Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is the Government 'playing at it' with public service mutuals?

This week the Labour MP for Rochdale, Simon Danczuk, launched a full-frontal on Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude, telling him that the Government is ‘just playing at it’ when it comes to Mutuals in public services.
Maude’s reply, interestingly, was not a counter-blast but rather a concession that we are still in the ‘foothills’ of this initiative.
Is Maude, in effect, agreeing with Danczuk – or rather simply conceding that this agenda is inherently a longer-burn than first anticipated.
Speaking as someone working quite closely with the Cabinet Office on this, I think it is a bit strong to say the Government is playing at this agenda.  Over the last year a strong civil service team has been pulled together under credible leadership.  This has been supported by an excellent Taskforce and soon, I hear, a team of well-placed ‘Mutuals Ambassadors’.  Funding too is now coming on stream and something that looks like a Programme around this agenda is now in place.  This is a far cry from a year ago when, arguably, the Government had a less coherent approach.  If they were ‘playing at it’ then, it certainly doesn’t feel that way now.
But there is a larger question behind Simon Danczuk’s remarks that does merit some attention.  Where he is perhaps more on the money is around the politics of public service reform.  When it got in, the Government appeared wedded to an idea of public service reform that saw alternative forms of delivery as front-and-central.  Mutuals appeared, alongside localism and Big Society, as a vital part of the grand-narrative of public service reform.
Two years in, the Government’s overall approach on public service reform has not turned out to be quite so coherent.  Having rowed back on certain earlier ideas and, in particular on the Big Society concept, the overall story being told on public services is one which, while lionising the voluntary and social enterprises sectors, also appears, to many, to be pushing far harder than previously to a bigger role for large private firms.   While it is by no means impossible to push for more diversity of provision in all it’s forms, the tone, tenor and now track record of the Government appears to be one that de-emphasises Mutuals and other ‘alternative’ vehicles and puts more weight on the role of big business.
The net effect of this, when you are stood in front of a bunch of staff in Norwich or Salford trying to sell the idea of a public service mutual is that people wonder, understandably, whether there is any real political backing for this from Whitehall or whether this is just ‘window dressing’ or ‘privatisation by the back door’ -  a few years of a mutual followed by the capture of its contract by powerful firms that are better at bids and can afford to offer early savings to cash-strapped public bodies.
A firmer line on Mutuals: ‘This is an approach we stand behind as government’, would give assurance to people who might be putting their jobs and services on the line and show that the Right Honourable Mr Danczuk that this Government is certainly not ‘playing at it’ when it comes to public sector mutuals.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Where is the mutuals agenda NOW?

So where is the mutuals agenda today?   Last week I heard a trio of speakers, each offering a perspective, among them historian Charlie Cattell, Ian Hasdell of the Employee Ownership Association and Lance Gardner of Care Plus.

The over-riding sentiment was that while the world was waking up to the potential of public sector mutuals, this was still a minority sport, practiced by early adopters.  While the benefits were manifest and proven, the feeling among practitioners is that of Humphrey Bogarde that we are at least 'three drinks ahead' of the rest of the public sector.

The barriers are not so much technical and legal but cultural.   There is a problem of 'Blockers' in the public sector - middle-ranking gatekeepers who sit in front of bottom up initiatives.  There is also the mindset of many senior teams in local government who, faced by a financial meltdown, do not think beyond slash and burn or simple outsourcing.  Finally, there is a confidence problem, trying to get organisations steeped in conservatism to try an approach that isn't yet the norm, even though the evidence is getting stronger every month.

The invitation to our local government audience was threefold.  The first was to divest themselves of ideology when looking at public service models.  Mutuals need to be judged on their merits, not through a political lens of state versus private.   The second was to 'Beat the Blockers' - show zero-tolerance to those who suffocate initiative and appeal to staff over the heads of such people, as has worked so effectively in particular councils like Suffolk.  The third was to move mutuals to the centre of strategy, not keep it for one or two person schemes at the edges of discretionary services.   The change augered by public sector mutuals merits being put front-and-centre of local government strategy.

