Monday, January 23, 2012

How do we attack the benefit culture without attacking poor children?

I heard my old mucker Enver Solomon, now a spokesman for the Children's Society, on Five Live this morning, a voice of calm authority amid the oddballs and eccentrics who form most of Nicky Campbell's callers these days.

It was all about this proposed cap of £26k on benefits for families, regardless of where they live. This leaves many people uneffected but has a big hit on families in London where rents and living costs are high.

The debate seems to be settling into a left-right seesaw, with one side feeling it will just increase inequality and punish children and the other saying it is the only way to financially motivate certain parents to get a job.

Both sides have a point. To increase child poverty and inequality more than is going to happen anyway in the short term seems plain wrong. And since when did people who can't get it together to work respond to such incentives, even if the jobs were there for them? Equally, we have let a benefits lifestyle develop which is unhealthy for all involved and which, over time, needs to be dismantled. All advanced countries are having this debates, especially the Nordic countries where benefits are extremely generous.

Let's be realistic here though. There is no perfect solution. Any civilised society will always have a certain number of 'free-riders' - people who take out without putting back. There will always be a level of disgruntlement with such people, rightly so.

By the same measure, we have a larger responsibility to make sure our society justifies its name and that we are guided by a long-term view of what it means to share a country in terms of rights and responsibilities. I don't think the abuses of the few mean we should take a US approach to welfare and nothing should be done overnight which affects the life-chances of our most vulnerable children. I can't help but believe we need to adjust for rent in London and the South-East and raise the cap there, as a minimum measure.

But we must also retilt the scales over time so that those 'putting in' feel more comfortable about this, buy into the system and can believe that the free riders are, over time, getting a progressively worse deal than those who are net contributors. This can be done by cutting tax for the very low paid. We can get some of the money back, I believe, by re-introducting rent controls, which are successfully in much of continental Europe.

Long term of course we need new housing and vacant stock to be replenished but it is vital short-term that current measures both shore up confidence in the system without massively harming the life-chances of poor children.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I said 'Yeh yeh"'

Do you remember a group called Matt Bianco back in the 80s? They had this song called, I recall 'Yeh Yeh'. I had kind of forgotten about it until this last year or so when quite a few of the people with whom I deal with (particularly those based in a certain south-east metropole) suddenly started jabbing 'Yeh, yeh' back at me before I had finished a sentence.

Am I alone here? Can it be I am the only person who feels on the other end of a conversational equivalent of a machine-gun. It feels, when you hear it like 'Yes, I've grasped your point, you can be quiet now, please don't go on any more, I can't really bear this'. To me, it feels impatient, rude even. I am sure this isn't the purpose of whoever is 'Yeh Yeh-ing' me five seconds into every sentence. Indeed empathy may be meant. Perhaps it is actually saying - 'I understand you, care for what you have to say Craig and yeh (yeh) I hear you.

Or am I perhaps being paranoid? 'YY' as I will now call it reached new heights last week. It appears to have spread to the provinces. In the course of an afternoon,I was YY'd in conversations with a Councillor, a conference organiser and fellow consultant. I know I gab on a bit but YY cuts me stone dead. Perhaps this is not the intended effect?

Hopefully YY will be one of these linguistic trends that is gone as quickly as it arrived. I hope so. Because I have even found myself using it too. And, yes, in just the situations when I am hoping, secretly, I wasn't. Yeh yeh.

A Life of Two Halves

Before you click off yet another middle-aged rant, this isn't about me. It's actually about a chap you may or may not have heard of by the name of Paul Lake.

Lake is my age - 42. Twenty years ago, he was the captain of one of England's top Premier League team and about to join the full England team, as one of the most gifted players of his generation. But before he became a household name - a Linker or a Shearer - disaster struck. He ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament.

Even back then, this wasn't necessarily the end for a footballer. Technology was there to put these injuries right. But Lake received the wrong treatment and by the time he got the top surgeon, after three failed reconstructions, it was game-over. He finally retired at the age of 27. Indeed had he not stopped then he would probably have been disabled, so damaged was his joint.

I've just been reading Lake's autobiography which is called 'I'm Not Really Here - A Life of Two Halves'. Unlike a lot of soccer players, he wrote it himself, with some help from his wife. It is one of the best things I have read in a while not only because I love the game but because Lake is unsparing in his account of how long-term injury affected him. A couple of years after sustaining the injury, after many operations and curtailed comebacks, Lake succumbed, privately, to a long bout of full-blown clinical depression for which he, thankfully, in the end, received professional help.

Lake's way out of the darkness starts shortly after his career is finally declared to be over. Following a blood-curdling final operation to save the basic structure of his leg, Lake , he talks to his physios, two young women, and both suggest to him that he consider a career in phsiotherapy. Lake is naturally very bright and understands about injury. He decides to give it a go and the rest of the book focuses on his newly rebuilt life as a physio. After several years working with a range of clubs he now has his own practice in Manchester. On top of this he is an Ambassador for Man City because, as a fan and a player, the club has been the focus his life since, at the age of 7, he started going to see them with the local milkman!

The book, overall, is a story of recovery. About what happens when your life doesn't work out like you think it will. It is important to remember that Lake was soft-wired to play football, like an actor has it in their DNA to perform. He had a brief taste of what he could have been - and he was one of the best of his generation, ask anyone who knows football. And then he lost it all, possibly avoidably. His book shows us how we can adjust to a new reality and make our lives work, even when we've been driven to despair.

