Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fighting Deep Municipalism: Guest Blog from a Leader of a new social business that has stepped-out from a Council in England

At an early stage in my thinking I resolved that leadership from the front was important.

It would have been easy as a director to allocate the task to a more junior member of the team and indeed my observation is that spin outs trying to do social care at some scale will struggle without senior players being prepared to put themselves on the line.

Having taken this step it was remarkable to see how many staff were reassured by the fact I was not asking them to do something I was not prepared to do myself. This is powerful stuff and I'll have a lasting memory of the buzz created by the possibility of making something new and providing a safe route out of the organisation for staff who had been subject to death by a thousand cuts over the years.

The buzz was also about the creativity that was unleasehed. People were coming up with ideas about how services could improve in ways they had not done before because they could see they would have a stake in the new company with representation on the board and a share in the benefits going forward. The idea of a bonus scheme was popular and there was a good sense of realism about the need to change, develop or close buildings and services that were well passed the sell by date.

People were up for a change in their roles and recognised the need for terms and conditions around sickness in particular to change. I was struck by how many people were fed up with the few who took advantage of the current system.

The process brought home to me how distant from the front line my role had taken me. I worked with people two or three layers below the senior team and it was a revelation, which rekindled some of that old fire that had over the years been refined into a politically acceptable glow.

The process also brought out some visceral opposition from those ideologically opposed to enterprise that could be viewed as private sector doing the public sector's work regardless of it being not for profit. I was disappointed but not too surprised at the deep deep municipalism that pervades a local public sector. The grip too of unoins that were in our case not representative of 2/3ds of the workforce. Unless its ours and we are in control its not going to happen.

From day one the conversations about control in the governance of the spin out were challenging. These were more hints than demands but eventually we resolved as a company and with some senior colleagues in the council that being completely separate was really the best way in our situation.

I was publically accused of trying to feather my own nest on more than one occasion and it did cut to the bone. Here was me, a dutiful public servant of 25 years standing trying to come up with yet another innovation to get us out of a mess and offering to take a career change risk to find that I was personally villified - more than ever before. It made me think I must be on the right track!

I've been humbled by the support of my family, the hands of friendship from colleagues in the social enteprise and private sector, the risks taken by people coming with me, the values and support of some noble politicians, the support of financial backers and the willingness of other authorities to take on the enteprise's ideas, without which we would not have survived the first few months.

It's as if you cannot be a prophet in your own land. Stepping out is divisive. Those that get it and want it can be seen as a risk or a threat to the remaining system rather than the pathfinders seeking solutions that will also reduce the burden on what remains.

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