Monday, December 21, 2009

Heroes and Celebrities

Just been watching one of those ITV/The Sun Pride of Britain type events. But rather than mawkish tales of done-good, this was about the courage of those serving in our armed forces. Despite deep reservations about the format ("Here tonight to present the award for Most Courageous Act, ex Spice Girl Emmmmma BUNTON"), the programme, almost despite itself, really worked.

Yes, what this slightly weird juxtaposition of celebrity-format and real, ordinary heroism emphasised was the graphic contrast between the individualism of the entertainment world versus the teamwork and solidarity of the forces. Had this not been ITV and the Sun, I could have believed this format had been chosen simply to underline this point.

Because time after time, the young men and women who came onto the stage, having had their acts relayed through reconstructions, were completely self-effecing, universally praising of colleagues and keen to attribute all success to the unit. None revelled in the glory and, many, you sensed, didn't like the attention at all.

What struck me is that the Forces are clearly putting something into people which is, in my book, good. Concern for others. Teamwork. Modesty. Courage. I don't often get emotional when I watch the telly.

But I do, oddly, when it comes to the things I hear about from Afghanistan and Iraq. The things people do to preserve life and to help their comrades. It moves me to tears, partly because it shows a side to us which is often overlain with other, prosaic concerns.

Life in Bury St Edmunds, even during its more animated moments, doesn't make many demands on one's higher nature. A door opened here, 50p in a cup there.

If things ever did get hairy - if I was in anything like the situations I saw tonight - I am not sure my own selfishness, bedded in through years of ease and habitual self-preservation, wouldn't get the better of me.

I would hope for better, but whether I could deliver a fraction of what I saw tonight, I doubt.

Friday, December 18, 2009

On Trusteeship

Trusteeship. This touches on my life from many angles. I am a Trustee – of Impetus Trust, a social investor. I am a CEO who works to a board of Trustees. I have also set up about five organisations all of which have needed a Board of Trustees to run them. Within Boards I have played all the roles. Chair (twice). Secretary (three times) – but never Treasurers. I have seen good boards, bad boards and goddamn ugly ones. Unlike the Golden Eagle – of which there is only one type – there are as many variants of the Trustee Boards as there are birds in the sky.

I have decided to focus my piece on the very simple question of `What makes for a successful board of Trustees?’.. And I boil this down to five things.

1. It is Non Executive. By this I don’t mean it doesn’t `do things’ but it leaves the running of the organisation day to day to the CEO and senior team. Its focus is on strategy (Are we set up to the right things?), performance (Are we doing these thing well?) and probity (Are we making proper use of the resources at our disposal?). Before it does anything else, a Board needs to do the above properly. Too many boards blur the line. Too many boards sweat the small stuff and leave the bigger questions unanswered.

2. The Chair is in charge. Third sector boards tend to be full of passionate people who like to talk and are full of ideas. They are also full of differences of view and contain competing swirls and eddies of opinion. The Chair brings all this together for the benefit of the staff employed to run the organisation. The CEO needs to know, once all the debate is done, what the Board wants delivered. A strong Chair will do this. A weak Chair won’t protect the CEO enough and she ends up being buffeted by a board that doesn’t speak with a single voice.

3. It is professionalized. Most people on boards join without a lot of previous experience of governance. They believe all sorts of things about their role. Seldom is there a role-description. Training? Induction? Appraisal? You’ll be lucky. This is wrong, just as it is wrong to neglect these for employees. You want a high perfoming Board, you need the same kind of inputs you give to a senior team. They do all of this at Impetus Trust, which has been my best Trustee experience to date.

4. Information for the Board is first class. Trustees are responsible in law for an organisation. Therefore the quality of reports needs to be strong. In order to do their job well, the CEO and senior team have to give robust financial, operational, sales and HR data to trustees at least once a quarter. Further to this, they must also explain `risk’ – where it is, what can be done to mitigate it – both in these immediate areas and strategically for the longer term. Trustees depend hugely on this information to do their jobs well.

5. The Chair/CEO relationship. A chestnut I know but the heart of any effective organisation is a smooth interface between Governance and Delivery. Where there is respect, trust and an understanding of each others’ roles. A good Chair will understand the CEOs role in developing strategy and a good CEO will respect the sovereignty of the Board in the choice of strategy for the organisation. I have witnessed these relationships at their best and worst. A charity can withstand a toxic situation – but never for long. Indeed it is one of the biggest risks to the success of the mission and needs, therefore, to be reviewed regularly by a third party on the board.

I hope this offers some insight from my 15 years with Boards. Although the Trusteeship model often frustrates me it is also a huge resource, it keeps us all honest and, more broadly, enriches our civil society. Long-term we need, I believe, to up the game of boards. I long for Paid Trustees – really strong professional trustees – who, like first class private sector Non Execs – are brought in to show the level to which volunteers need to aspire – but, sadly, we are a million miles away from that right now. I also have worries long-term about what the conservatism of Boards might do to the responsiveness of our sector to the massive opportunities in the 2010s and 2020s for an ambitious and energetic response to the breakdown of the big state.

But that is another blog for another time….

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Trust or Contract?

