Friday, June 27, 2008

Billy Elliot Country

Easington, Co Durham is the place where they shot Billy Elliot. A few miles up the road at Seaham is where Michael Caine was despatched into the sea in 1971s Get Carter.

Back then this was coal country. Today it is the UKs fourth poorest district.
I am here to meet Kate Welch OBE, founder and CEO of Acumen Trust. Set up in 2003, Acumen exists to get people back into the ecomomy either as employees or, interestingly, as entrepreneurs.

The key to their model is engagement. To this end Acumen run everything from leek shows (for the old miners), pamper nights (for their daughters and wives) and the local entry to Britain in Bloom.

This sounds odd but for many of Acumen's clients it is the beginning of the long journey to economic independence. Because the trust engendered through this work enables Acumen's staff to work out a personal package of support back to work.

Driving around the district, Kate takes me past a cake shop set up by one of her clients and then to a magnificent but derelict old school building which Kate is planning to turn into Possibility Place, a centre for enterprise and personal growth. A natural risk-taker, Kate has already sunk £70k into plans before even securing the site. Not that she is worried. Because Kate is that rare thing : a social visionary who combines a sharp understanding of the political world with a practical intelligence around getting things done.

While listed in the Journals 500 Most Influental People in the north east, Kate wasn't selected as a social enterprise ambassador, to her chagrin. Couldn't help but agree. Being in the north east doesn't help. its a bit like being in another country. The Geordie Nation indeed.

Kate drives me through Halton a village just outside Peterlee. Here 1400 people live. Take oaway the young and old and you are down to six hundred or so of working age. Of these 400 are on incapacity. A black spot within a black spot.

However its not that there are no jobs, Kate tells me. The industrial estates of Peterlee are but a mile away. The problem is that the jobs are too high level. The best thing to have happened in recent years, she tells me, has been the arrival of Tesco Extra. Lots of jobs stacking shelves and pushing trolleys.

As we whizzed past the old Easington colliery head which closed in 1993, Kate told me the tale of how Acumen had got a bloke into work who was sixth generation unemployed. From a long line workless since the 1930s. David Freud and James Purnell would love Acumen. They need to come here.

Our journey ends at Durham station. In the course of an hour touring the towns and villages of East Durham I have not seen a single high street brand. No KFC or Blockbuster. It is a world that noughties capitalism forgot. You would think this idyllic in some way. But this is not Slow Food country. And the absence of familiar names was discomforting. It implicitly said that these areas weren't worth putting even a fucking McDonalds into. Depressing. But Kate was anything but. I boarded the train in the imposing shadow of Durham cathedral feeling inspired by her.

Twenty minutes later I am Newcastle arriving at the offices of Futurebuilders England. As a recently appointed non Exec I am here to meet the Operations Director Peter Deans and to say hello to staff. My agenda is to get a grip on the way FBE works and form my own assessment of the issues.

Really impressed by Peter. He combines a sensitive personal style and with a sharp and realistic sense of the issues and, I guessed, an ability to get tough when he needed to. He is the only remaining senior manager from FBE 1 but I can see why we are so keen to keep him. He is the guarantor of the operation which is, for the most part, very strong. Met all the staff which felt a bit bizarre, as though I was a visiting dignitary. But people seemed pleased to see an investment committee member and it was good to talk to people.

Evening began with a birthday party for 8 year old Annie, daughter of my old college friend Tony Dabb now a teacher in Gateshead. After lots of diet coke and birthday cake I went across to the world Forth to meet the lovely Hannah Eyres, CEO of Keyfund, another Impetus charity. Our real bond is that we are both Bolton fans. Her Dad is very close to the chair man of BWFC, Phil Gartside, so I get all the behind the scenes goss.Newcastle is a great place to drink. The wet trade may be waning elsewhere but not here. For atmosphere and up-for-it-ness Ncle can't be beaten.

Wake up without a hangover (to immense relief) in the house of my old tutor Martin Harrop. We spend breakfast talkng about genocide. His theory is that people will do anything if the state gives them cover for it, as in Rwanda.

Plenty coming through onmy piece in the Guardian. Stephen Bubb to say he thinks he third-agrees with me but that I need to be more realistic about the need to attract quality people into the sector. I third-agree with him too.

