Sunday, March 29, 2009

Venturing North

To Cumbria. At the invitation of Dan Heery of Cybermoor, a technology-based social business. Dan is also Chair of Cumbria Social Enterprise Partnership.

Last Monday, Cumbria felt a long way away. I wasn't looking forward to the drive or the pile of email on my return. But I was glad I went. Cumbria, on a bright morning, is a blessing. I wound through Ambleside then Grasmere, home of Wordsworth. I can now see where the poems came from. My heart soared too, quite unexpectedly. There is something heavenly there.

I arrived in Keswick along with about a hundred others. The Lakes cover a massive area but people know each other and there is a villagey atmosphere - in a good way. My speech seemed to go down well. My message about the recession is to beat it by seeing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to push the social business message. And, of course, to create a brilliant new offer for our times. Times when people are crying out for something they can trust.

During one speech I drift a little and start reading Liam Black's piece in Social Enterprise. He's clearly as spooked as I am by what's going on, where it is all going and what's going to happened afterwards. Plenty of social enterprises are going down he says and, of course, he's right. Because we are no better prepared than anyone else for what's coming. The final bubble to burst will be Government spending. That will be the one which hits us hardest because, at the end of the day, loads of us either do business with the Government or (still) get large subsidies from it. Liam generally calls things right. He also writes brilliant stuff and should, in my view, be writing for the Times or FT.

The best bits of the day happen during my `surgery'. I am set up at a table where people can come to discuss their challenges. Here I meet two elderly women (both at least 75)from Workington who saved the town's museum by taking it over from the council who were about to closed it. `We have a few dinosaurs to slay' one of them tells me before asking me to email a pdf of my presentation to her.

Then I meet Carl Hodge, a former RAF man who is business development guy for South Lakeland Society for the Blind. He's asking me if I think he should do an MBA. Judging by what he's achieved in a short time, I think he should be teaching on one. He's set up three trading companies, including a braille translation business which he bought out. He should be a case-study to send to charities who don't think they have any commercial potential. The word social entrepreneur could never be better applied.

Friday and I am in the North West, seeing the irrepressible Rob Harris of Advocacy Experience. Rob owns this business but is is very much a blended value entity - a social business in my view but it probably wouldn't get the Kitemark. Rob and I exchange views about how our own sector will come through the coming public sector recession. He shares my views about the lean times ahead. We both believe we're going to have to reinvent advocacy services that offer the same outcomes and quality but for at least 20% less cost. Its a tough square to circle but we both have ideas we're excited about.

Lunch with the excellent Matt Stevenson-Dodd at a lovely eaterie in the unlikely environs of suburban Warrington. There is a lot to do at his place and a lot hangs on how the organisation fares this next year. His quality will, I think, see him through, but its a tough assignment and he will need nerves of steel to deal with deep-seated issues, topped off, of course, by the recession.

On the way back, the phone rings. Its my exuberant business development director Paul Morrish. We have won another major tender, this time in Suffolk, in partnership with Out and About, a brilliant charity based in Eastern England. This brings to £2 million the new business Paul and his new team have brought in this quarter. After two extremely poor quarters this is a big relief. Paul is, of course, a big factor in this, though he would, being him, share the credit generously. To keep slogging away through a dark winter, losing time and again takes both guts and balls. Paul has both (!) and I am delighted for him.

So why, then, you might ask, am I still worrying about the recession if my sales are through the roof? Well, dear reader, it is because the party, for now, is still going on in the public sector. This is the last bubble to burst but the pin will be pricked in 2010, mark my words. If you want a feeling for how it will be look over the Irish Sea. A 6% drop in GDP. Unemployment at 15%. Public spending slashed. House prices down a third on peak. And that's just this year. Perhaps we won't get it quite so bad, but that's what's coming. I do not joke when I say to my people that we have two years, top, to secure the future of this organisation and its mission.

Oddly, I feel quite energised about it. I like white-knuckle rides.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Beating the Recession

I keep getting asked to do pieces about how to beat the recession at the moment so I thought I'd start by blogging about it.