Will mutuals enjoy continued support from the centre or go the same way as the Green agenda, hug-a-hoodie and Big Society?   With Maude staying, we appear to be still on the map.  This may change as time goes on but we still have funding at support from the top levels in the form of a strengthened Mutuals Support Unit.   Where mutuals will fit into the Government's public services narrative here on in is anybody's guess, but one thing is for sure that this agenda will, due the the structural challenges in public services ahead, not simply go away.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Why Anna Soubry is Right about assisted suicide

Today, Tory health Minister Anna Soubry is all over the papers for coming out in favour of assisted suicide.

At last, I found myself shouting as I unfolded the Times from my mailbox.   Soubry, though a Tory, is refreshingly candid and extremely realistic about this matter.

Indeed I am totally confident that by the time I am in my 80s (should I get there) it will be totally normal to end one's own life early in the event of terminal illness.

Personally, I know I will do this, without any doubt at all.   Three reasons. Firstly, I am very bad indeed at being ill.  I get very depressed, very difficult to deal with and have a very low pain threshold.  Secondly, I don't want to cost my family and the state ridiculous amounts of money keeping me alive for an extra year or two during my inevitable decline.  Thirdly, I want to 'check out' in my own way and my own time.

Of course I do see why people hang on to the bitter end.  They want just one more day, week, month with loved-ones - or they hold on to some hope that the end may not be nigh.  Others think of dying in a similar way to child-birth, a natural experience which is, in some way, essential if one is to be in touch with one's humanity.

My own experience is different.  My own grandmother died 8 years after a terrible stroke that left her like a baby, unable to communicate or help herself.    She would have wanted to go had she any notion at all of her condition, which she hadn't.   It broke my heart to see her having to live a life she wouldn't have wished on her worst enemy.

Some people - religious people invariably - will argue that following her stroke, my grandmother became, in a sense, a different person and that we perhaps shouldn't judge her final years by the critera that she would have done as a fit woman.   Again, sorry I don't buy that.  Just because she couldn't make a decision post-stroke wouldn't make it wrong to see her will made while compus-mentis realised by assisted suicide.

I say this with a lot of pain, but I would have administered that ending for her, had this been legal and she had signed to say that was her will.   I would have felt no guilt, just relief that I had been able to do one last thing that she would have wanted.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Has the Big Issue had its day?

Before I say a single word more I want to put on record my praise for all of those involved in founding and growing the Big Issue:  John Bird, Gordon Roddick, Nigel Kershaw - legends all.  Without these people, the cause of social enterprise would be five, maybe ten years behind where it is today.

But, cutting to my chase, who actually buys the Big Issue any more?  I know that I have moved from avid buyer to occasional one over the years.   When I read it, the magazine's editorial content is often well below what you would expect.   The sellers somehow give off a feel that the day's up and I just don't think the public now buy into the idea that the Big Issue is getting people off the streets.

I know very little about how the Big Issue is now run, how many it sells or what plans its producers have for the magazine in the future.   All that I sense looking at it, seeing the people selling it and observing the occasional people buying it is that it is a shadow of what it once was.

I feel like I am stepping on a holy shround even by saying this, but not even the Big Issue - that fine foundation-stone of social enterprise should be beyond the obvious question:  Do you still matter?

Is it better not to go to University?

Like a lot of people in my generation, I went to university at a time when it was seen as being, without any doubt, the right path for any bright young person.  For me personally, I was the classic first in my family to go into Higher Education, and university was, quite literally, a passport to a new world of people, ideas and experiences which I would not possibly have encountered had I stayed in my town in the North-West and joined a firm after leaving school.

So when people champion not going to university, I am usually the first to suggest they think again.  But, as time has passed, I have reconsidered the value of university, at least to all people.  I am not alone!  American billionaire Peter Thiel has set aside $100k for 20 students under 20 years of age who promise NOT to go to university but instead set up businesses.   He believes that university is of no real value to many young people and think that their education and development would be better served by capitalising them early  in life as entrepreneurs.

When I think about my own kids, I am definitely not going to foist university upon them.   Indeed I am going to tell them, at 18, that they have a choice: I pay their fees or I invest in their new business.   I would love my kids to be entrepreneurs as I too have found that this teaches you both practical skills, resilience and allows you to learn about other people and your own character.     I think entrepreneurship is incredibly under-valued in our country in favour of professions most people in them privately crave to escape from and stick with purely for the money.  

When I think about myself, I actually think university was the right track.  I needed the adrenaline-rush of ideas, bright people and new environment that swept me out of a very monochrome world.  But I see Thiel's point and sympathise with his programme.  Enterprise is perhaps the best form of Higher Education yet invented.