Brain half dead as I pass through northern England on the train. I used to relish being away but not now the kids are here. I am missing Wilf a lot. I am worried that I haven't given him as much time as I gave my firstborn, Ruby. I slowed down when she was born and she became my obsession.

By contrast, I have actually worked harder since Wilf came along I December. I have this uneasy sense that I have missed out on him somehow. That he has languished in my peripheral vision while I have been launching books, writing articles and raising funds. Sudddenly feeling a bit emotional.

Time to stop writing.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

On the 0628 to Newcastle. Leaving Bury St Eds and a load of guilt behind as Wilf cries and Katy is left to cope with both of them on her own.

Yesterday in Lnd. Visited an interesting org called Make Your Mark in the morning up Covent Garden. Their brief is to promote enterprise in all its forms among young people. But its a long way from Business Link! All cute young things, the latest cuts and Web 2.2. Made me feel about 62. Seriously though it did bring home just how differently the under 25 group live to 15 years ago. A big a gap as between the kids of the early 50s and the Class of 68.

Met Phil Tulsa and Rachel Burkett. Phil is a young man of energy and intelligence - as well as impeccable fashion sense. he leads the social enterprise aspects of MYM. Rachel is a lively and quick ex hack, ex PR who is doing a much better job than I of navigating this new world.

The deal I think is that I will help them on events and web content in exchange for linking all my stuff into MYM. This feels quite a long way from Ambassadors but for that reason quite interesting and new to me.

Lunch with the lovely Astrid Kirchner ex of ACEVO now of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. Another web 2 person she is developing a company called Urbaneer which I am still now only beginning to understand. Its like being an Italian in Iceland this digital divide.

Next up its David Blunkett at the Commons. Thought I might be in for a hard time as he called the mtg. Turns out he just wants us to tread carefully in Sheffield where there is a tricky local voluntary sector. I really warmed to DB, moreso than any pol I have met. He was courteous, wamm, listened and spoke thoughtfully. He looked so much better than in his Ministerial days when he seemed gaunt and permanently pained. we rounded off by agreeing he would doa gig in Sheffield for us one Friday. Three cheers!

The response to my Guardian piece was very positive, much more so than my more staid piece last month. Mails were mostly from men and women of the Left (including a member of the SWP)but I accept praise from any quarter! Nothing from Stephen Bubb yet.

Worked till 1am trying to untangle a muddled bid which arrived with Help written on it yday. Bit late for any real heavy-lifting but I gave it a shot.

Was reading a piece yday about Gordon Browns work schedule. It actually didn't sound that bad. And unlike me he gets to watch whole footie matches. His problem seems to be micromanagement, a lifetime habit that at 57 he may be stuck with. Not a good trait if you are running a nation.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Not a Walk in the Park

Today (Wed 25th) my piece appears in the Guardian about third sector CEOs. I expect it to cause a response. Although the article is slightly tongue-in-cheek, it asserts that charity CEOs have it a bit better than those in other sectors. And get to work for causes they love, therefore should settle for less cash. I am half expecting a kicking from Stephen (Bubb) on his blog but I notice his mood is particularly sunny at the moment so he may desist.

Its ironic because my job today was not a walk in the park. Or not the Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds. More the People's Park in the Bronx. Like a lot of orgs trying to grow, we're also taking on a lot of cost. All before the cash register starts to tinkle. Added to this, we have the legacy of a lot of work which make us profit when we won it which now doesn't quite cover its own costs a couple of years on. We can sort this when we re-tender but its opened up some gaps, none more than a few percent, but together its quite a whack. As I have said on here before, we've never turned a loss at SU. But this year I think we will file a small one. All of which makes it that much harder to make the case now for pressing on with yet more essential spending & internal capacity-building ready for public sector contracts in 2009.

Had an excellent meeting about all of this with my COO Kathleen Cronin today. Kathleen was CEO at British Youth Council and has a great grasp of strategy. Her particular skill is pulling together the threads of ops, finance and funding over the short, medium and long term, identifying the risks and then coming up with options. Which is just what we're doing. All of it is framed by a key goal - to be working with 10,000 people by 2011 and doing so with a turnover of around £8m (from £4m today). Her is the job of putting it all together. We are a good Number One Number Two Team with v different skills but a lot of shared values.

