't know. But I can't imagine they would have thought much of it.

Where next for social enterprises `stepping out' from the public sector?


The coalition government has called for staff in the public sector to "step out" and move from public employment into John Lewis-style mutual bodies, social enterprises or charities. The vision is for vibrant new ventures, owned and led by former public sector professionals and service users.

For staff, this could offer refuge from a shrinking public sector that no longer offers security. For commissioners, social enterprises, it is claimed, look cheaper, are more community focused and more pliable than either in-house or large private sector providers, while the public get business like services, that run for people, not profit. What's not to like?

So is the social enterprise balloon about to take off? Despite the well-crafted words in the coalition agreement, which talk of "empowering" millions of public sector workers to become their own boss, this is not yet clear. Progress has been decidedly patchy. While council leisure services in many parts of the country have moved into social enterprise models, in the NHS only a handful of social enterprises have been set up.

And for many of those stepping out of the public sector, life has not always been easy. Several NHS and council spin-outs are still grappling with trade union opposition, the sheer complexity of extracting themselves from the public sector, and the need to learn new skills. One NHS leader described her experience as like learning a new language, as she grappled with the strategic and financial requirements of a new commercial entity after 25 years in the NHS.

Looking forward, there are two big questions. The first is whether there will be a supply line of entrepreneurial public managers. Many will prefer the devil they know to the unknown pleasures of a new mutual or social enterprise. How they are supported and incentivised will be critical.

The second question concerns whether these new ventures will cut it as serious businesses. While most will start out with a decent contract and a lot of goodwill, all will, very quickly, have to compete with the private and voluntary sectors. It is easy to envisage a flotilla of new social ventures freighted down with residual public sector culture being sunk by the cannon of less encumbered players. These ventures will need the freedom to restructure.

But the biggest question mark hangs over the role of the private sector. The massive global outsourcers have so far stuck mainly to the less visible side of the public sector: waste management, the back office and customer service centres. But in future, private sector firms may want to take over entire frontline services from councils, by promising cost savings of anything up to 25%. The biggest of such functions by far are adult and community services and children's services.

Contrast this with the potentially more complex and fragmentary task of floating new social ventures, and hoping for the best on cost savings and innovation. All too easy to envisage councils and primary care trusts (PCTs) going for the easier option and choosing private sector suppliers.

What is wrong with this? On one level, nothing. The big outsourcing firms have a track record in generating efficiency and improving services. But history suggests that they struggle to innovate and to engage the community in the delivery of services. Private sector services are not focused on less easily measured outputs, such as social capital. This is perhaps not a fatal flaw – but it is one that will be noticed by those councils placing the generation of social capital at the heart of their strategies.

So where next for social enterprise spin-outs? As councils and PCTs weigh up their options, the John Lewis model – as well as others such as community interest companies – will need to exhibit all the attributes of that iconic brand: reliability, trustworthiness and "never knowingly undersold". What they offer will have to be inviting, reassuring and well packaged. If not, we may be looking at the majority of public sector services by the end of this decade being run by global outsourcing businesses.

For supporters of social enterprise, the immediate task will be to ensure that buying from social enterprise is as appealing and straightforward as privatisation. No easy task but one from which the sector cannot shrink if it is to succeed.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


To Bournemouth and my first Local Government Association conference. It’s better than it sounds, particularly given the Coalition Government’s pending bill on `Localism’.

This was trailed in a fringe meeting by Andrew Stunell MP, a Lib Dem Local Government Minister. These include a mixture of operational freedoms for Councils about which the public probably cared little – the abolition of the Standards Board, abolition of the Comprehensive Area Assessment, freedom to revert from the Cabinet system to a Committee system) .

But, more interestingly Stunell spoke of an updated version of `Total Place’ – I think they termed it Area Based Budgets - to include a wide range of public sector spending over which, as an elected body, Councils would take the strategic lead (Councils directly spend only about 15% of public money in a given place). While this leaves unanswered the knotty question of how you boss the other 85%, it feels like a step in the right direction.

Later on we hear from the porcine Eric Pickles who manages to combine a tangible air of menace with being rather funny. He sounds as thick as mince, like a fat bloke down the pub with his Daily Mail - but this belies a bright mind and sharp political instincts. While Pickles is more likely to drop dead than get promoted, I hope he gets taken seriously rather than just written up as merely a thug.
I escape an utterly tedious seminar about the recession-beating efforts of Broadland Council (Norfolk, if you’re interested No? ) and go visit the stands.

Here the local government support-industry is out wearing its best smile. Serco are there with free juice and a funkily-lit set that wouldn’t look out of place on the Other Stage at Glastonbury. You could get free Domino Pizza (yes please) and I spend a long time talking to two richly-accented northerners trying to promote the de-industrialised wastelands of East Lancashire where I grew up as a trendy new place called ‘Pennine Lancashire’. Their lovely video and photo-boards depict not the pitbulls, derelict shops and former factories I remember but people mountain-biking and holding hands on windy moorland. Apparently the designer Wayne Hemingway helped on the rebrand. Boy, does it need it.

I then head off the workshop entitled `Inspirational Speaker’. I am a sucker for a good story so I lapped up Karren Brady’s account of her time with Birmingham City. She comes across as real-nice but I tell you, I wouldn’t mess. Indeed when one of her players called out “I can see your tits from here” as she walked past on the coach, she joked back that he wouldn’t be able to see them from Crewe. Which is where he was by the following week – playing for the lowly Alexandra. She may not have a dick, she told us, but she has big balls.

