Saturday, August 28, 2010

The View from the Hill

My life has changed quite bit in the last year or so. I entered my 40s. I left my job and I have since been working out a new direction and a new business.

At these times in life, you're forced into answering the big questions: What do I really want out of life? What are my values? How much money should I seek to make? What compromises am I prepared to make - or not?

These thoughts are framed by the realisation that 40 is the half-way mark, the brow of the hill from which The End can be surveyed, deep in the distance, but just about discernable.

So what have I come up with? Looking back, I view my life and think, so far, so good: I built up a £7 million "for good" business that was mostly successful and changed quite a few lives. I came out of that business feeling it was left in good hands and that it would continue to thrive.

But I struggled, if I am honest, with the whole CEO thing - I was only good at certain parts of it, the `aggro' of the job got to me and having responsibily for hundreds of people's mortgages I found oppressive. And he last three years were probably not my best. I lost a bit of interest and it wouldn't have been right for me to stay much longer than I did.

And now? The next phase - my next business - will be built around my fundamental needs, strengths and values. These are, I hope, mostly well-aligned but I also know there will be tensions. My needs are as follows: to serve, to do brilliant work for others, to make a lasting contribution. I also need some balance, to stay properly fit and to keep my stress mananagable.

So far, so straighforward. But then there's money. As a just-41 year old with an ever-growing brood, no pension and not a lot of equity, I need to earn quite a lot more money than I did as an emerging social entrepreneur (rent on a bedsit being fairly low).

While it probably seems obscene to somebody struggling to bring their kids up on benefit or a low wage, I think I need to earn at least 60 grand a year to feel happy and would probably be happiest at about 100. I know I probably risk riducule for saying that but I am honest and this is what I feel. Interestingly, the research on happiness seem bear this out. We get progressively happier up to an affluent point of income and hardly any happier after that.

Like a lot of blokes my age, I worry about money a lot, probably even more than my health and hair. I know that I don't need to worry as much as I do. But I have inherited a strong money and work-ethic from my father who, just after I was born, swopped a blue collar for a white one and climbed the corporate ladder to a Directorship.

Although we were never, ever poor, I remember my 70s childhood as pretty frugal and, by today's standards, almost austere, before my Dad's career took off. Material self-improvement, therefore, has been kind-of hard-wired in. I have, of course, chosen not to make this the be-all-and-end-all, but it still there, shadow-like in my mind.

What of my skills? Being a jack rather than a master I am not the natural specialist, which the world of work prefers us to be. I love developing and selling things. My energy comes from interaction. I like work that brings me into contact both with the front-line (hence why I am a Councillor) and also the corridors of influence. I like to be part of the debate through writing and speaking. I like to be needed and I need to be liked. I don't see this ever changing. Work has to do all of this for me if it isn't to become dull.

And values? I have come to the conclusion that life is fundamentally about the balance you strike between concern for others and concern for self, between money and broader achievement, between liberty and duty and between kindness and indifference. I see us all as having choices in this balance and that, either consciously or not, most of us find our place on the continuum.

I myself have moved along the continuum over time. As I have got older I have greater concern for myself(and my family)and my appetite for money has edged up a notch or two. This may sound pretty awful but given my starting point as a self-neglecting ascetic, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. On the plus side, I have a more powerful sense of my responsibilities and more head-space for others than I did a decade ago.

So as I move forward, I am aware that, no, I am not going to build another £7 million social business - and nearly do myself in while doing so! Instead I will seek to build a business based on my own values, with people who share those values. I will ensure that this business is also making a difference in the world both in the way it does its work and the use it puts to its profits.

However, I wont' grow as quickly as last time (that itch has been truly scratched) and I will put quality before everything, even the lure of scale. In doing all of this I will, unashamedly pursue the income I need while continuing to uphold my role in the community and organisations I support, and ensuring my friends, family and health are not neglected. The balance, I hope will be right.

Does this make me a social entrepreneur going forward? That debate will rumble on, but if I think, if I do manage to contribute while also achieving for myself, I deserve at least Associate Membership of the club.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Is Duncan Bannatyne a Social Entrepreneur?