My main response to the recession so far has been to fear it but not actually do that much! This is, so far, a mainly private sector recesssion. The 100,000 or so people signing on for JSA each month do not, on the whole, work for charities or councils!

However, this is changing. PriceWaterHouseCoopers have just predicted a 1.6% real annual reduction is public spending from 2010 till at least 2013 - or a 50 billion annual tax hike. As Andrew Rawnsley said in today's Observer, the game is up for the public sector - and their big deliver-partners such as charities, many of whom, like Speaking Up, now get most of their money from the state.

The better charities are now taking pre-emptive action. And, yes, I count Speaking Up among this number. It is clear to me as a CEO that everything is on the line for us in the next three years. Worst case is that we lose all our gains over the last five years and retreat to being a local charity in Cambridgeshire. Best-case is that we continue to grow, create abundant social profit and recast our business in the face of new needs. The likely outcome is something in between. My job, as CEO is to get as near to best-case as it is possible for someone in the top job to do.

So how will you beat the recession? Three things will matter. The first, and most important, is to advocate the right strategy for the organisation. Get this one wrong - and many do - and the mission stalls. And in a recession, a bad strategy stalls you real quick. Good strategy means understanding your environment and aligning the resources of the organisation - current and future- with changes in that environment. It sounds easy but its not. You need to look at everything, including radical restructuring, strategic partnerships and mergers, if this serves the mission long term. The alternative is failure. And CEOs that get strategy wrong will, I predict, be those signing on for JSA in a couple of years' time.

The second important thing for CEOs is to face the reality that the third sector is about to enter a deeply turbulent period - and act accordingly. This means using your power as CEO to cull projects and roles which you know, in your heart, aren't adding value. Things which, in the good times, you didn't really feel it was worth sticking your neck out about. Accepting that you, as CEO, will have to make tough choices is the first step to actually making them.

Thirdly, beating the recession will be about delivering services cheaper and better. This means recognising the needs of commissioners and funders and taking out cost, even when people say it can't be done. It also means being innovative, finding new ways to deliver more for less. The `burning platform' of the recessionw will give CEOs a one-off opportunity to press their staff to create the necessary change for organisations to survive.

So, three ways the recession: the right strategy, willingess to make very tough choices and a renewed focus on delivery, value and innovation. All of the above will require you, as CEO, to face-down people who think you're out to downgrade the work of the organisation. The response to this is to remind people that without the right changes there simply will be no organisation and the long-term mission will, withing a very short time, not exist. And if in doubt, remind yourself of your role as CEO: to protect the long-term mission of your organisation.

Friday, March 20, 2009

On the Stump

Today I knocked on 200 doors. As well as seeing a lot of UPVC, I met a startlingly wide range of people. Happy ones, miserable ones, mildly aggressive ones, gay and happy ones. Most were older (I was calling in the daytime), nearly all were OK about me calling and I had a good old laugh with quite a few of them. I met three 90 year olds, all of whom vote, one who had voted Liberal since the 1930s.

My resident survey is designed to drill down to the key issues upon which I will base my campaign. Middle Schools come high up, especially for Mums and Dads (Bury's Middle School system is being abolished by the Tories in the next few years). I was amazed by how local a lot of people's concerns are: parking, traffic nuisance and so on. A lot of people see themselves as powerless in the face of officialdom and, over time, just resign themselves.

I was surprised by how many people want to talk. Not just older people but also the young mum, surrounded by her kids, talking about the parking problems in the street. The teacher talking about the schools. People, I noticed, weren't looking to me for answers but to be heard.

Today has shown me how important knocking on doors is to identifying support. You get a pretty good sense of who might vote for you come the election. Most are happy for you to come back. They appreciate seeing someone from one of the parties, once they realise you're not flogging something. But the most precious haul from today was the 30 or so people who I think will vote for me, particular if I go back nearer the election. Few of these are, I sense, committed Lib Dems, but, rather, people who responded particularly well to the visit and the message. If I can do enough of this type of day, between now and the election proper, I reckon I can harvest a lot of votes.

