Sunday, February 27, 2011

Well Said Ed

Ed Miliband recently said the most sensible thing I think I have heard from him since becoming Labour leader. He was making the point that as a nation we have to innovate and grow our way out of the schtuck we are in - and this means some leadership from the state.

While I am loyal to the Coalition and, broadly, blame Labour for losing control of public spending after 2005 and failing to reform the public sector, I think that this narrative only takes us so far as a country.

Yes, Labour did pass up a historic opportunity to renew our infrastructure, to renew our economy and tackle our deepest social problems, but they also did some good too. The country has felt some benefit from that increased public spending and Labour's commitment to the poorest children was impressive, albeit partly maladministered.

It is important that the Coalition, in its attempt to move away from statism, fails to grasp that the state's unique role is to set the right long-term goals for the country - and invest accordingly.

What does this mean in practice? In a word infrastructure. Both physical and human. On the physical side, we need universal fibre optic broadband. Everyone needs to be online by 2020 because not to be is to be at a profound disadvantage, even now. We need massive investment in both rail and electrical points for new petrol-free cars. Finally, we need the infrastructure to unleash a massive new wave of entrepreneurship that will, over time, absorb people who need jobs.

Which brings us onto the human infrastructure. We under-invest as a nation in our people. I agree with the educationalist Sir Ken Robinson that people's talents are very different and that investment for each child over ten needs to be focused on building on that child's capabilities and talents, not on churning out five good GCSEs'.

The academically brightest from all classes need to be nurtured, separately if necessary. Other childen need all the help possible from a young age to develop their talents. To push academia on all children is as silly as it would be to try to make all adults enjoy a physics tutorial. I personally am in awe of the skills of many of the people I know who I may have done better than at school but who knock the spots of me as electricians, mechanics and so on. Jobs these people have talent for. Eton helps it's kids to find their talent early. Why then can't this be case for all children?

Then there's welfare. Like anyone who has spent a career working with the least advantaged I am concerned about the fate of the most vulnerable. We can judge our society by the way we treat the most vulnerable and I am currently worried about the way some groups are being hit by reforms. But I think it is of equal importance that reform on the scale that is being attempted isn't derailed because of the problems it will cause to particular groups, so long as we can address these as we go along. Britain has massive numbers of people who don't do any paid work. We have to get this sorted out and I only believe, having seen many attempts fail, that we have to ensure that nobody receives any out of work benefit without having to do some work, even a few hours a week. And not after six months - immediately. We have to become a nation of grafters if we're ever to be competitive - and as psychologically healthy as we should be.

Finally our Universities. We have some of the finest in the world here. Many are now international brands. opening branches overseas. However only a few UK universities successfully leverage the research and development that takes place in them. We need to become like the Americans whose universities fuel their exceptional levels of innovation and industrial performance. There, academics are often entrepreneurs, or working closely with them and the venture capital industry. We need to emulate this here.

What's the role of the state in all of this? Potentially massive. Not as a deliverer of all the said infrastructure, far from it. But providing the strategic leadership, creating the environment and, yes, providing the long-term capital that makes it possible for others to invest.

Personally, I would rather see a centrist government leading all of this. I think that the next Labour Government will default too quickly to top-down statism, rather than an enabling approach, particularly if it is still as dependent as it is now on the trade unions. But, for me, the Coalition, needs to show this long-term vision now. The narrative so far has all been about deficit-reduction and the Big Society. We need a much more powerful narrative about the destination and the things we have to do as a nation to get there.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Let the Pain Begin

Last week Suffolk County Council voted through its cuts. 1500 jobs are to go but most of the time was taken up with a debate about £175k for lollipop men and women. The Council, in its wisdom, are ceasing their funding for these symbols of community and stability and saying to people that it isn't the state's job to get their kids to school.

For me this is Bad Politics. On the one hand, the Council is trying to engage the public in a conversation about the new contours of responsibility between citizen and state. Let's talk about new approaches is the message. The public come back with 'Sure, but don't cut the funding for road crossing patrols' and the Council, despite thousands of signatures vote them down. All pretty depressing.

