Thursday, September 29, 2011

Can we Talk About Something Interesting Please?

Last week I attended a meeting of Suffolk County Council of which there are five or six proper meetings a year. This was the week of a feared global banking meltdown, some pretty grim national figures on the economy and locally, a time of extreme stress as people struggle with the future.

We spent the first forty-odd minutes of this meeting discussing a change in the council's constitution pertaining to the right to speak of various councillors in relation to the public questions which take place at the start of the meeting. This discussion was tedious, to say the least, and I am proud to say that I spent nearly all of it writing on my Blackberry to a constituent whose life is being made hell by changes to council policy around social care!

This is a theme I know I have touched on before. Most people on the Council are comfortable-retired - members of the Jackpot Generation without mortgages and debt and in receipt of secure pensions. They don't have to work, they have defined income and few outgoings. Their kids, by and large, are older and they don't have many worries. And some, of course, are fairly narrow in their field of concern. There could be a nuclear war going on out there - but as long as the bombs didn't land on Suffolk, they would be happier discussing the condition of the roads in Saxmundham or street-lighting in Wickhambrooke.

Now I know what Councils are for. We're not about high-politics. We don't control the economy or affect the state of the world. We are here to worry about the roads and street lighting. But aren't we somehow supposed to bring some kind of awareness of the world we are living in into the room with us? Shouldn't we at least be focussing on how we can help kick-start the Suffolk economy as it goes through a period of strain? Or deal with the massive public service cuts we need to make?

Although the Andrea Hill era is now over, one thing it never was is boring. Each meeting felt like we were discussing the issues of our time. The need for public sector reform. The realities we need to face. That's one reason why Suffolk, for a short time, became interesting news to people on the outside. We were, at least, gripping the issues, as a Council. It made turning up as a Member interesting. There was plenty to say and to take away. The new leadership, while quietly dealing with our 'issues' as a Council has, very adeptly, kept discussion fairly low key.

So what have I done about this? Have I introduced a motion for discussion? No, not yet, but I intend to. Just to have a proper debate about what it is we're now doing as a Council to tackle the mountain in front of us. Andrea is gone - but how we're going to address the problems she correctly identified is as clear to me as mud. There is no strategy that I can see beyond keeping us out of the headlines for a while.

I actually really rate the new Leader of the Council and the new interim CEO. I think this could be an exciting time for Suffolk, I really do. But I think a desire to 'Keep Calm and Carry On' has superceded our genuine purpose as a Council - to be the voice and beating heart of Suffolk. With our membership, that is never going to be guaranteed, but that is what any good elected group actually should be, whatever the weather.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Is the Coalition Serious about Mutuals and Social Enterprises?

It feels to me that we’re at an important point in the discussion about UK public services.

While there are always debates about the role of government as a provider, there is an emerging question that cuts through all of this – How do we create successful public services when the country’s economy is in a ten-year plus dip?

And if we are to open up public service markets, which I think we must, are these to be more like free markets - or managed ones in which a new ‘social economy’ – to include mutuals and spun-out public services - are given scope to emerge?

The answers will shape just how the social enterprise and mutuals sector shapes up – whether we see a steep or gently rising curve in the number of people leading spinouts.

How does it look to me? Mixed. While the Coalition Government are happy to support the ‘supply side’ around this agenda– by priming the early emergence of these ventures – it is not apparent yet as to whether the commitment is there is to a ‘social economy’ in public services as distinct from a pure free market.

Evidence to date suggest that while the Government likes mutuals and social enterprises, its larger concern is to open up markets - even if this means that new social enterprises struggle to gain foothold against larger, far better funded players, as Central Surrey Healthcare (Francis Maude's favourite mutual!) showed when pitted against Virgin-backed Assura.

To what extent the Coalition – or any successor Government – would be willing to manipulate public service markets - or even tilt the table - to favour social enterprise is still a question to be answered.

While nobody thought Maude should have been on the phone to Surrey telling Commissioners what to do, it surely was clear to him that something isn't working quite right in his intended world of Open Public Service. However, in his bones, Maude doesn't feel comfortable meddling with free markets. He is, after all, a Conservative first, a supporter of mutuals, second.

The hard truth is that for this sector to become established it need commitment on the part of government not only to the supply-side - initiatives such as the Mutual Support Fund are extremely welcome - but also the 'demand'. side.

What does this mean in practice? It means a more actively managed marketplace for public services. It means smaller providers being guaranteed a role as happens in the US. It means the Government saying, clearly, as a policy objective 'We want, as part of our commitment to open public service, a vibrant social enteprise provider sector - and we're willing to take the steps necessary to ensure the market delivers this'.