What will be the dominant ideas in public services in the next decade? Local or industrial-scale? Community-run - or conventionally managed? Delivered mostly by ordinary people – or qualified professionals? Funded on the basis of trust – or ever tigher contracts?

Looking into the 2010s there seems to be two boats racing down the river towards us toward the open sea beyond the next election. One is the Good Ship Community, a gaily painted river boat. It is captained by Tory Iain Duncan Smith but on its pretty decks we see all sorts of people who share a belief in small-is-beautiful, in bottom-up community solutions. They share a passionate belief in the unleashed power of social capital to solve entrenched social problems – and a belief in trust over contracts as the basis of efficient public services.

The other boat is the HMS Contract, a large pleasure-cruiser whose wake slaps the boughs of the Community. Its tougher-minded crew share the other boat’s belief that the state isn’t the best solution. But they are signed up not to a million blooming flowers of local particularism, but, instead, a vast `scaling-up’ of proven solutions, a new Super-DNA of `what works’, all delivered in a business-like, professional way - and sealed with contracts. They admire the intentions of HMS Community but don’t really think it is a serious approach to large-scale change.

Both vessels are ploughing towards to open sea with hope - and not a little momentum. Though smaller, the Good Ship Community has the backing right-of-centre politicians. Its offer of hope, its trenchant critique of big, top down approaches and its potential financial savings make political sense. What the Good Ship lacks right now in method, it makes up for in its plucky appeal to trust, mutual care and social entrepreneurialism .

HMS Contract isn’t nearly as loved by the politicians. But the bigger boat already has huge momentum. Its crew knows that there will be an immediate imperative, from 2011, to save billions by quickly moving large tracts of the public sector out into new bodies which are not only more efficient but also more responsive and innovative. The sheer industrial-scale of this exercise will, believe the crew of HMS Contract, require heavy-lifting of major players from both the charitable and private sectors.

The timescales and big numbers involved here – tens of billions – will, almost certainly, invoke a high managerial nature change-process. This would mean, in turn, that HMS Contract would be far more `fit for purpose’ than the more charming, but far less easy-to-engage Good Ship.

And what the crew of HMS Contract will tell you, sotto voce, is that local, social capital-based solutions just won’t be quick enough to put in place and won’t be sufficiently uniform, predictable or measurable enough to stop politicians worrying about standards. And, on top, they might not be particularly cheap.

It is true that both sides have some testing questions to answer. Can indeed a Trust-based approach to public services, in which contracts play little or no part, guarantee real-world delivery? What about accountability when things go wrong? Might small community ventures soon get strangled by the bindweed of bureaucracy that comes with money from the state?

And, to ask a very hard question, might this fragmented approach to change risk the repeated wheel-reinvention that happens when you don’t just take the proven best model and run with it?

However, HMS Contract also faces tough questions. Could the heavy transaction costs associated with the contract-culture actually result in more, not less waste? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the place in public services for of the millions of ordinary citizen who aren’t professionals or managers, who just want to do some good for others in their community? While the Good Ship welcomes this citizen-army on board, it is harder to see their place on HMS Contract.

It is my hope that the answers to both sides’ questions lie with the other. In collaborations between the Good Ship and HMS Contract which bring the best of both to bear.

We shall see.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Close Down Risk, You Close Down Possibility

Last week in my role as local Councillor I knocked on a door. I was conducting my Street Surgery which sees myself and a team of four knock on about a hundred doors each week to see how we, as Lib Dem Councillors, can help. Better than a draughty community-centre any day!

Anyway, at one door I spoke to a young-ish woman who told me very clearly that she plans to set up a self-help group for young people with mental health issues and COULD I HELP? Delighted I said of course, I had a locality budget and could help with room hires, leaflets and general promotion. Great she said, that's all that would be needed as she'd do it all voluntarily.

Fantastic, I thought, as I walked away with her contact details.

But when I got home I realised I had spoken too soon. Because what I hadn't considered was the bureaucratic bindweed we, as a society, now choose to wrap around ourselves to protect ourselves against the risk of this woman being either a thief or an exploiter.

First of all, I can't give an individual money - not even a few quid, not even if I act personally as guarantor if it all goes wrong. She has to open a bank account (tried to do this recently??) for the group and preferably register the organisation. Secondly, therefore, I have to find an intermediary organisation. They, in turn, need to insure the activity so they are not liable and the woman herself would need to be trained in their procedures and vetted using a CRB check.

If this woman is still up for this after all this palaver I will be surprised. I hope she is - but will understand if she isn't. When I started Speaking Up, you just didn't need any of this stuff to just do things. I could put together groups without any of this stuff in place.

It seems that in the 15 years since I set up Speaking Up we have moved from being country that said "You know what - we trust and admire people like you enough to give you the benefit of the doubt - at least at first when you're trying to get going" to "We assume that anyone is capable of the vilest crimes and therefore we will treat everyone at every stage as though this is possible - and live with the risks that this approach itself creates".

And that risk is that "social capital" - the vital elixir of trust, participation, civic goodwill and contribution is extinguished at source. Where the effort to close down risk also closes down possibility.

Now, is that, on balance, a good thing, or a bad thing? I know where I stand.