What I took from this awful afternoon was two things. One is how the party system is killing local government. Instead of a balanced and measured approach from Councillors that reflects community concern, they all just line up behind their parties and do as they are told. That this will come back and haunt a few of them, sure, but most are in safe seats in a Tory shire. They don't need to listen.

The second is the nature of people in representative roles in local government. The lack of diversity is astonishing. There are no black people in a chamber of 75. Women are fairly thin on the ground. Young people under 40 - hardly any. People in actual paid work - a handful. People with college degrees - perhaps a quarter. People with specialist knowledge - a smattering. This means that officers tend to be the source of most intellectual and managerial drive within the council.

What do we do? I don't know. The party-system means that people who are capable but essentially non-partisan struggle to get onto the council. More independents would be a massive help. So too would be conscious attempts by all parties to find people who are young, non-white and female who can serve. The Council is the only place in my life where, at 41, I feel a bright young thing. That can't be right, surely??

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On being Tough Enough

I have always found it hard to be 'tough'. I was often found out as a CEO when either I couldn't make a decision or, more likely, failed to confront a problem because it meant confronting someone.

In business I am also finding this hard. My intention, going into this, was partly driven by my need to work exclusively with people who I like and who share my values. And this is proving so - mostly. But business is business, I am finding, and where money is concerned, most people, I find, more than match my ability to be tough.

So some mental readjustment is taking place here. I am, by nature, a pleaser. I like to be liked, often to a point where I represent a risk to my business - or the one I am leading. At 41, changing your approach is much harder than at 31, but I am, I think, having to do this if I am to build a good, profitable business.

What grieves me a little about this is that my primary traits - building good relationships, high trust, win-win approaches - rely, to a point, on thinking 'we' not 'I' in any given situation. They also involve leaps of faith, jumps into the unknown, throwing yourself to the winds etc. The reality, I am learning, is that I probably need to be a little more mindful of the realities of life at times, without losing what I like about myself and the way I operate.

Yes, I have had a difficult time with somebody and yes, it did hurt a bit. And yes it was my fault as much as theirs. But I take it all far too personally and need just to dust down, shake hands and move forward, without being all emotional about it.

Such is business, I am finding.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why Cameron is MOSTLY right today in the Telegraph

In today's Telegraph the PM sets out his intentions around opening up public services to competition. The starting assumption is to be competition not centralisation and it will be up to those who seek a monopoly to explain themselves, not those trying to create a market. Personal budgets will be extended and, where possible, services will be local and professionals 'empowered'.

Before I say where Cameron hasn't got it quite right, let me be clear that he's mostly correct. Whatever the Guardianistas say about co-ordination, planning, corporate takeovers and postcode lotteries, there can, I am afraid, be no way to raise productivity, innovation and meaningful choice than to introduce the market into monopolies. Thirty years ago people were saying the same thing about telecoms and other nationalised industries. The truth that cannot be hidden is that you can't expect monopolies - public or private - to serve the customer or client. They serve themselves. Period.

So what has he got wrong. Two things. Firstly he talks about empowering professionals. What I think he means here is allowing them to run free of targets, excessive paperwork and nonsensical interference. However, what a lot of people know is that you only empower clients of public services by taking professionals' power away. Put another way, it's only any good giving people personal budgets if they, not the professionals, decide how to use them. A trifling point perhaps, but having seen many good people's lives unintentionally ruined by 'professionals' in health and social care, I am not sure talk of giving them more power actually makes sense.

Secondly, Cameron needs to be very clear indeed that he intends not to replace one form of exploitative monopoly - the public sector - with another - the large corporate sector. The capital available to large corporate players in health and social care compared to that available to social enterprises, charities, local organisations and so on is massive. In a competitive situation it will be easy - as we are seeing in Welfare to Work - for the scale private sector to bag everything, kill or subordinate the competition and then turn the handle on a helpless and increasingly dependent Government commissioning body.

Only first-class market-making, protection for SMEs, capitalisation of the smaller sectors and social clauses and tough regulation will make it possible for other sectors to compete with the large beasts. Of course, partnering between private and other sectors must be encouraged. But this has be just that - partnering, not subordinating.

Otherwise, we'll just be swopping one type of expensive crap for another.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Which Way for UK?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the future of our country of late. Perhaps it's having small children. Or maybe its getting older and feeling less optimistic. But worried I am.