Why we need a National Talent Programme

The other week I watched a depressing programme about the riots of 2011.  Told from the 'rioters' perspective, it opened up the 'mental map' of the inner city poor very effectively.   In a diamond-shaped society, these people sit in the point at the bottom.    And if you happen to be born into this part of the diamond, you will probably have experienced shit parenting, a shit school and, if you ever get one, a shit job.  If you have kids, their lives will probably wind up the same.

So far so well-known already.  What we don't know is how we deal with this as a society.   Secretly, most politicians see this problem as un-solvable - the by-product of wider forces beyond anyone's control.  All the focus goes on how this underclass group is prevented from impinging too much on the lives of everyone else.

I too have no answers to the immediate problem.  We have a big, long term challenge here that won't go away easily.   What I do believe, however, is that we have to create escape-routes for people.   Fifty years ago, when British society resembled not a diamond but a pyramid, the escape route from a pre-determined life at the bottom was Grammer school.  Or it's religious equivalent.   Millions of bright kids from very working class backgrounds found a way to something else this way.  We all know someone whose life-path was altered this way   Of course, the system for those left behind wasn't good enough, but what we did achieve, in a way we haven't managed since, is an effective way to help people move to other places in our society.

So do we open lots of new Grammers?   No, we shouldn't.  The shape of British society today means that the life-chances of everyone bar those at the bottom of the diamond are reasonably well-served.  Social mobility is possible, as long as you're not at the very bottom.   Therefore what we need instead is a system of selecting people with talent - academic, creative, technical, entrepreneurial - from the rougher end of our society.

As we know, one size will not fit all.   Some kids should simply get free passes to public schools - like they used to before that scheme was abolished.   Others should be placed in elite state schools near where they live and given 1-1 coaching based on getting them to university.    Creative types should be fast-tracked to St Martin's or whichever is the top place for their particular talent.   Our top firms should be be on board, offering elite apprenticeships for the very best.  We don't need lots of new institutions, just a good system for identifying and tracking talented youngsters who start on the wrong side of the tracks.

A key part of this is mentoring.   A friend of mine has mentored a young boy from a rough part of London for several years and he is now about to go to study medicine.  This is a boy from a single parent family who lives in an area riven by gang culture.   This relationship with a high-performing mentor who has put in the time, over many years, has been key to this lad's eventual flowering. A national programme that couples this with easy-access to the elite institutions and firms in this country will, I believe be an important step forward.   Just the fact that it is there, that people know about it and know that, if they are any good and work hard, they can find a way out, will be a huge fillip to people who currently know, deep-down, there isn't really a way out.

Is this a real solution, given the numbers involved?   A 'National Talent Programme' could seek to target tens of thousands of our most talented kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.   Look what happens on programmes like X-factor when you put an opportunity there, however fragile.   People flock to it.   It fuels hope and allows the most capable to be seen.   I am not saying you need Simon Cowell or a studio full of neon lights, but we do need something for those who, otherwise, will not be seen and their talents never contribute to our society.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Why we need a Business Plan for Britain

When there is a war, the parties in this country quickly find it in themselves to unite, quite rightly, behind our national interest.   But the long-term success of 'UKplc' is still, sadly, a game of political football. 

Of course, this is bound to be the case.  The economics of a country is bound up with political questions of public vs private, tax vs spend and the distribution of income across classes and regions.  But other countries manage to have long-term economic strategies - so why, in reality, shouldn't we? 

So what's in a Business Plan for Britain?   As the Olympics showed, this is still a great nation.  We use the global language.  We sit bang in the middle of world-time zones.   Culturally we are incredibly influential - our 'soft-power' is still high.   We are a creative nation with great innovators and excellent 'batch' specialist manufacturing.   We are outward-looking and, in London, have what is still one of  the world's top three cities.  Finally, we have world-class universities, research and, despite recent problems, a world-leading financial services sector.   Overall, the quality of life here is good and there are fewer safer, freer or more civilised places to invest, live or set up in business.