The territory today was mostly quiet residential streets, mostly bungalows with neat gardens, a five year old Nissan in the drive and `Neighbourhood Watch' signs on the door. Not Labour territory, by default Tory but, I noticed, not committed Tory.

Politically the thing that stuck me most profoundly was the number of people (10-20) who said they would vote Lib Dem if Vince Cable was leader. The man seems to strike a massive chord with voters. Indeed, at this rate, I will be trying to get my photo done with him, such is he a hit with voters. Cable is seen as straight-talking and right about things. Indeed had the leadership election been a year later, I have no doubt now that he would have been taking us into the next election. Clegg, by contrast, isn't mentioned. People just don't know him and his similarity, visually, to Cameron, won't, I feel, help us come next year.

I did, at a few doors, encounter some raw anger about the political class. A real bitterness that politician have screwed-up big time and got away with it, their own financial futures intact. The `plague on all your houses' reaction wasn't common (perhaps five people in all) but edges with anger, which you tend to register.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed myself today. For any aspiring politician, this is a necessary rite of passage. You have to listen to people, you have to connect with their concerns. You also have to empathise because if you don't do this, you're not going to win their support, especially as a Lib Dem in a town divided mostly into Con-Lab. My reception, on the whole, was positive, better than anticipated and it made me want to do it all again soon.

It also made me believe that, with a fair wind, I can actually win.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Parish Rewards

In December we moved to Nowton, a village of 30 houses and 100 souls, two miles south of Bury St Edmunds. To the north,it is bounded by Nowton Park, a former private estate now owned and managed by St Edmundsbury District Council. Its sort of National Trust-lite. Big trees, well-signposted walks but with five-a-side pitches and free parking too. Perfect.

To the South, West and East, sit acres of wide-open Suffolk pasture and arable land, gently rolling, the austerity punctuated by occasional trees and the odd, interesting fold in the land. The village is spread over a couple of square miles so nobody is really on top of each other. This spacing out gives an airy, liberated feel to the place. There are people but not in your face, a community but in no sense a commune.

Presiding over local village affairs is the Parish Council. I first went to see them upon arriving because a couple of visitors to the house, having left, returned to the door, white-faced and shaken having just avoided being hit by cars on the blind bend before our house. Wanting to take action to slow traffic but, at the same time, not offending local sensibilities about signage etc I went to Parish Council and my County Councillor, and asked for their views. Thankfully they backed me and two months later we have a letter from the Suffolk County Council committing to a series of measures which will, I hope, make a difference.

Tonight I showed up to the Parish Council meeting to say thanks and drop off a card to the convenor of the Parish. Apparently, this is a rare success, due, in part they think to the drive coming, in the first instance, from a local resident, rather than the parish representative body, something I found both odd and a bit perverse.

Just now, later on, in my inbox there is a mail from the Convenor. Would I mind taking regular responsibility for keeping the bus shelter across the road clean and also mowing the grass around the village sign opposite our house?

I smile and reply saying that nothing would give me more pleasure.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Startin' Over?

On June 4th I am, for the first time in my life, standing in an Election. It is the local government poll for Suffolk County Council. I am standing in Hardwick Division (or ward) for the Liberal Democrats who, last time, got 28% of the votes next to the victorious Tories' 39% and lowly Labour's 25%. Winnable-ish. But on the same day as the Euros with the Tories sky-high in the polls, I am not the bookie's choice!

Why and why now? Its a good question. The answer, I think, is that I feel its the next stage for me. You see, I've chosen so far to express my politics almost exclusively through my work. Speaking Up has been, in a way, my way of saying to the world what I believe in: personal empowerment, self-direction, social equality and an entrepreneurial, non-statist approach to social change.

For a long time, I felt this was the only real way for me to change the world. Politics seemed slow and, at times, pointless. I wanted to focus, laser-like, on issues I cared about and make a difference, without wasting a gram of energy on the heat and light of politics. Added to this, I didn't, as a younger man, have the skill, insight or inclination to be effective beyond what I chose to do through the organisations I set up.

But that has changed. I am a bit older now. I understand the world better. My skills have broadened, my confidence grown. I also know better what I believe now, which sounds odd, but I took a long time to truly make up my mind on many things.