It is these last 13 words that are missing from the Coalition's current approach.

Let me be clear: I do not believe anyone should get a free lunch. I believe in a diverse public sector which includes the private sector. Most of the people leading spin-outs tend to share this view.

What they want isn't more money or subsidy from Government. Far from it. What they most want is a signal from Government that they take this sector, as a whole, seriously. Whether the commitment is to a much larger social economy sector in public services. Or whether we're going to be left to a system which, at the moment, means that many of our best organisations will struggle to win anything but the smallest of contracts.

That is the real question for those leading this agenda in Government.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The End of the Beginning

The Guardian has been getting all lefty today over the failire of Central Surrey Health to win a massive contract in its own backyard. This probably have doubled the size of the organization and would have been a feather in the cap of David Cameron’s Big Society.

But it didn’t happen. The private sector won it. They had a big ‘reserve’ - £11m to CSH’s £3m and all the backing of a big global brand. You could say CSH never stood a chance.

However, I say let’s reserve judgment for a while anyway. We don’t know about the bids. Nor was this CSH’s main contract. I admit, had this been their core contract the headlines would, quite rightly, be about the death of the mutuals agenda before it got out of the starting-block.

Let's remember, however, that it was a big new contract which would, I imagine, have been a big stretch for CSH - though probably an achievable one for a well-led organisation. CSH will surely bounce back from this setback. But setback it is. Just as it would have been for the private firm if it hadn't won.

Two things need to be remembered here. The first is that social enterprise doesn’t always win. There is only one system with a guaranted winner – and that is the monopoly that the NHS once was. To be successful as a business, the possibility has to exist that you might one day lose. It keeps all businesses – including social ones – honest and focused.

The second is that we need to be open to the idea that social enterprises may themselves need to partner with organizations which can access high levels of capital. There is a tendency in some quarters to view social enterprises as simply NHS Mk 2, a 21st century version of Bevanism, with the an accompanying sense of entitlement.

This is to miss the larger point that social enterprises need to be the very best and have the commercial prowess that allows their strength in culture, relationships and community to shine. There’s no point on being good on all of these things but hopeless on costs, growth and profit. Social enterprise means being first-rate at both.

Today's set back is not, as some might say, the beginning of the end for spin-outs - but the end of the beginning.

Being a social enterprise means being like any business - but just one better.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Time to Find a Chair

Soon, a road-trip that started in June 1994 will, for me, finally come to a halt. Sometime in the next few months, I plan to stand down as Chairman of VoiceAbility. Just to remind, I was the founding CEO of Speaking Up, one of the two organisations that came together to form VoiceAbilty in April 2010. Seventeen years of involvement will come to a close.

Of all that time, I probably enjoyed the earlier and late parts the most. I am a natural 'early days' person and my temperament and skill-set is highly suited to start-up phase of organisations. But I also enjoyed my period as Chair enormously, striking a powerful parrtnership with our CEO, Jonathan Senker, who came from the other organisation we merged with, Advocacy Partners.

It was my hunch, correct as it turned out, that Jonathan, not I, was the right CEO for the new organisation. I had actually hit a natural limit to what I could bring to the job while I could see that Jonathan had miles of road in front of him. I could see that he would lead us to a better place.

Which already, in less than two years, he has. While like all organisations we have had to take some direct-hits, he's steered the ship extremely well, addressed our deeper challenges and built a great executive team around himself. Although quite tough decisions have been required, I have been delighted with our progress, particularly when I look around at what is happening to other organisations.

As Chair, my job has been to supply the CEO with the correctly calibrated blend of support and challenge that characterises this relationship, at its best. Not always easy to get right as a former CEO, but I think we have both been pleasantly surprised by how well we have ticked each others' boxes. Of course, I was always going to be a 'transitional chair', helping to seal the merger and our Governance thereafter, then riding off into the sunset, as the new organisation consolidated.

We are now very near that time so the search for a new Chair is on. This is something we are taking very seriously. We all know how important the Chair-CEO relationship is to the overall fate of an organisation. The person who leads our Board will have to be somebody not only of high quality with strong commitment and connections but have a reasonable amount of time to develop the board itself.

Also, we are particularly interested in people with a lived experience of disability or being a carer, though this is by no means essential. And because we have charitable status, we need a person who can afford to do this for no salary.

Interested? This is, take it from me, a great organisation and opportunity. VoiceAbility is a growing organisation with a great staff team and a strong group of trustees. I am leaving because it is right to do so, not because I feel a pressing need to so do. I feel my own legacy, as one of the founders, is now safe and that I can move on now. Seventeen years is enough time. While i still bring something, I personally don't think it is quite enough. So the search is on now for a replacement.