Of course, we have massive problems too:  Large parts of our country are in permanent recession.   Millions of our people are under-educated and economically behind their peers in Europe and beyond.  There seems to be a structural problem in getting our young people into high quality jobs.  Our economy and political system have been shown wanting in recent years.   Our ability to create a proper environment for genuine wealth-creation has been exposed by the recent recession which, now, looks to be in for the long-term.    Compared to our better neighbours, the Germans, we look like a nation of accountants and lawyers more than a nation of entrepreneurs and 'makers'.  Finally, our public sector remains unreformed.   It continues much as ever in a twilight world of low-productivity, monopoly and incremental change, often entirely unconnected with the digital age and the needs of its citizens.

So, what do we do?   Essentially, it needs to be a combine the supply-side measures being proposed by the Tories with some of the more interventionist ideas of the centre and left.   At the moment, the debate polarises into one of 'small state/deregulated market versus big state, / heavy state intervention'.   Few people seem to consider that we need elements from both approaches.  Here are just five from both sides which I think are vital: 

From the right we need to adopt the following:

1.  Employment law reform.  This is an unaffordable sham and there needs to be reform of employment law that makes it easier to remove unsuitable people from their jobs.   It should also take 2 years to acquire ANY employment rights.
2.  Planning law reform.   While it is important that we protect green-space we have to accept and plan for development and growth.   New towns, such as Cambourne in Cambridgeshire, represent the way forward.  This allows historic towns, such as Cambridge, to remain within their current footprint and for them to be sustainable from a transport and quality of life perspective.
3.  Lower taxes for SMEs.   Small and medium sized businesses are the engine of the UK economy and should be taxed less than they are now.   Firms operating in deprived areas should pay very little tax at all in order to incentivise them to invest there.  
4. .    No NI for SMEs on any new hire for the first two years of employment.   This will incentivise job-creation in smaller firms.
5.  Market-reform of the public sector.   This means the end of national pay settlements, the dissolution of union-power in the public sector as was done in private sector and the creation of a plurality of providers in most public service markets - including health-care, education and most public services outside the armed forces - all under close regulatory supervision to protect the public interest.

From the 'left' we need to do the following:

1.  Set up a bank specifically aimed at 'real economy business'.   We all know of decent businesses that are going to the wall because of cashflow difficulties and disinterested banks.   We need a German-style banking system and a big new bank that operates in the way the German banks do to support the 'Mittelstrand'.
2.  Pick winners.   This doesn't mean the state owning car-firms or coal mines - it means that we acknowledge our broad strengths internationally - creative industries, specialist engineering, aerospace, higher education, research - and we make massive amounts of capital available to these sectors through state-backed angel and early investment funds.
3.  Big infrastructure spending.  This will add to deficit and debt but the country's infrastructure is in dire need and so is the short-term economy.   Reviving Building Schools for the Future, New Towns widening the A14 & A11, improving the rail network, sorting out Heathrow (not necessarily a new runway, just a better airport) - all these are strategically vital projects.
4.   Anti-trust legislation, US style.   There is now popular recognition of 'bad capitalism' and 'good capitalism' and those elements that have created a financially-oriented economy - rather than a balanced economy - need to be brought to order.     We must also unearned wealth.   Most people accept the logic of this.  This is widely defined and differentiates genuine wealth-creators & entrepreneurs from the rest.  
5.  Regional policy.  London and the South-East are outpacing the rest of the UK.   We need to decentralise powers to the cities and counties outside of the South East so that they can make their own way in the world.   It should be essentially free for foreign companies to invest in the North and Midlands.    Companies relocating to the regions should be rewarded by paying little tax or NI for the first ten years of their operations.  

Of course, these are only headlines.  But, at the moment, one set of approaches is put forward in opposition to the other.  The truth is we need both.   To get out of the position we are in, we all must pay the price - including the poor and including the wealthy.   The public sector has to work within lower limits of national wealth and there has to be a sense of national unity about what we're doing.   

Any politician who can pull this together deserves to win, whichever his or her party. 

Why I may not stand again for election

It was just after midday on a sunny Friday in May, 2009.  To my slight surprise, I had been elected as Lib Dem Councillor for Hardwick Division, the well-to-do southern part of Bury St Edmunds near to where I now live.   I had won about 36% of the vote.   Normally Hardwick was, like the town, solid Tory territory but a hard work on the doorsteps, a Tory opponent who never turned up and a renegade ex-Tory independent all translated into a narrow win on the day.