Silly question you might say if you've seen the dour old sod on Dragon's Den. But I have been reading his book and, although he punches the odd person, I can't help - as someone who has been through start-up, felt patronised by posh twats etc - liking the bloke.

What isn't so obvious about the guy is the stuff he's being doing for 20 years mainly overseas. A visit to Romania in 1990 shocked him to the core and he has since worked with social entrepreneurs to set up `Casa Bannatyne' to help orphaned children. While there are those who will mock his naming decision, it wasn't all just vanity. The name partly comes from the fact that he gets most of his customers to sign up to support it too, and of couse the name-resonance helps there I am sure.

Altogether, Bannatyne has probably put in many millions both to this and to other projects around the world. He chooses people carefully and doesn't get heavily involved in the detail. But he is also more than a mere donor and is active in seeking business-like solutions to social problems.

Liam Black was asked recently by an Asian businessman `What is a social entrepreneur?' Liam's response was that a social entrepreneur is defined by what he or she does or achieves - and forget the rest of the Boring Debate. While this sets aside some important questions about how certain philanthropists get rich in the first place (Mittal etc), there is something powerful in what Liam is saying. And there are definitely many social entrepreneurs who in state-subsidised CICs and co-ops who not achieving anything much for their efforts.

The reason I wrote this blog, as well as to recommend Bannatyne's book - was to say that I don't think the discussion of social entrepreneurship should either be confined to a limited few who run CICs/Co-ops or whatever BUT neither should it be viewed as a club to which ANYONE with money who splashes the cash should join either. How that money has been accumulated has to come into the picture.

But overall, I think we have to be broad in our conceptualisation of social entrepreneurship if all of us involved in changing society through our organiations are to link arms and become a world-force in the difficult few decades to come.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Walking with Dinosaurs

According Social Enterprise Magazine's Gemma Hampson, this week Unison is taking the Department of Health to court over its refusal to consult on the recent white paper, which stated the department wanted to create the ‘largest social enterprise sector in the world’.

Unison claims this is unlawfu, due to lack of consultation, and started legal action yesterday against health secretary Andrew Lansley and his plans for the largest social enterprise sector in Europe following the disbandment of PCTs and SHAs.

‘The Department of Health’s refusal to recognise this clear and important legal duty leaves us no option but to issue legal proceedings as a matter of urgency.’.

Unison said the public was ‘deeply suspicious’ of the government’s plans to create co-operatives and social enterprise health service providers and that the ‘any willing provider’ initiative would mean ‘more private companies coming in to grab a share of the health market’.

Unison’s concerns include a fear that social enterprises would be taken over by multinational private companies and be too management led.

A Unison spokesman said: ‘Social enterprises contain a number of risks. It is quite possible that a multinational might look to break into the market by taking over a successful social enterprise that started to make a good profit.

‘Under the so-called right to request scheme [which gives NHS staff the right to request to set up a social enterprise through their primary care trust], social enterprises get a contract for three years, but after this there is no guarantee of what happens to the services they are delivering. Equally there is no guarantee that such organisations will survive for the full three years.

‘The stated benefit of social enterprise – that employees have a greater stake in the organisation and therefore provide better service – is undermined by the fact that very few of the prospective social enterprises in the health service have actually been driven by a bottom-up demand from health staff. They tend to be management-led initiatives where employee engagement is little more than an afterthought.’

OK, let's look at this point by point. Yes, a multinational might take over a social enterprise. But this could never be a hostile takeover as the shares are not publicly traded, the members of the company have a choice in whether or not they are taken over and the asset-lock places clear limits on profit taking. Only if the multinational is willing to run the business as a social enterprise, can it be taken over. A final point here is that we might actually want, in particular cases, certain social enterprises to be taken over if this helps to further capitaise them - and encourage the better corporates (for they are not all the same) to broaden their range of activity.