Brady’s serious message, which I liked, was that talent is useless without persistence, hard work and stick-ability. She is no genius and she knows it. But she is tenacious, determined and therefore and inspiration for non-geniuses everywhere who see a bit of themselves in her. She also understands culture and its importance to success. People need to be energized and leadership is about creating an atmosphere of success and shared purpose. This, she tells us, means dealing with our R.I.P.s – Retired in Post. People who have given up and just don’t care any more. Plenty of those in local government, of course.

I thought I had seen the best of the day but then landed up in a seminar run by CIPFA – the Chartered Institute of Professional Financial People – or some-such. This deeply unpromising event turned into the highlight of my day. We heard from the CEO of Brent Council, the Leader of Kent and the head of CIPFA who was that rare thing – an engaging accountant.

The focus was finance. Everyone agreed that some kind of enhanced pooling of public money at local level is a necessity. `Kent PLC’ spends eight billion a year of public money which only about a billion comes under the direct rule of Kent County Council. All railed against the protection of health and the refusal of health to come into any local co-working. As for Lansleys proposal to give 80 billion to GPs, the CEO of Brent (rather incautiously) compared it to giving vampires control of the nation’s Blood Banks.

There was consensus about the slack still there from non-front-line roles. Fascinatingly, only 29% of Brent Council’s staff are `front-line’ or people-facing. This can be raised to 40 or 50 %. For this reason their CEO feels most of the pain can be absorbed away from the front-line. But only if cutbacks do not exceed 25%. The 40% bandied around in last weekend’s papers would, all agreed, not be possible to implement without the risk of serious breakdown in service-provision and the potential for unrest that this would create.

Three things were striking about this session. The first was the unanimity that the level of deficit spending has to be attacked quite radically and within a single Parliament. The second was the preparedness of local authorities to move well beyond what they have previously done in terms of reshaping themselves as smaller, more facilitative entities rather than as large, slowly growing providers.

The third was the shocking level of duplication in services and spend across the public sector – and how unresponsive this has been so far to any form of political co-ordination and control. Local Area Agreements and Total Place – the only things tried so far – have produced mainly meetings, hot air and minutes but little on the ground.

The big remaining question for me is that if the Localities Bill does not sanction a bigger co-ordinating role for Local Authorities – including one which enables a steering of health spending (if not full Governance), then how we get beyond the risible efforts so far is beyond me.

Although I didn’t get near the beach or enjoy more than a moment’s sunshine, I caught the train back feeling that Bournemouth had been good to me that day.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Big Booze Versus Big Society Revisited

Found out on Friday that the Council have given the historic Corn Exchange to Wetherspoons. I have penned the following letter to the local paper which I fully expect not to be printed.

Dear Sir

Like the majority of Bury St Edmunds, my heart sank when I read about the Wetherspoons decision. What is most painful is that it was made for supposedly sound financial reasons. Yes, this will boost the coffers of St Edmundsbury Council by a few grand per annum, even after the pavements have been cleared of the evenings’ excesses. But it will cost other public bodies and the taxpayer a whole lot more: Suffolk County Council will be shelling out for extra policing; NHS Suffolk will be patching up the brawlers; the Ministry of Justice stumping up for court appearances, legal aid and so on. On top of this, there be empty shops where independent cafes and pubs once stood.

I travel widely and Bury’s `brand’ is fantastic with its charming streets, its Abbey Gardens and incredibly safe atmosphere. You mess with this at your peril. And you do not put down-market propositions like Wetherspoons bang in the middle of your offer. Image matters. Contrary to Councillor Mildmay-West I do do not believe a typical visitor to Bury rings Tourist Information ahead to check if we have a Wetherspoons. Can you imagine it - `No Wetherspoons? Never mind dear, we’ll have to go to Ipswich or Newmarket if we want to get fed and plastered for a fiver’… Sorry, Councillor, but your claims don’t ring true. By contrast, I think our typical visitors will go elsewhere when an air of boozed-up menace replaces Bury’s once peaceful, unique atmosphere. Another big mistake by a Council that has lost the plot. How many more can we afford?

Councillor Craig Dearden-Phillips
Liberal Democrat County Councillor for Hardwick Division

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blog from the Bog

I write this sitting on the cubicle the Virgin Pendolino Express between Birmingham and London. Not for any bodily reason but because I am hiding from the ticket inspector as I once did as a penniless student 20 years ago.

What has brought this 41 year old social entrepreneur,local Councillor and father-of-two to this rather graceless place. It started when I booked a ticket online, something I had never done before. When I got to the station I could go an get the ticket from a machine.

Trouble is, when I did this the bleedin' thing didn't work and I missed the train. I went to the box to explain that the train I had booked onto had gone and could I have my ticket? No duck, I was told, you'll have to buy an entirely new ticket for seventy quid. But I have already paid 55 I pleaded. Oh but it was on the internet wasn't it, you can't transfer those.

I almost went for my wallet then I stopped. Thanks, I said, I'll think about what to do. I then raced to the barrier, sqeezed through at a busy moment and got on the train. I took position near the bog ready for the inspector's arrival. He started his slow movement down the carriage and I got out my next set of Board papers and headed for the cubicle.

Twenty minutes later I am to emerge and hope for the best at the other end. A full ticket inspection and I am dead-meat. But I am fucked if I am paying again for something I have aleady bought.

The point of my story is that as a consumer and a human-being I feel I am being fucked-over. Under nationalisation we were fucked-over by late and dirty trains. Now we are fucked over by a massive disregard for commercial decency. I like Virgin and I haven't completely lost faith. But my patience has been sorely tested.

Almost as much as the queue of people who will be waiting for me when I eventually come out of this bog.