At the time, I was thinking quite seriously, I realise now, about politics as a career.  All of my life people had asked me if I was going to run for Parliament, that I would be good at it.   My experience on the doorsteps seemed to confirm this.   People responded to me, I enjoyed the feeling of it all.   The timing was also good: I had finished off as CEO of Speaking Up (now VoiceAbility) and a new chapter lay ahead, unwritten.  I was about to turn 40, it was all wide-open.

Then a few things happened.   Firstly, I got a taste of real-life politics in Suffolk County Council.   To my disappointment, the Council, or rather the elected part of it, wasn't an easy place for me to fit into.   It felt deeply 'male, pale and stale' and I just couldn't warm to many of the people I came to meet.  This changed, as time went on, but the overall dynamic of the place I found very unproductive, jeering and unnecessarily un-cordial.   

I also realised, very quickly, that in Councils only a few people actually matter.  These are the senior officers - the CEO and her immediate team, and the top three or four politicians in the ruling group.   This is simply how it is in politics.  I now realised why most MPs, and if Chris Mullin is to be believed, most Ministers, feel fairly insignificant.   The thought of Westminster, even if offered on a plate - which it never would be, especially as a Liberal - suddenly seemed less appealing.   When a scintilla of a chance did arise - to compete for what is now  30 year old academic Julian Huppert's Cambridge seat - I passed. 

A final aspect of real-life politics that hit me hard was just how utterly boring and irrelevent most of what is discussed is to the lives of most people, businesses or communities.   Councils do not, sadly, spend a great deal of time on the big questions, even where Suffolk is concerned.  Debate is limited, normally, to platitudinous sloganeering about the place, not its genuine challenges and choices.  This has improved a bit under a new leader, who has raised the intellectual ante a bit, but on the whole, the Council is not on the page when it comes to leading the county to a successful long-term future.

The second thing that happened was that, as a Councillor, I tried very hard indeed to get a few things done.   Now, anyone who knows me is aware that, as these things go, I have a decent track-record for getting stuff done.   I can normally move the dial.   Not here I couldn't.   My first challenge was getting a white line put outside a woman's house - she had a disability and didn't want folks parking there.  Eight months.   My second was getting some road-humps put in on a road where speeding was a big problem.  36 months.  A decision to designate a piece of spare land as a village-green, to discourage developers.  12 months.  Putting parking restrictions outside a busy hospital that is charging people £15 to park while visiting relatives.  36 months.   And so on.   Everything I did seemed to have to involve too many people, all working too slowly and, in the end, the decision seeming to rest in the hands of one o....f the four people who matter.   Time - the one thing that, for all humans is the same, seems to be the one thing, as a Councillor, you need not to care about.   And, of course, being one of the least patient people ever, I care more-than-a-lot about time.

The third thing that has happened - and this is perhaps the biggest contributor to my present thinking, is that I started a business that has quickly grown.   Growing a business is perhaps as far as it gets from the work of a Councillor.  It's very fast-paced, you see results quickly and you're not buggering about trying to get people to do things at your speed.   There's a sense of movement and, if you need to feel you matter, you get that too.   Growing a business again felt like a sort of homecoming.   I have seen more of my kids than I had before.  It has also had a very positive effect on my finances too, better, it has to be said, than the tight-ship that being an MP is these days once the rail fares and raffle-tickets have been paid for.    I also realised that starting a business at 40, and just out of a full-time CEO role in social enterprise would be a lot easier than doing it at 45 having lost a seat at Westminster.  

Now that my business is two years old I am, frankly, struggling to balance it with the demands of being a local Councillor.  During my first two years, I was probably one of the better Councillors.  I was visible, active and engaged.   During the last year my contribution has weakened.   Not for a key role I play on one of the council's owned-companies, I would not be comfortable with the value-for-money I am providing.  So it's time now to make a decision.

I am sure you can see where all this is going:  I no longer wish to be an MP,  I can see no way of leading a council and, anyway, I am better at many other things than politics.    Although this hasn't been a failure for me, neither has it been a a success.    What is has taught me is that you learn a lot, probably more, about yourself when something doesn't go as you might imagine.   

So what's my advice for anyone thinking of becoming a Councillor?    My simple advice is to do it.  Whether you like it or not, you will get a lot out of it.    Be prepared: it will suck up unlimited amounts of your time and you will be shocked at how little you achieve, however highly you rate your personal effectiveness.  But you will see how things work, you'll get a chance to make relationships across a wide field and, whether you stand again or not, you'll come, like me, to have no regrets.