Second point, contracting. True, there is no guarantee of anything after three years. Well, sorry Unison, this is how the world works. In fact most companies do not even get gifted three years in the first place. The reason it is important not to guarantee lifelong contracts is that once these are let, the company has little incentive to become more efficient or innovative, even in the care sector. Having to win on merit shouldn't scare anybody who is good at what they do. And whatever happens, staff are protected by TUPE, so I struggle to see, from a union-rep's perspective, what the problem is.

Thirdly, the management-led nature of Right to Request. Let's be clear here, ANYBODY in the NHS has the Right to Request: physios, nurses, you name it. Some have done this but, yes, most R2R have come from management. Again, I struggle to see what is wrong with this. The fact that the NHS has managers who believe they can take the service to a new level and be a bit more entrepreneurial about it deserve encouragement, not rebuff. I have personally worked alongside two CEO-designates of new social businesses and they are two of the most committed, passionate and socially-minded managers I have ever met in my life. To give them a hard time over their intentions is to miss the point entirely.

The reason that the social enterprise sector is getting all this stick is manyfold. The unions themselves are dominated by the old-left who do not represent the political spread of their membership. Intellectually, they have failed to move from the position of statism and they cannot see its limitations.

The danger in their posturing about social enterprise is that they are missing what a huge alternative opportunity it presents to their dread-scenario of wholesale privatisation of the NHS and Councils.

For, unlike, the global outsourcers, social enterprises are committed to returning profits to community, to social ownership and are highly generative of participation and wider public involvement. They are often embedded in their communities and much-liked by residents - see Local Care Direct in West Yorks or Sandwell Healthcare in the W Midlands. These organisations are part-business, part civil-society organisations. Unison et al need to see that they are not the real enemy.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lessons from Mother Duck

At the moment, my children (2 and 4) are waking up very early. Breakfast is normally over by 6.30am so I have been taking them out in the country park in one of whose many corners our house (once that of domestic servants in the nearby pile) now sits.

We take a circular route which takes us round a Victorian pond, much of which can hardly be seen through the growth. Some days we take waste bread and throw it in the water hoping the ducks will eat it before the fish do. But normally, the ducks can't be arsed - or are still asleep.

Today, though we were welcomed by a Mother Duck and her brood of ten. This troop have been paraded through the village, across the roads and up and down our garden and back by their Mother in recent weeks. Needless to say, they create quite a stir: stopping cars, walkers, cyclists even, all letting them go by and admiring their quiet orderliness.

By rights, at least half of these ducks should be dead. Foxes prowl here quite openly at dusk and dawn. Cars fly through, some at double the speed limit. Cats and dogs roam around the park. But they're all still here.

Mother Duck obviously is, on some level, providing some intelligent protection. But of course, she can't think, as we do. One has to suppose her instincts are extraordinary. When to cross, when to stay. How to keep the ten in formation when a dog bounds up. Is there anything, then, we can learn from Mother Duck?

I suggest three things. The first is about staying calm in a crisis. In over two weeks of seeing the family in all sorts of eye-watering situations, including being partially covered by a passing bus, I never saw Mother Duck panic. She acted the same and just got on with rounding up the laggards.

The second is about trusting our instincts. Mother Duck gets from pond to pond, past fox-earths, busy roads and bouncy dogs by using her inner nous, not a process of deduction. As humans, our instincts are often clouded by thought and we ignore them, often for the worse.

The third lesson is about focus. Those ten ducklings are still on the pond for the sole reason that Mother Duck is there at all times, thinking of little else.

Be it your own business, your job or your own kids, there are definitely lessons to be learned from Mother Duck.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Pensions for those Stepping Out of the Public Sector

Pensions are on my mind at the moment. Partly because mine is worth only marginally more than what I have paid into it these last fifteen years - but also because I am working with a number of potential social enterprises which are about to `step out' of the public sector.

For some of these pensions are a big headache. There are several public sector schemes and all work a bit differently but all have three things in common. One is that they are `defined benefit' - meaning what you get is a proportion of your final salary linked to inflation. The second is that the employer (the state) contributes up to 20% of the employees' salary - much more than is normal in other sectors now (0-6% is fairly common). The third is that most schemes are in deficit - meaning that the payouts are not covered by those paying in. The bill for this is picked up by HM Treasury and total unfunded liabilities were, on 31st March 2008, estimated at 770 billion pounds.