This sounds like a heavy book. It isn't. For someone of a similar age,like me, also from the the north-west, it is also an amusing journey through shared time. For any reader, it is a really funny - Lake has an eye for anecdote - and there's much here to warm the heart. For all of the difficult feelings Lake was, one way or another, subject to, during his period of injury and illness, the kindness of many people towards him is quite touching. Five years after getting injured, an eternity in football, 25,000 people attended his testimonial - City vs United.

In all, 'I'm Not Really Here' is a book about not about just football but all of life - so take a look if you can. It won't disappoint.

How to Win Work in 2012

There was a time when I was writing two or three blogs a week. But this last month has been very dry. I put it down partly to being ill (my usual Xmas Man-Flu) and a certain listlessness I often feel at this time of year. Plus I have been very busy with Stepping Out - which has had a very strong start to 2012.

This doesn't mean, however, that things aren't hard. Everything at the moment has to fought hard for. Anyone selling into the public or voluntary sector faces a tightening market and burgeoning competition. Get this. One tender we won recently, firm in the belief that we were in pole position, saw 18 bids in a week-long tender window just after the new years. We won anyway, firmly on merit, but you can see, there are lots of appropriately qualified consultants waiting for the phone to ring. A lot of these are people fresh on the market from the midldle to senior tiers of public sector which are now shedding like a tree in Autumn.

Three other things tell me it's tight. Firstly, every week I am contacted by consultants and firms reminding me they are available. This rarely used to happen. Secondly, people are always asking me 'How business is going?'. Some of this is just banter, but I sense that a lot of people are trying to get the measure of how firms like mine are actually surviving at the moment. Thirdly, day-rates are tumbling and fixed fees are becoming increasingly common. I am paying myself - and anyone who delivers for us - less per day than a year ago. Such is supply and demand.

So how does a services-based business survive and grow in this climate. Again I would point to three things.

1. Differentiation / Specialisation. Know what you're good at - and focus on that alone. I think Stepping Out is working because we're not all things to all people. We know who we're seeking to work with and what we offer. A lot of people think they can just be John Smith General Consultant (Ltd). Sorry, but you can't anymore - unless you're famous, which you're probably not.

2. Show leadership in your space. Make speeches. Write articles, Write books if you can. This will help separate you from the mass of people all trying to work the space - and show your individual commitment to it. Having something to your name helps clients see you are one-on from the pack and 'safe' to work with in the area.

3. Pick up the phone. There's no point sending letters or emails to people any more telling them you're there. It just becomes part of the wall of electronic noise that fills most of our lives. One very successful entrepreneur, also in the business of selling stuff in the social enterprise sector, generally calls you if he wants your help or your business. It sounds like a step backwards - it's what I saw my Dad doing in his bedroom office on 1970s finger-dial on his rare days working from home - but it does work.

A fourth, though this is obvious, is to work your arse off. Showing persistence and commitment gives off a sign that you'll do this for your clients too. They are buying you, your attitude, your loyalty and your willingness to run through walls - as well, of course, as your wonderful brain! So swanning around like the consulting equivalent of a Premier League superstar will not help your cause. Be humble - as well, of course, as brilliant.

Time for the Old Guard To Go - My piece from Third Sector this week

If you think 2011 was a bad year, brace yourself for worse. 2012 will probably go down as the first year the UK felt the full force of long-term austerity. No longer can charities expect this downturn to be like a dose of the flu - nasty for a bit, but fine again soon. No, this is more like a bout of pneumonia - long, agonising and potentially fatal. In the next decade, the UK will become a poorer, less equal and potentially less harmonious place. And we just don't know how our society or our political system will cope with it.

Away from the public eye, all the political parties are struggling to answer the scary question of how we maintain social welfare and community cohesion in a low-to-no growth world. We in the third sector therefore need to think about this too. We have this rather smug tendency to think we have the answers, many of which involve large dollops of 'investment'. But we are often fighting the last war. Indeed, most charities' staff, services and programmes still reflect the relatively benign conditions of the past decade - not the long, hard road ahead. Our present task is therefore, somehow, to reboot in the face of a very different set of conditions.

So what are our options? The first thing is that we must be utterly realistic. Things are not going to right themselves in only a few years. We won't just muddle through, as Debra Allcock Tyler implied in this column recently. We have to think very clearly about where we focus our resources, given that social problems are likely to snowball. This means putting resources into the people and places where need is most profound.

In practice, it means we get used to downsizing, merging and providing a lot more online. Smaller organisations are the new reality. We also need far fewer chief executives and senior people - and more responsibility at the front line, where we need fewer, better people who can operate independently. In short, we need a shake-out.

We're already seeing a lot of sensible activity. The best sector leaders are refocusing their organisations, letting a lot of people go and collaborating on a much deeper level than was possible in the past. Consolidation, refocusing or merger seems to be a live conversation in many charities these days. For those that can't bear to merge, there are alternatives. Like councils, charities can share a chief executive, a management team or a back office. That way they keep the brand, lose the bother of creating a single new identity and save hundreds of thousands of pounds into the bargain.

All of this will be very painful. So who is going to make it happen? Probably not those who came of age in a more benign era. We need a changing of the guard - new mindsets and real energy for what needs to be done next. This is not the stuff of swansongs. Instead it's high time for a lot of people to take a look in the mirror and consider their positions.