My good mood was punctured by news that our house-chain has broken down. Some bloke in Soham apparently has pulled out from the bottom on the chain and buggered it up for about five families. Katy is devastated. We have a couple of weeks before the house of our dreams goes back on the market. I fought the tears myself, I confess. Its weird how these things get to you. I have always been fairly immune till now. In the midst of this we had the news that a friend's sister had lost a baby at 33 weeks, due to a congenital condition. Is it just human nature or just my own uniquely insensitive disposition that it took only seconds my worries about the house to be jockeying for first place in my mind with this terrible news?

One of my next pieces will be called Does Mission Matter? This asks the fundamental question of whether mission-based organisations do a better job of providing human services than profit driven ones? This is the whole premise of third sector service provision - and, in a ways, social enterprise. But is it true? I know quite a few people who just don't buy the view that meaning well implies that you do it well. My experience of mission-based organisation is that they CAN do it extremely well but don't always DO so, often due to a lack of the skills which enable profit-minded organisations to be as effective as they often are. The solution - social enterprise - business-like organisations in which the profits are invested back is, I think, the answer.

Long term I hope the larger charities break off their service arms into wholly owned social enterprises which can then really deliver the income back to the campaigning side of charities work. Today I think big charities have too many competing priorities to do anything particularly well. This gives rise to the not altogether untrue notion that they are fat bureaucracies which don't innovate or maximise business opportunities.

Right, in Ldn tomorrow and bed beckons. A soothing run ended my day. Tomorrow can only be better.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Whites of Their Eyes

Sitting drinking coffee in the shadow of Ely Cathedral isn't something you should really be paid to do. But today was my day and I spent a welcome couple of hours in the pleasant company of my former deputy James Baddeley who is now running his own show and my talented young Head of Grants Gemma Platt.

We were meeting to discuss James' re-engagement in our fundraising. A conversation with my FD this morning brought home just how much we've got to do to achieve any kind of surplus this year. After 12 years of turning a profit, we're running a gaming chance of filing our first loss. Not because we're a crap outfit or losing money on silly projects. Quite the opposite. Because we're ambitious, trying to grow and having to shell out on all sorts of infrastructure ahead of the business flying in.

My number one challenge is finding social investment. I'm doing pretty well but I need more. Grants preferably as we can't yet generate the returns in our sector to pay off loans. We also have to deal with a few `cliff-edges' on major projects next April. We've been here before (many times) but money-worries right now form a dark spot on the x-ray of my well being. Like many CEOs, the spectre of failure haunts me. I worry about my capacity to deal with it if it ever happens. I walk in its long shadow, taking comfort in the words of Andy that "only the paranoid survive". I am in for a long life if this is true.

Vigilence is one of those things you need in these jobs. Its easy to get a bit of success and bask in it for too long. Liam Black once pulled me aside and told me not to lose a grip on my business with all the other stuff I am now doing. These were wise words. I have, in the last few months, slightly lost sight of things, on reflection. As a CEO you should know exactly where you are in finances, ops, people and development. At best I have had a grip on two. At worst, one.

One of my extra-mural activities is the Ambassador Programme. This brings 35 (!) of the country's top social entrepreneurs together to promote social enterprise. We're about 8 months in and this Wednesday we all came together Admirality House on Whitehall. For once the `celebrity' Ambassadors all rocked up (they don't normally bother) including Tim Smit and Tim Campbell (winner Series 1, the Apprentice). The meeting was, overall, a bit of a disappointment for me. Not because of what was put on. No, we had Cabinet Ministers, Permanent Secs, some excellent presentations, a superb venue and some good food. Rather because a few of the Ambassadors used the occasion to kick off a little too hard about the shortcomings of the programme to date.

The rest of the afternoon was huge fun. My first Futurebuilders Investment Committee. This is life Dragons Den for Grown-ups with real business-plans and serious characters up there for scrutiny. In two hours, my group saw four organisations and deployed several million in loans and grants. Bang bang bang. Most of the Committee come from the world of private finance and eat spreadsheets for breakfast.