So what's the relevance of all this for the divestment of public services to social enterprises and the third sector? Well, if the Government insists, as HM Treasury's `Fair Deal' Guidance states now, that former public sector workers are offered a `broadly comparable' pension, we have a potential show-stopper on our hands. To take on these commitments, at minimum, creates a huge current and future obligation the third sector.

Indeed I spoke recently to one third sector CEO who had recently been presented with a bill from the LA Pension Scheme for 360k for FOUR employees the charity had taken on from the public sector a few years earlier under arrangements that allowed them to remain in their original pension scheme. The bill reflected a deficit in those four employees' pension built up over the whole of their employment with the LA, not just the three or so years with their new employer. The deficit had, in effect, been dumped on the charity. Just imagine the damage this causes to, say a medium-sized charity. And this is aside from the resentment felt by those employees without deals like this which are often worth, in effect, 40% of salary.

So put yourself in the shoes of a charity today looking at taking on state services faced with a local authority insisting you took on responsibility for funding staff pensions. You'd effectively be taking on employees on terms and conditions, and with accrued liabilities that the LA itself didn't have to fund (because HM Treasury picked up the tab) so probably didn't even have on its books. Successfully obtaining `Full Cost Recovery' in those sort of situations is hard to envisage.

Which is why the third sector and new social enterprise have to read the small print on pension deals, even if the public sector is offering enhanced payments as part of the deal, as they are with many of the new health spin-outs. These are fine - as long as the money keeps coming. Should the taps ever turn off, one is, as an organisation, left with the job of funding the scheme. And what the deal says about long-term liabilities is absolutely critical.

The white-knight in the case of all of this is, we all hope, Lord John Hutton. His forthcoming review of pensions is a one-off opportunity to deal with the imbalance between public section pensions and the rest. Most observers are confident that Hutton will raise the employee contribution as a minimum. But it is still unclear whether he will recommend the abolition of `Fair Deal' which would liberate social enterprises and third sector orgs to take new employees out of the public sector scheme and put them in a money-purchase scheme immediately - for pensions are not covered by TUPE rules.

Neither is it clear whether Hutton will reduce the contribution from employers or insist that new public sector employees cannot join defined-benefit schemes. Or that all public sector pensions are brought back into some semblance of fiscal balance by reducing the overall benefits paid. This might require legislation and it is unclear at the moment whether the Government will want to go this far.

The minimum, I believe, is that `Fair Deal' should go. This will allow social enterprise and third sector organisations to pay pensions to new public sector employees at their existing charity levels (normally about 6% compared to the forthcoming 2012 legal minimum of 3%) and without generating future liabilities. It will also mean that all employees are on a similar deal, which is better for workforce morale. Former public sector employees will still be on a slighly better deal than existing staff - as TUPE means that more favourable conditions around sick pay and so on will automatically transfer. But the really OTT differences created by the pensions gap will be eliminated.

There will be people reading this who have reached understandings with public sector bodies for staff coming out to stay in the old pension scheme under `approved provider' arrangements. This will often be underpinned by a short to medium term committment from commissioners to meet the costs of the pension scheme current and future. But this is only useful for as long as commissioners can afford to pay. Once this ceases to become the case, whatever the legalities, it automatically becomes your problem too. Better, I believe, we avoid that by seeking to get people coming out of the public sector onto money-purchase schemes as soon as they leave state employment.

Let's hope Hutton's review allows this to happen.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Defending the Big Society - My Third Sector magazine this week....

There is huge worry in the sector that the big society is probably the right idea but is coming at the wrong time and in the wrong hands.

I couldn't disagree more. Now is the right time - never better. The state is about to implode. When, if not now, would the time be right for a bigger society?