If you think you might be interested, contact for a pack. Or if you want a chat with me, I am on @deardenphillips - or leave a message in the comments box.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How Soon Is Now?

Anyone of a certain age knows the song of this title. Just as most of the men will have, at some stage, had a monstrous crush on Kate Bush (or still have one in some cases). There comes a time in your life when you recall 25 years ago a lot more powerfully than five years ago. For it is these times, between our sixteenth and our twenty-sixth birthday that fix us in aspic.

And I am not just talking music here. There's people too. Many of my key friendships are now about 20-30 years old. I make new ones, sure, but it gets harder as you get older. Knowing someone for 20 years ties you to them harder than a shared hobby, work or a liking for Jonathan Franzen.

For me, time counts. Every year longer builds the heritage, even if the friendship becomes more challenging, as indeed one of two have done recently, as certain male friend have crash-burned rather than smooth-landed into middle-life.

You know when you're in safe company. I met two old uni friends recently, just for a couple of hours, after work for snatched pizza in London and I felt 'home' in a way I realised I hadn't done for quite some time. I confess too that I felt myself taking the genuine interest in their lives that I often struggle to muster on a daily basis. Quite what that says about my 'quality' I am not sure, but I am being frank.

It's books too. My reading recently has taken me deep into the 80s, the time I feel I come from: David Peace's 'GB84', Martin Amis' 'Money', Umberto Eco's 'Name of the the Rose'. I fight the urge to re-read. What's new to find out, I ask?

My political antennae reflect the tuning of the period. I am still politically moderate, my young identity wrought against both Militant, on one side, and Monetarism on the other. And still feel angry by the divisive legacy of Thatcherism while also feeling, on some level, liberated by the energy-kick which her new settlement gave to the country . Twenty five years on I am still anchored in a mental seabed of left and right, good and bad, north and south - even though my boat has somehow accommodated elements of all.

Being able to remember 25 years worth of adult life can either be depressing or liberating. At times, I feel there is nothing really new, that most of what I am ever likely to feel, think or say has already been said. That my life will spool predictably forward, each year like a new Van Morrison album - slightly different to the last one but, basically, the same songs. All that feels new on these days is the high-fear that comes with responsibility and others' expectations.

On other, better days, the super-stable nature of life in one's 40s feels comfortable and assuring. I have a life, a family, a structure, a place in the world. Yes, it's held together by the gossamer-strings of health and fortune, but, save for freak events, my life is probably as steady as life has been for anyone in any place at any time.

The challenge, at such times, is summoning the sense of possibility. Trying to believe that the next Van Morrison album will be different. That something you read might actually make you think afresh about life. That the next person you meet might change your life in some really quite unexpected way.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Quiet Army of the Professional-Unemployed

It's not a problem that tends to be discussed in polite circles. But I am going to do it anyway. It's the new Quiet Army of people who used to have good jobs in the public and voluntary sectors who are not working.

These are not people who declare themselves out of work and go down the Job Centre. Nor are they the 'usual suspects' - the drongos who organisations tend to jettison early in a recession.

No, these are people of quality who used to be running things and who have great track-records. The recession is now eating into new territory - and nobody is safe.

How do I know? As a firm with a consulting offer, Stepping Out have experienced a massive spike in people who, for one reason or another, are available for freelance work. I'm talking about emails every couple of days.

Although people we hear fro are really impressive, we just don't have the volume of work to increase our pool just now. But what hits me is just how good many of these people are - they are not people who you'd expect to be prospecting for roles.

This is, of course, only the beginning. We are seeing a structural downsizing of both the state and voluntary sector. The gently rising curve of 2001-10 will, over the next two years, steeply plummet, leaving tens of thousands of people out of jobs. My advice to people in this position is threefold.

One is to consider switching sectors. Although the private sector isn't exactly booming, these firms are still hiring and spending.

Another is to think about downsizing or interim work. There isn't a massive market for senior third sector managers who earn 50k. There are thousands more jobs one layer down where there is a dearth of good people. Being in work is always better than being out of work - and allows a climb-back at some stage.

Finally, I advise people who are really capable to think about setting up in business themselves. It's extremely hard, especially at the moment, but if you can get through the first year, you're probably going to be OK. The rate at which organisations are shedding core people is creating some clear deficits in capabilites which have to be bought-in short-term. If you can define your focus, deal with the knock-backs and early solitude and create happy clients, it's likely that you'll emerge with a business on the other side.