Coupled to all this, my days of serial entrpreneurship feel like they may be behind me now. Like a blocked songwriter, I just don't have another tune in me right now. As Paul Weller once said, `after a while, they just stop coming'. He was right. There was a time in my late 20s-early 30s when I set up an organisation a year for five years. But the truth is that I haven't actually set up anything new for years.

Some of this dearth is stage-of-life stuff - kids, the job, being permanently fatigued - but part of it is that I may have `done' that particular approach to changing the world and now want to find another. The nearest I seem to get these days to social entrepreneurship is helping others who are doing what I used to do back in the day.

So what do I believe in policy terms? I'd like to say I am a classic Liberal Democrat but, in truth, my beliefs are a bit more of a political alphabet soup than that. I don't, for example, remotely mind CCTV being everywhere. Nor do I spend too many sleepness nights worrying about who MI5 might be keeping an eye on. In truth, I am probably more far `right wing' than most Liberal Democrats. Indeed certain people in the party like Simon Hughes (the lefty-Christian Liberal MP) really don't do much for me at all.

However, I am very clear about a few things. I believe in a state which operates within clearly defined, written limits. Even in an era where we need a strong state to respond to global change, I think it is ever more important that we decide, formally, as a society, what government is and isn't allowed to do. A written constitution.

I also think the public sector is far too big. The corrective to 90s public squalor has swung the other way and we now have long passed the point where additional spending made any difference. We need a public sector which is smaller (25% smaller), which is managed so it can succeed and in which real-world terms and conditions are imposed, immediately, upon the people working within its organisations.

Finally, I want to see radical decentralisation of power. As anyone who has run a successful organisation knows, centralised systems tend to underperform. Britain is currently run like Shell in the 1960s. From the top down. And we wonder why nothing really works. It takes a huge leap of faith to let go of the levers, but, one day soon, Government will need to pass power down the line. Not just to local government. But to wider civil society. And, as a key part of civil society, the third sector should be a much larger shaping force in the way Britain works. Delivering services but also shaping them too, as users and local managers of resources.

This all probably sounds a bit David Cameron, I know, so I need to stress this I am not a Conservative. Unlike the Tories, I believe that it is right for politicians to seek to change the natural order by deliberate effort. I am also basically optimistic, rather than sceptical, about human nature. Given basic safety, fairness and equal-opportunity, most people tend to elevate social solidarity to a primary value very easily. Look at the trust-based societies of Northern Europe for an example of this. High trust societies are successful ones. They are also ones in which social inequality is actively challenged, not seen as `the natural order'.

Therefore Government, in my view, needs to create the conditions in which the best aspects of human nature can thrive and where the worst are actively discouraged. Yes, I guess I am talking about social engineering. But where Labour has gone wrong in my view has been to focus on settting up endless Government programmes, instead of nurturing the capacity of our society to be the one in which most people aspire to live: One that is just, safe,cohesive, trusting, regardful, optimistic.

Does this sound like the UK today after 12 years of Labour Government? No. Therefore I am, like most people, deeply worried about the future of our country and, of course, the wider world. We are, in the G20, entering a period of low growth and likely social fragmentation. The end of oil is near. I think living standards may well have peaked for a lot of people in the richer countries. For those outside the elite nations, the picture is particularly bleak. Warming is already having profound effects. You don't need to be James Lovelock to believe that its 50/50 whether half the places within the Tropics will even exist a hundred years from now.

The challenge, then, for politics domestically, is to lead and broker a new kind of settlement on the economy, to redefine the role of the state in the face of new challenges and to engineer conditions in which our society can cohere rather than fragment. It is to set a course for this country which weans us off oil within 50 years. It isn't hard to imagine. We have always been inventive. I can almost see the UK, in 50 years time, as a bit like a gigantic social enterprise: earning its living through successful products which address the challenges of others globally, but always mindful of the need to balance our financial returns with wider social returns globally. Returns without which, ultimately, we are all endangered.