The idea is also in the right hands. You could never trust Labour with civil society. Their addiction to big, domineering government meant they were never going to allow our sector any serious role beyond our traditional one of vitamin supplement to a corpulent state. Labour had a perfect chance to do big society - but just created Big Brother.

The response of our sector to the big society has been interesting. True to form, we are slightly on the defensive. We have various "cuts watch" websites and our commentators are very much in "yes, but ..." mode.

The view you hear most often is that this, of all times, is not the time to kick our sector in the nuts, just when society and the government needs it most. And so we complain, politely, about funding cuts to Capacitybuilders, v and so on. Voices will become shriller in the autumn when the action really starts.

How we respond is our biggest test yet. Will we dust down our old 1980s banners, daubing in the word "Coalition" where "Thatcher" used to be? Or do we actually accept that this is the financial reality - and just get on with it?

My suspicion is that we might have an eighties moment. However, we do have a choice. We can accept that there are far too many 'strategic' organisations getting public money and that it would be sensible to have far fewer. We can recognise that the long boom produced tens of thousands of charities that are now unsustainable and should merge. The sector can choose to deal decisively with its own RIPs - Retired In Posts - who, sadly, are still legion.

And, perhaps most importantly, we can decide to survive and thrive, whatever happens. This is an existential choice familiar to millions of us in our individual lives, at some point. I know that Churchill's dictum in his wilderness years, to "keep buggering on", was the right route for me when night fell on my own life. It taught me resilience.

It also taught me that, whatever happens in the years to come, the one thing we can control is our response to it. The choices facing our sector are exactly the same. Let's think big.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Friendship and Business

There's an old adage that says `Don't mix business with friendship'. `Don't take this personally, it's business' is something that will be said today, hundreds of times up and down the country as contracts are cut-short, people let go or something that felt oh-so-good, comes to nothing.

So should we mix the two? Ought these two things be kept separate? It comes down, in a way, to how one views friendship. I have two classes of friend: my professional friends, with whom I mainly discuss work, and my other friends with whom never comes up.

The latter, of course, are `true' friends in the sense that they are not contingent on a professional connection or any particular turn of events. But the former group feel like more than just a bunch of useful associates. I enjoy some of them more than I do my own friends. One or two of them I care about a great deal and, if I am honest, I often feel I have more in common with my work friends than others.

What does this mean for business? I am sure I am not alone in saying what I have just said. For many of us, work is a rich place for relationships, intellectual and emotional stimulation. We tend to gravitate towards business relationships that bring with them a degree of satisfaction akin to that gained through friendship. Friendship, in other words, oils the wheels of business, in my view.

I was brought to mind about this questions as I listened to 6 Music this morning. They played songs by the Coral, Doves, REM, Elbow and the Manics (I know, I know!) - all bands that have been together a long time. Arguably this is what also makes them successful after long periods of time and when most bands have gone their own ways. To them, friendship is partly what makes their jobs worth it.

For me, I don't separate business and friendship. I aspire to strong professional friendships characterised by trust, consideration and helpfulness. This is beyond `friendliness' - which is cheap and easy. I do this partly because of who I am - my own needs and preferences - but also because I believe that powerful professional bonds make for far better results. Just as trust-based society is always more successful than one dominated by fear so a trust-based approach to work generates far more than one spent wondering about what someone might do to damage you.

Of course, this is an ideal. I was a CEO till recently and didn't inevitably, get on with everyone on that level. Indeed one of the limiters of the job for me was that I had to keep more distance than often felt natural. But where I was most successful was with people with whom the relationship worked. Life, I believe, is about relationships, above all else. So is business. If business isn't life-affirming and its practice doesn't, on some level, correspond, to our need to connect to others, to behave how we know we ought to do, then we stop living as we should.

I would even go so far as to say that saying `Don't mix business and friendship' is one step down a very long, dark staircase called Death!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Will the new Public Service Mutuals Succeed?

It's been a good week or two in the media for social enterprise. The fifteen new NHS `Right to Requests' have been announced and then, yesterday, we heard from Francis Maude all about 12 new `Pathfinder' mutuals about to be launched with mentoring support from John Lewis Partnership and other marquee names from both the corporate and social enterprise world.