My usefulness is that I know the sector and can sniff out the issues, particularly around deliver or commissioning. We funded three and knocked back one. The failed bid had a lot in common with those popping up on Cause for Concern lists of investments gone pear-shaped over the last three years. All of these relied on too much - five or six separate things - all going right. Which of course never happens.

The ones that got the money were those which just needed a couple of things to line up. On top of this, the people really mattered. The quality of the people has a big impact. All of the successful groups had exceptional people present. So much of this sort of things comes down to credibility.

And so it was Friday. My usual day at home. The day I take Ruby to nursery and look after Wilf a bit. But today I was off to Wisbech. Or so I thought. The guy leading the young people's project we run up there left a message in the morning saying the whole thing was off because the girl running it was ill. I felt a bit gutted. I wanted to go. I like meeting our young people, it keeps me aware of why we're here.

Which brought me back to Ely. Business done we all reminisced on old times together. For me this was a time when we just did things rather than debated whose role it was to do things or created a bloody flow chart to describe how to write a bid.

I think the Management Gurus of the 2100s will look back on our period as part of the hang-over from FW Taylor and Henry Ford. When we still hung on to this mechanistic world view despite the evidence that screamed out that this wasn't the way things actually got achieved. By then I am convinced we'll be out of large organisations, working mainly from home, like the pre-capitalists, and mostly self-employed or in network type organisations which work a bit like self-organising teams. The best analogy for what life will probably be like is the internet. If you don't believe me, read Gary Hamel's `Future of Management' then think again.

Our parting conversation in the Ely sunshine was about personal brands. Even how we look. Take Camilla Batmanghelli. Love her or loath her, she knows how to build a brand. My brown suit is nothing next to her glittering turban and drapes. Perhaps I should add a Fez. And a 1980s mobile phone. Or maybe not.

Got home to find my daughter not wanting to see me. Kids occasionally do this but I find it a bit upsetting. No eye contact. Crying when I went near her and running to her Granny. She loved me yesterday! Now she's breaking my heart. This parenting business is too much.

Arrived home to the news that we've had an offer accepted on a house in the country. If it all comes off we're moving to Pakenham in Suffolk, a classic village with a Post Office, pub and, no doubt, a few heroin addicts too. Still, I'm not getting excited. Anything can happen. Our buyers are Doctors so fairly safe and the woman we're buying off is a Granny now in an OAPs home. However, we're now in property freefall, the era of Gazundering. Not to mention, raw fear.

The house we're buying is a bloody mess which it will take years to sort out. Just when we finished this one. I sometimes feel like I live in an episode of Property Ladder. If this goes through I'd be in more debt than Zambia and I just don't want to think about it. Its High Risk as you get really. Part of me will be relieved if it doesn't happen. But its our dream. A place in the country to raise our kids. Big garden. Changing seasons. Meadows and streams. Now doesn't that sound nice?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Proper Weekend

For once, a proper weekend. You know, the ones that seem to last that bit longer. Where you lose yourself, just for a while, in something other than the mental Inbox.

Family has been the focus. Plus other people's families. Went to the wedding party of our friends, Keith and Judith. Keith is a former Trustee of mine. He was 65 on Saturday too, so it was a double celebration. Retirement and remarriage. Two fresh starts.

Seeing a guy so clearly happy in his later years, when so many blokes seem to struggle, was uplifting in its way. Clearly, sometimes, it is the best thing to just leave your life (and your wife) and start again, as he has done. We often forget that marriage was invented when we all died at 40 and that by our fifties and sixties we either need to reinvent our marriages (as my parents have done) or our lives by moving on. Keith was delightful with my daughter Ruby. `Mr Bubbles' (as he became) provided endless fun for her, enabling her Sad-Dad to talk shop with somebody from the sector.

I've been feeling my own age a little recently. A nerve was touched on Saturday morning when I heard a group of sixth formers in Cafe Nero, assuming I was out of earshot, saying I looked like Alan Bennett. It doesn't seem five minutes since I had people comparing me to Hugh Bloody Grant. Being 39 next month doesn't help. It feels like such a crap age. What's even more chilling is that a decade hence I will be 49. I just can't imagine liking it one bit. The fattened body, the lost hair, the sense of being yesterday's man. Women and even older gay men looking straight through you. The promise of life no longer sharp and fresh.