I am considering a blog on how to set up a viable consulting business - but that would perhaps be shooting myself in the foot (which of course I am very good at doing). Another day!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How charities use and abuse consultants

It's coming up to a year since I set up my consultancy, Stepping Out, and I'm glad to say we've worked with about 25 clients - many in the third sector.

So what have we learned about how the sector uses external advisers?

Broadly, clients come in one of three types: Adventurers, Micro-Managers and Ditherers.

The Adventurers have a clear idea of what they want from you, yet are open to advice. They have a sensible, faff-free process for hiring you that respects everyone's time. They know you bring something new and welcome you into their world.

Crucially, the Adventurers roll their sleeves up too, learning from you as they go, rather than seeing you just as a hired hand. And should the project change, you can have a sensible conversation without them getting in a tizz. Trust rules.

At the other end of the scale are the Micro-Managers. Ostensibly, they want help, but their fixed ideas make them impregnable to advice. When searching for a consultant, they set up such a drawn-out process that many of the better ones walk away.

If they go on to choose you from the 50 consultants they have met, you're then handed a shopping list of stuff to report back on every week. If you can't comply, the relationship starts creaking. Raise this with them and they get very shirty. You seldom make any real money because they're always on the phone to you about something. In truth, the Micro-Managers get little value from external support: they may as well do it themselves and save the money.

But the trickiest group by far is the Ditherers. They seek outside help because they are lost in their jobs, fearful of the future and haven't done any new thinking for a decade. Which is fine, but their organisations are often in such a bad state that, as an adviser, it's impossible to know where to start. But you do start - and then halfway through (and this always happens) they shift the goalposts and you're back to square one.

Ditherers also tend to be easily distracted by day-to-day fire-fighting - and these days, especially, a general sense of despair as the abyss beckons. As a consultant, you end up in a bubble, struggling to gain any traction in the organisation. The assignment ends in a friendly enough way but with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction on both sides. The Ditherers then pick up the phone to another consultant and the whole dance starts again.

OK, these are caricatures and I am happy to report that nearly all of our clients are firm Adventurers. But we come across Micro-Managers and Ditherers in the third sector all the time - more than in the public sector, I have to say. Fortunately, one becomes more skilled at spotting them. Only Adventurers really benefit from external consultancy.

Before they splash out, then, I would invite readers of Third Sector to reflect on whether they are, in truth, an Adventurer, Micro-Manager or a Ditherer. You might save yourself a lot of money - and your advisers a lot of heartache.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Big Judgement Day

On Tuesday I am going to be a judge at the Big Venture Challenge run by Unltd and the Big Lottery Fund where 41 entrepreneurs compete to be one of 25 selected for a chunky investment package.

As far as these types of competition go, I am impressed so far both by the calibre of the 41 and the way the whole thing is being run. It is professional, brings the right kind of people in as judges and avoids Dragons Den cliches, going instead for a constructive interview process.

The pack arrived last week and I was pretty dazzled by the diversity of stuff we're looking at. Alongside well-known social enterprises in the employment sector there are start-ups and early stage businesses doing everything from clothing for disabled people through to franchising opps for the unemployed.

Well done to Unltd and the Lottery for putting all of this together. It all reads like a compendium of the best emerging stuff in social enterprise right now in the UK, all overseen by judges who know one end of a good business from the other. The fact that the BLF is getting into social investment also deserves polite applause (they will get an ovation when they do it as a matter of course).

Any criticisms? Not really. Well, not massive ones. A few applicants look like they're just plugging financial holes, others looking for that one ;last big slug' of finance that we all probably know won't get them over the line to sustainability.

Others look at bit too fancy for my liking - lots of important sounding people on the board but not a single sale yet to point towards. I do have a bit of a thing about stuff that is web-based. Perhaps it's being from outside London, but some of the ones I see look like they might just work in Shoreditch but probably not in Shaw (that's a small town near Oldham, btw).

How will I approach the judging? Well, one thing to be sure I will be courteous. Anyone hauling their ass in front of a panel deserves to be given a proper hearing. No grandstanding or wannabe Peter Jones'.

Having done it myself before, I know it's bastard-difficult to get things across without some pillock trying to look good by tripping you up.

The only time I went in front of a bunch of smart-alec wan**rs left me with a longstanding distaste for their organisation (you can guess, I didn't get the backing!).

The other thing when looking at these things is to be aware that you can only ever know so much as a panel member. Even when the papers are great, the people and pitches clear, you're left with what is essentially a choice between two punts. I have often been as confounded by the success of certain things as I have by the failures of others I thought were complete bankers.

In truth, however smart, experienced or informed, nobody knows what's going to be a hit. Social investment will always be as much an art as a science.