The mentors include Lord Victor Adebowale, CEO of Turning Point, and staff from the John Lewis Partnership, PriceWaterhouseCooper, KPMG and Local Partnerships, among others. Other social enterprises involved includeSunderland Home Care Associates, Central Surrey Health, and GLL.

I have been trying to find out a bit more about these new mutuals beyond this and detail is still a bit thin on the ground. The pathfinders, I understand, include a co-operative providing adult social services and community health in Swindon, a Department of Health disability team, which will be a community interest company, housing support services for vulnerable people in Mansfield and a social enterprise helping homeless people in Leicester.

The big question is, of course, will they succeed in first stepping out of the public sector and then becoming viable businesses? At the moment it is, of course, hard to tell. My own view is that this will depend on three main things.

The first will be the scale and capacity of the mutuals to hold their own even in a protected marketplace. Will a department of health disability team - which I presume is a relatively small venture - cut it in the wider disability health sector in which there is perhaps already a lot of competition? It may or may not - but this needs to be given very clear thought before a decision to spin-out.

Likewise, I worry a little for very small chunks of councils or PCTs with dependence on perhaps one customer (I realise that the Pathfinder also includes larger orgs). I may end up being wrong, but I am not sure whether thousands of very small mutual businesses will make sense, when you take into account the support required to get them going and viable in the marketplace.

When I go speak to CEOs and Directors in local authorities and PCTs they are thinking about very large spin-outs. And would you fancy trying to hold your own as a small new local mutual in 25% cuts with commisssioning all over the place as the LA or PCT lurches towards a scale solution, whether this is private or social-enterprise in character? As I keep saying, I may end up proved wrong, but my own instinct is to go for much bigger mutuals which can compete on scale with the private sector in a marketplace which is pretty chaotic just now.

The second will be the quality of the teams leading these new mutuals. For anything to work in management terms you need committed leaders and fantastic top teams. While there will probably be no shortage of deeply motivated folk, I am a little anxious that beyond the CEO-figure there will exist senior teams with the right level of financial and operational nous to work in a brand new, commercially competitive environment, particularly if the venture is small and dependent on a single business relationship. Sure, mentoring and secondments will mitigate this risk, but I suspect each new venture will need investment in new roles and people who bring something new to the party.

The third, of course, will be the quality of support. The Pathfinder has identified some magnificent mentor-partners. This is a great start. Imagine having people with you who have already made the journey. Or support from one of the Big Four consultancies. What will also count is the range and intensity of that support. As somebody who was mentored to grow a 0.5 million business into a 7 million business, I understand the power of mentoring. But it also took a much deeper and more intensive set of external supports - around change-management, rebranding, marketing and sales, value-chain management - to achieve and sustain that growth. Mentoring matters, as much boots matter on a hike. But you also need waterproofs, a map, Kendal mint-cake etc. Wrap-around support. This needs to be out there during years 1-3 of these new ventures, in my view, to lower the risk of business failure.

Overall, as my readers know, I am a supporter of the Coalition in its broad aims. I believe that state provision has to move in large chunks from the state sector to the civil society sector - ideally in the form of social enterprises and into enterprising charities. So I am delighted with what I see going on. My comments here are really to say - let's make sure these new ventures are market-shaped, have access to proper investment and the necessary new blood and are supported in a very full-on way, with the kind of attention you see any investor putting into a growing new concern. This is not a time for a light-touch

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Being Owned and Being Free

What is being free? I am getting a sense of that at the moment as I slide freely along the arc of my new life.

Today I was sorting out my new business most of the morning then involving the local media in my pavement-problem (see last blog), meeting on the phone with a Trustee, lunching with fellow East Anglian social entrepreneur Robert Ashton, visiting the Southgate Partnership (the new development trust I have helped set up) and finally sealing a speaking gig in 2011 where I am to appear alongside either Mark Steele or Mark Thomas (I am not sure who scares me most). In between all of this I manage 40 lengths at the local pool, dodging between canoodling teenagers and the occasional "bomber" (remember those?).