Mind you look at David Davis. There's man who's not going old without a fight. Andrew Rawnsley today was saying the guy is looking for his Enoch Powell moment, a place in the history books. I'm not so sure he'll get it. Most people, me included, are with Gordon on this one. We need to have more confidence in ourselves as a society. All the bleeding-hearts, led by the irritating and over-rated Shami Chakaravorty, present 42 days as the death of liberal Britain.

Come off it! Gordon is not Vladimir Putin. This is not Burma. If the police can get a judge to approve an extra couple of weeks to nail the next Tube-bombers (and they are coming, that is guaranteed) then a society confident in its liberal foundations needs to say `Given the special circumstances here, yes".

As for the radicalisation of the Muslim community, well, again, sorry, I don't buy that either. Every Muslim I know is praying, more than anything else, that there's never a repeat of what happened on 7/7. They know that would be far more harmful to community relations than 42 days.

Spent a surprisingly pleasant Saturday night leafing through the papers for my first Futurebuilders Investment Committee meeting. I have to say how impressed I was by how well everything was written and presented. It made for a really good couple of hours. A couple of themes emerging for me, just on the basis of this set of papers (so major health warning here!!).

One is that some of the investments in smaller organisations (and a couple of larger ones) appear to be going a bit pair-shaped. Low organisational capacity seems to crop up quite a bit, ranging from financial illiteracy to, now and again, a dodgy CEO nicking the dough. The assessment process looks pretty vigorous to me and exceeded my expectations, I had to say. The ones that, on the face of it, don't look so strong now are where several things all needed to come good all at once (CEO, new appointments, the market, a separate bit of the project) for the FBE investment to be effective. In my experience, you need to be a position where most areas are strong and you only need a couple of unknowns to go your way, not eight! Of the ones coming up as recommends to invest, I agreed with all except one that seemed to need too much to go right for it to be a success. And with a recession on the way, I can't see that happening for this particular concern.

The other frequent problem that I see is expectations of income from public sector contracts not being fulfilled. This isn't actually normally the organisation's fault. They've often just bought in, quite understandably, to Government spin about increased contestability when in fact the public sector remains unreformed and highly skilled in serving its own interests. Labour's blood-ties to the public sector (shown by `Prezza''s achievement-claim in his book to have created a million public sector jobs) prevent it from doing the necessary with public services.
Blair tried. Brown stopped him. Once elected, Cameron will, at first, duck it, then, use the fact that the Treasury's cupboard is bare after 2011 to introduce proper markets and genuine choice into education, health and social welfare. This could be the real opportunity for social enterprise, I reckon. When we actually get round to changing Britain, rather than just working at its edges.

Sunday has ended rather blissfully with a run through the fading light around the lanes of Bury St Edmunds. I saw a duck followed by a troop of about twelve tiny black ducklings, running across a road, cars stopping to let her pass. I was seized, momentarily by emotion before I pulled myself together and reminded myself of Rod Liddle's excellent article in the Spectator last week in which he highlighted the absurdity of our attitude to most animals.

Listen to the new Coldplay album on the way round. I am still undecided about it. However, what I do know is that Brian Eno has given it a feel and texture that I really love. Coldplay are a funny band. I always buy their albums, listen to them for about four months then never play them again. My wife, like a lot of women, tends to buy music she likes first time and doesn't get all geeky about the mix etc. She loved the others but thinks this one won't do very well `because the tunes aren't very good'.

However, I am finding myself liking it, partly because I am loving Eno's touches and ideas. That man could turn me singing the Smiths in the bath into art and so he has, clearly had good subjects in Coldplay. The band, themselves, however, have a strange kind of identity. They often morph the popular acts of the day (Arcade Fire for example) into their sound. I wonder, at times, whether they are in fact just really talented pop-marketeers who can also write and play.