Politics starts for me on the Nowton estate next Friday afternoon when I do my Residents Survey as a prelude to my campaign. I am asking people what they think about a whole raft of issues in our area from Post Offices at risk to the closure of our middle schools next year. In doing this I hope to find out who might vote for me in June.

My political career may begin,end or just be delayed on June 4th. But, whatever happens, I think I will have learned something from the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of people I otherwise would probably never see or encounter in my life at the moment, never mind talk to or listen to.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

The title of today's blog - and also of a fabulous book by Japan's foremost author Haruki Murakami. I bought this book as a small-time fan of Murakami but mainly because he's a runner and I am too.

`When I Am Running' is all about Murakami's development as a writer and a runner. He started both at the same time, the comparatively late age of 32. He believes that what makes a good runner also makes a good novelist. Yes, talent, but also focus, endurance and an ability to get through pain. His writing in `When I am Running' is simple, simplistic almost and, if you didn't know this was the writer of `Norwegian Wood', you'd almost believe it was produced by a lesser writer.

What I have enjoyed most so far in this book is the extent of my own identification with Murakami. He is a grafter. He has talent (far more than I) but is also aware that things dont' come easily to him. He has to really try often where things come easily to others.

Murakami also has a straightforwardness to him I can relate to. He sees life in terms of choices. No pain, no gain. Nothing good happens without insane levels of commitment, unless you're just freakishly talented or fortunate. This is a man for whom writing isn't just an intellectual outpouring, but a long, hard marathon, something for which he has to constantly push himself towards, a titanic effort requiring a backbone of steel.

Running has been a feature of my own life since I was about 18. I began using it to manage stress when I was going through a rough patch mentally. I never stopped. I have been running at least twice a week now for 20 years. My performance as a runner peaked in my early 20s, quite early for a runner when I completed the Great North Run in 1hr 24 minutes. Then I got injured and couldn't run hard for several years. I never quite got back to that level and now half-marathon in about 1hr 45 mins.

Running feels as much part of my identify as it does Murakami's. What do I think about when I am running? Not a lot. He is right, it is semi-meditative. Fragments come and go. Things do get worked out but not on a logical level, particularly. For me, like him, that happens, if it ever does, on the page.

Today's run was in the splendid frost of an early morning. I did an hour, out through our gate, past the village sign and into the fallow Suffolk pasture that surround our house. The sky is big here, the fields mostly unbroken by hedgerows, huge, subtlely undulating tablecloths with distant, splinter-fences.

Sometimes when I run I feel I am filled with water. At such times, I barely get beyond walking pace. Today though I was strong and even managed to sprint for a half-mile. I am accompanied, as always, by my terrier-dog, Stanley, who could probably run all day and then some. His natural athletic talent runs far in excess of my own.

I arrive home, pleased with myself, at 8.30am, following a fine hour to hear both children in a state. They have been ill with tummy bugs and I was up several times in the night. The volume doesn't phase me though. I am beyond stress. That is what running means to me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Drying Up

My blogging is feeling a little dry right now. I am, alas, one of the doom mongers – see next week’s Third Sector piece - for whom these times seem designed to leave in a state of both affirmation and low-level angst. Partly linked to my own future anxiety - something that has been gnawing at the back of my head since I created a future for myself in which earning a lot of money becomes a necessity rather than a by-product of whatever I freely choose to do.

Isn’t it odd, though - this capacity we have for not appreciating what we have and letting some future abstraction bog us down, take the edge off things. Even when looking at my beautiful, perfect, healthy children or looking out of my window at the amazing Tripods-like cedars that seem to stomp across the park, I can’t quite appreciate what I’ve got or achieved. My own health is good, my marriage is very good, I do mostly what I like, with caveats.

So why worry? But I do. The state of the world is part of it, I know but part of it almost feels wired in. Is it this which gives me the hunger for climbing the next hill? That same dissatisfaction that allowed Roy Keane only an hour of happiness following Man Utd’s 1999 Treble before he became edgy enough to want to do it all again. I don't know. Perhaps I just need to relax, to listen to the wonderful Bryn in `Gavin and Stacey' and "Take a Chill Pill". Life is good. I know it and I don't.