Today's highlight was probably Robert Ashton. We met at Elvedon, just in Norfolk about halfway between our homes. Robert has been quietly building an international reputation as a social entrepreneur through his achievements in Norfolk, his books (about ten so far which sell by the truckload across the globe) and his public speaking (see

Meeting Robert was great. We have a lot in common - running, writing, speaking a rather right-off sense of humour - and it is soothing to meet a kindred spirit. On a practical level, as fellow East Anglians, we have a shared landscape and I can easily imagine working with him.

There's also something I enjoy about the folk from our world with roots and lives outside of London (not that there aren't people in London who I deeply enjoy too!). Rob Greenland up in Leeds. Martin Kinsella in the Midlands (though increasinly everywhere). John Niland in Essex. Martin Clark in Cambridge. Rob Harris in Manchester. The list goes on. There's a welcome detachment from the "she's up, he's down" world of central London, where the utterings of politicians are given disproportionate weight. Further away from the capital, there is a sense of proportion and healthy scepticism about the daily drama of the capital.

I spoke at length with Robert about being free. He's been his own man since the age of 35 (he's now mid 50s). One of the best things for him is not having to compromise. Good for health, both mental and physical.

I am inclined to agree. All of my mates who work for big organisations, even as CEO, feel owned and controlled by their jobs and employers. The higher paid - over 100k - particularly so. Lack of control seems to be very damaging to human health, something I first observed about 20 years ago among people with learning difficuties - and now among my friends with weight problems, booze issues and mild depression.

All people who are, for want of a better word "owned", not free.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

New Shit, Old Shit

Managed to miss Any Questions from Bury St Edmunds. Had I managed to get along I would have asked why more people are not supportive of the Coalition. In the circles in which I move, the Coalition is deeply unpopular: there's a new sense of `Who's side are you on?' emerging, which brings back memories of the 80s. As a supporter of the Coalition I find myself playing the role of Defender, despite having very human doubts and reservations. But I detect a change in atmosphere with one or two people I know, particular those who support left-parties - who are just seething. Put up taxes a few pence they say - and we won't need to do all this. It's all so UNNECESSARY.

Well, let's look at this. Is this all about tax and spend. Yes and no. Sure, we could jack up tax on people in work to keep the public sector at a comparable level to what is now. We could leave the welfare state as it is, in which a third of the populations of places like Manchester and Glasgow live entirely on benefit. We could allow the NHS and other parts of the public sector to operate like nationalised industries with levels of productivity that are, frankly, shameful.

And we could tolerate the insane levels of bureaucracy that all of us encounter every time our lives connect with the state. I say that as a local Councillor who, in a current attempt to get a very and obvious safety change done to a patch of pavement and road (seven feet by five) have had to engage seven public sector staff (police, road safety people, engineers, planning people) over a period of five months for a total of about 100 hours - and that's a generous guess. At forty quid an hour that's four grand to solve a grand's worth of problem. Frustratingly, this particular problem could have been sorted in a quarter of that time, and that's generous. I dare say it could all have been resolved in a day. Instead, there's a mini-industry built around it, largely by the councils themselves. We just need to do away with nearly all of it.

Back to my point. The attackers of the Coalition forget three important things. First, the state is in desperate need of reform. This cannot be ducked if the we are going to deal with the challenges of the next 50 years. Second, this would have had to happen anyway, even if Labour had won, something the Harriet Harmans forget. Thirdly, Labour has absolutely nothing to contribute to the discussion of where this country is going. Neither before or since the election has a senior Labour person said anything remotely convincing about where we need to take our economy, society and polity. Its leadership contest is a joke and it is going to be a long time before they are in the game again, in my view. The only people who could have got them there (Milburn, Purnell etc) have all been purged. David Miliband MIGHT come up with something. Ed is just an old-style social democrat and Balls is a useful attack-dog but little more.