Like all bands, and people, they are at their best when they are being themselves. On a couple of tracks - not the ones that sound like out-takes from the Joshua Tree - they achieve this. And it is nice. Listen to `Exile on Main Street' for the last two miles. This is not Coldplay's `Exile' or `Joshua Tree'. That much I do know.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lessons in Personalisation from Sir Terry

Whatever you think of Tesco, they run their business around the things that matter to their customers: Full shelves, clear aisles, good value, helpful staff.

The whole thing, from top to bottom, is built around these four basic customer-pleasing ideas. But how many charities and social enterprises can claim to be run around customers or users? Can yours?

Mine can’t. Well not 100% anyway. The truth is that we, like most charities put a massive proportion of our efforts into pleasing not our end-customer but the Gods of Commissioning. Because that who provide the financial life-blood of our organisations' work.

The Gods of Commissioning are, of course, not real Gods. Typically they are very committed blokes and women in local government whose job is to `shop’ for services on behalf of thousands of disabled people.

Needless to say (and there are always exceptions) they aren’t that good at it. The state is a notoriously poor shopper. Things always go wrong, a bit like when you used to send your Dad out to Top Shop for a pair of skintight jeans - the chances were he’d return with a XL fleece from Matalan and a Carpenters CD.

For disabled people, however, the Gods of Commissioning are no joke. Their bad decision is your care home-from-hell.

But a quiet revolution is underway. `Personal Budgets’ are the brainchild of Simon Duffy, a social entrepreneur. His idea was to take the money from the Gods of Commissioning and put it straight into the pockets of disabled people. Because they know best what is right for them.

Simon’s ideas have swept across Government like a brushfire in recent years. And once Gordon Brown is out of the way I am pretty sure we’ll see personal budgets in education, healthcare and welfare services too.

What is wonderful about personal budgets is that the market is doing what years of exhortation about `listening to users’ never achieved. Going forward, providers will increasingly have to listen – or go bust.

And instead of looking upwards to the Gods of Commissioning provider will have to turn their loving gaze to the disabled customer and come up with our own versions of `clear aisles, full shelves, good value and helpful staff’.

All this will take years. There is a certain view that this will accelerate rapidly and all be over by the Olympics. I predict a slower path following the Early Adapter through to Mass Market cycle with a tipping point coming in about five to seven years time.

For while, certain Councils will blag that they have `personalised' services by pretending people have choice and control when none have been actually offered except the social care equivalent of a view through a shop window as you pass on the bus.

These councils will play a numbers game in the first few year to hit ambitious central targets while the real work will go on with smaller numbers that slowly build.

It is my belief that it will be people-power not council-power that will prove the most effective delivery method for personal budgets. The really smart councils know this and instead of just doing the numbers game are already building partnerships with community-connected organisations like ours. I sense these are a minority. But they won't be for long.

Make or Break

It is that sort of week in some respects. Two major `pitches' to potential social investors will determine how much of a success 2008 will be for me as CEO. Sometimes things really are that simple. Get the money and and we can develop Speaking Up to double what it is now in the next four years. Fail and I could be losing certain posts by the end of the financial year.

One of the tricksy things about having a bit of `success' and the accompanying PR is that the world assumes you're in clover when you're actually just as near the stinging nettles as everyone else. Nearer in fact because when you're growing you are exposed to a lot more risk and `unknowns'.

Also, funders and investors can occasionally pass over you, assuming you don't really need them any more. This happened sort-of recently, from the most unlikely source. Truth was never has our need been greater. But unfortunately I couldn't get physically in front of people to tell them this.

The Tories have launched an excellent policy paper on the `Civil Society' sector as they are calling it. It is crisp, well-argued and perhaps most surprisingly quite centrist in tone with references to strange fruit such as `Conservative Co-operatives'. Can't quite imagine what Sir Keith Joseph would have made of it. But I think that's the idea. Its about them convincing the sector that it is viewed as a serious player, that the Conservatives have a social vision and heart and that we do have a future when (and it is when I'm afraid) Labour lose power.

Overall I think the public sector has more to fear than our sector when the new Goverment is elected. The Tories see us as part of the `society-led' solution to social problems in contrast to the statism of Labour which has dragged parts of sector into its own operational style and image. I can identify a bit with this as our own big tranche of Government funding comes with a wodge of paperwork and agreements that match any used in a public agency.

So, yes I am impressed that the party of the Right has bothered to do this. It shows we probably have little to fear from them and that they are serious about tackling social problems. The cynic in me remembers New Labour saying very similar things from Opposition in the middle 1990s when it was building its coalition.

Events. Its been a busy week outside pitch-preparation. Highlights have been a Masterclass delivered for 12 eager people at DSCs Charity Fair. Did a mock up of Dragons Den which people absolutely loved. Especially the judges. Its quite a trip having someone pitch to you, even in make-believe.

Also met my mentee Matt Stevenson-Dodd who is now CEO of Young Enterprise North West having just moved on from Unique social enterprise which he founded. Myself and Matt hold a lot in common and we connected very quickly when we met on the first day of the Ambassador programme last year. He's inherited an organisation in mid-life (it was founded in the 1960s) with all the inherent strengths and weaknesses.

He's got a big change agenda and he's making all the right moves. Half-believe he doesn't really need me that much but he's really satisfying to work with on issues. His style is to be open and very matter of fact with people - but he has an integrity which is what enables him to still take people with him. I have no doubt that Matt will be one of the leading lights in the sector in less than 10-15 years time.

Yesterday saw me leave the house at 7am not to return till 10pm after a work dinner at which one of my senior team gently reminded me that I need to remember to take care what I say about individuals and orgs on my blog (having trashed the business model of one of our large customers last week). Missed the kids both ends of the day. Often this does my head in but, for once, I felt OK about it. Relieved to not be leaving today till 9am. The ritual of getting them up, making their breakfasts and dressing them is part of a Good Day for me and I am looking forward to the cries from next door that will come in exactly 41 minutes time.

We are tossing around whether or not to move to a quieter area while the market is still low and spent part of the weekend looking at houses. Suffolk, unlike most of Essex, Herts and Cambs, still has large areas of rural tranquility only three or four miles from its main towns.

While this is all under threat from the crazy idea that we should cover S England in concrete and `Eco-Towns, it is something I'd like to enjoy while it lasts. Although I am as far from a hippy as it is possible to be, I find trees and greenery incredibly soothing and spirit-enhancing. I want to live in the seasons and walk out of my house onto muddy paths, not an A road.

Friday, June 6, 2008


Cambridge. Nottingham. Bury St Eds. Barnsley. York. Bury St Eds. Nottingham. This has been my week. Blatted from one point on the map to another. And back again. Needless to say the effect on my head has not been great. While I owe a lot to the inventors of mobile wireless technology, there are limits to this, as I sit here at nearly one am trying to catch up with what happened at work while I was pinging around the country. What I want to know is `Who is the Wizard?'

However, it has been an interesting enough week. Visit to our operation in South Yorkshire on Wed was a success. We have a very turned-on, ambitious leader there who was refreshing to hear from. So often when I visit places I get bombarded with woe and leave feeling like I need a couple of fast pints. Not that day though. Took all the team to lunch and before the grub arrived did a Q & A in which people were forthcoming - but in the right way. Wetherspoons in Barnsley also delivered surprisingly good food. I may even go there again.

My Barnsley afternoon continued with a trip to see the CEO of Barnsley and two of his senior team, the lead on adult social care and their partnerships lead. I could register their disinterest on the Richter scale at the beginning but this soon seemed to evaporate.

We met in this amazing glass goldfish bowl of a room which looked out over the town. The council here is very keen to put itself in the limelight which they have done with their stunning performance getting people onto personal budgets. Being next door to Leeds and Sheffield seems to be a big motivation for these guys.

Learned that Barnsley is fairly `tight' in terms of existing voluntary sector partnerships but that there is probably room for Speaking Up if we show ourselves to be useful in pulling in new resources.

The strategic agenda here, like all councils, is on personalisation. This means, in effect, an end to public sector Stalinism. I wonder how councils will really do this as it means, in time, them kissing goodbye to their own provider role - if this is done properly. But I don't sense that is quite on the cards yet. Not in Barnsley anyway.