I say all this because I am a bit sick to the teeth at the moment of the Polly Toynbee anti-coalition feeling being opportunistically whipped up by the party who got us into this shit in the first place.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Back to Choice

Back to the blog after two very pleasant weeks away. The first was spent in Swanage on the south coast, one of the few places down there which is nice but not London-On-Sea. We took the camper and hooked up with two of my schoolfriends and their families. Work is not discussed by unspoken agreement which is refreshing. Our kids are all small, our lives kind-of working out ok and there is something quite cool about hanging out with people you've known since you wore short pants.

Then the Isle of Wight on a House-Swop. We do this about four times a year and its normally pretty good - a trust-based like-for-like exchange. While I wasn't excited about it, the Isle of Wight felt like a proper escape, helped by poor mobile signal. Our house didn't have a computer in it either, which was ususal. Much of the island has the feel of West Wales or Northern Scotland. The chains are only present in the main town, the rest a tapestry of men's outfitters, old cafes and jewellers who haven't replaced their signs since the Seventies. I love all of that, except, of course, when I want to find a good cup of coffee.

Time away gave me a chance to reflect on where things are for me just now. Since leaving I have had a hectic three months of non-execcing, coaching and preparing for my new venture. I also realised how much, overall, I had enjoyed myself since ceasing to be a CEO. Normally, the job thunders round my head as my body seeks to pace itself to holiday-rhythm. This time, I slipped right into it, no problem. Temperamentally, I am probably a little too stress-prone to be a CEO, though I do miss parts of it, particularly the teamwork and the big wins. Much of it though, especially the inevitable confrontations and disappointments when things go tits-up, I do not miss one iota.

Of course I kept in touch a little with events via Third Sector Daily. There is this huge worry that Big Society is the right idea at the wrong time in the wrong hands. I couldn't disagree more. Now is the right time. There is no money. We had years of plenty but that encouraged the state just pumped itself up like a body-builder. Today that isn't any longer an option. Big Society is the only game in town. The idea is also in the right hands. You could never trust Labour with this stuff. Their addiction to the state meant they were never going to allow our sector any serious role beyond our traditional one of Vitamin-Supplement to a corpulent state.

The response of our sector to Big Society has been interesting. True to form, we are slightly on the defensive. We have `Cutswatch' websites and our commentators are very much in `Yes, but...' mode. The view you hear most is that now, of all times, is not the time to kick our sector in the nuts, just when society and the Government needs it most. To this end, we complain, politely, about cuts to Capacity Builders, V, the Compact Commission.

Voices will become shriller in the Autumn when the action really starts. At the moment, a long list of well known organisations will lose their core grants from the government. Thousands more will lose grants and contracts from local authorities.
How we respond to this is, however, our biggest test yet. Will we go into 1980s' Oppositionalist mode, just putting the word `Coalition' where `Thatcher' used to be daubed. Or do we actually accept that if the public sector is about to be vanquished we might just have to take a kicking ourselves - and just get on with it?

My bet is that the sector will go `Ashes to Ashes' on this - and turn to the mind-set of 1980s not the 2010s. Half the people I talk to in the sector still talk about the recession as a creation of the banking sector in which `they' got off scott-free while `we' suffer. This is hokum. We were headed for this with or without the traders of the Square Mile - and if you don't believe me talk to the Institute of Fiscal Studies who have been quietly making the point about the need to control public spending since the middle years of the last decade.

However, we do have a choice still. We can accept that there are far too many `strategic' organisations getting public money and that fewer may well be better. We can recognise that the long-boom produced tens of thousands of charities which now are unsustainable and therefore must either merge or find new ways to deliver. And, perhaps most importantly, we can drop the mentality that renders ourselves helpless in face of outside forces. Whatever happens to us, however unfair, we have a choice about how to respond. We can get angry. We can roll over and die. Or we can decide to survive and thrive. This is an existential choice familiar to millions of us in our individual lives, at some point. I know which is the right route for me, when night fell on my own life. This experience helped me to create an organisation which itself was pretty resilient. Because whatever shit happens, the one thing we control is our response to it. These are, of course, not my own words - for more see Tony Robbins - but he is right. The choices facing our sector are exactly the same.