The afternoon ended with a quick meeting with super-blogger Rob Greenland, a social entrepreneur from Leeds. I enjoyed meeting Rob as much as I have relished his blogs. He brings a lightness of touch to the serious business of social enterprise - and a much needed realism to the discussion.

He deliberately works at the pointier end of the sector and provides frequent reality-checks to a movement which, frankly, can see a bit up itself at times. We discussed doing a Barnsley event in September which I found myself feeling quite bright about.

Stayed overnight in Hull with my friend Rob from University days. Like many people I know with extremely high intelligence, Rob has struggled to find his way in life and at 38 is still `at sea' - working for some dreadful Government quango but hating it, living alone, not particularly fulfilled.

He's wonderful company however and as the years slip by I feel increasingly the comfort of old friends. I like new ones but they are harder to find and it is somehow harder to get to the points of intimacy one managed quickly and easily as a 21 year old.

Today I visited one of our services in a secure unit near Hull. These places are pretty awful, you wouldn't want to be banged up there I can tell you. While newly built, like some new estate, they are understaffed and sort-of built on the idea that if you did something wrong in 1998, you need two seven foot skinheads following you around all day and jumping on you if you get a bit arsey. Of course, I am being frivolous but `overkill' does, now and again in these places, actually kill people. If the food doesn't first.

Our staff are in a funny position here. Inside but not part of the Machine. Its a strange role being an advocate here. I don't envy them. And I'm not sure how good it is to do the job for too long as there's a basic unhealthiness to the place that you need a skin of iron not to be touched by somehow. I am always glad to be in my car and away.

The final slam of the ball today and I am back in Bury St Edmunds. Ruby is glad to see me despite a 48 hour absence and gives me a fantastic hug and makes me carry her for the next half an hour till my arm drops off. Wilf smiles too and I give him his tea. These moments are all the sweeter when I've been away.

Once they are in bed and I've cooked the tea I settle down to work. There's all sorts of semi-stressful stuff to think about and I do OK until I realise its half past bloody twelve and I need to be fresh for a talk to a group of CAB managers tomorrow morning in Nottingham.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

When it Rains...

Just a quickie tonight...very tired. A blur of two days. Monday spent in Nottingham. Morning with my excellent coach Jonathan Gravells, who is helping me enormously. He brings structure and options to my spaghetti-junction of a brain.

PM was spent with two commissioners of our services, Rod Madocks and Sharon Bramwell. Gladly they are very pleased with work to date. Phew. Bonus was that they are genuinely interested in our ideas for new services that blend advocacy with self-directed support (for non-specialist readers this is where you take `getting a voice' one stage further and turn it into `getting a life').

One of the commissioners, Rod, upon seeing my book in my bag told me he had written a novel which was coming out later in the year, set in the secure mental health services in Nottingham in the 1980s. Gave him some advice on PR - it sounds like your story - make that the focus of your publicity. Gave him Patrick's number at Guardian Society.

Spend the morning pondering how Speaking Up could look this time next year and laid out a proposal for my Trustees to review. The key is coming up with something that lays the ground for eventual succession - without taking me too far out of the business. PM met another commissioner, this time from Cambridge to discuss same thing as y/day. Less obvious enthusiasm (this is Cambridgeshire after all) but still positive.

Day at the office chugged to an end on frantic note with yet more Power Point Challenge which will hopefully mean our potential investors feel confident enough in us to spend £200k on us these next two years. The Due Diligence has been tough but as a result our presentation is now very strong. I am not sure they have a motto, but No Gain Without Pain would be an appropriate one.

The evening has been a bit depressing. Got home to find the kids in bed and felt strangely tearful as I had stayed late and will be away tomorrow too. Its weird but Ruby is that little bit more distant when she hasn't seen me for a day or two. And I hate it. Wilf, bless him, is still tiny and doesn't mind. Being away now is harder than ever.

Ate dinner with Katy at the table for once as TV now not working due to my wife's decision on Sunday to do some gardening at dusk resulting in the Sky cable being cut. Not being accustomed to this, and being extremely tired, we dined in virtual silence, a but like John and Norma Major on Spitting Image. Except I looked even greyer than JM! `Pass the salt, dear.' My oh my, its time I slept.