Why? Because I don't see clearly where the country's really going long-term. Where it's future prosperity is coming from. How we're going to generate enough jobs. How we can look after a nation of ageing Boomers. How we can avoid losing out big-time to the Chinese and other more ambitious nations that appear to have a long-term vision. How we can find a new cog of the value chain to climb onto next, when emerging nations have already caught us up educationally. How we can breathe entrepreneurialism into a culture in which people want easier, more chilled out lives but without a significant drop in living standards. And all this on top of a possible eco-crisis within 50 years.

The political parties, including my own, seem at a loss on all of this. The media don't engage in these questions and you're fairly deep into the think-tanks and academia before you really scratch at this stuff. Elites tend to spend most of their time on essentially here-and-now issues. News, essentially.

So what do I think? It is clear to me, as someone brought up in the 70s and 80s that the current level of prosperity we enjoy is probably some kind of high-point, even now. I always struggled to understand how we managed to have so much, given how little we actually now produce - and how most people's jobs consist, more or less, of talking to each other. We've got away with this because real productive work has migrated and, for a long time, we had the baseless wealth of the financial sector carrying us. This didn't just go in the pockets of the rich. Nearly a quarter of income tax was paid by people from this sector., meaning our public services were also funded in a way that couldn't last.

What do we need to do? The country, I think, needs to realise that we can't live on our past success. We have the English language, a fortunate time-zone and a legacy of leadership of which we are proud. We've also, despite a chronic lack of investment and poor industrial relations (compared to our European neighbours) built an economy which hasn't fallen grossly behind. We have been saved by our inventiveness, our skills as a trading nation and, yes, our financial services. All strengths going back to the Enlightenment.

Although it would be foolish to say that these strengths won't help us in the future, we can't rely on them alone or simply muddle through and adapt, as we always have I am firmly of the view that we have, across all parties, to agree some long-term goals for the country. We need a new consensus about the future that all the parties can sign up to. Of course, we can fight about how to get there, but the basics must be agreed. They did this after the war in many countries. In Germany in particular there was clarity about the country that had to be built. Japan too. But also France and other victorious nations. Except Britain.

We now risk doing that again, but this time the competition is altogether of a different order. I could list 50 things but here's 15 things we have to agree on if we're going to have a chance as a country 30 years from here:

1. Raise the retirement age to 72 by 2025 and 77 by 2040.

2. Keep the public sector at no less than 38% and no more than 42% of GNP. Limited public sector providers - most functions delivered by private and social enterprises. Cashable personal budgets - or vouchers- extended to many areas of public provision: social care, long-term health conditions, welfare, education.

3. Structure the tax, benefit and migration system to keep population at 60 million.

4. Maintain much smaller UK military forces than at present but join them up with a European force, including a European nuclear defence system.

5. A written constitution which devolves power and income generating powers to LA level.

6. Reduction of Corporation Tax to zero for ten years for companies investing in deprived regions. Nil Corporation Tax for ANY new company for one year.

7. A national Start-Up Bank to capitalise new businesses - easily accessible start-up funding.

8. The NHS operating as a set of principles - free, accessible and high quality -but not as a unitary organisation, but a diverse set of organisations seeking business under good regulation.

9. The state to provide 'first-in' investment into green tech and underpinning of our capabilities to lead in renewables field, in biotech and digital. Tough new UK environmental laws to provide stimulus.

10. Conversion of our Embassy and Consulate networks into commercial outlets for selling UK services and products rather than their current mainly diplomatic function.

11. Vocational training for most children from age 14-18, including work-placements from 14. Streaming of brightest children at 9, 11, 12 and 14 from all backgrounds so that these enter highest level of education possible at 18.

12. Make all out of work benefit immediately conditional upon doing half-time community work so that nobody gets out of the habit of working, loses confidence etc.

13. Repositioning UK as part of Europe which in turn is part of a multi-bloc world - US, China, India, Europe, the BRICS. Allow early Turkish membership and encourage long-term Russian engagement in EU.

14. Liberalisation of drug laws in the UK - most crime is related to drugs in the UK. Reduction in prison numbers from 90k to 45k by 2020.

15. Change the laws around assisted suicide to operate in the UK so that choosing one's time of death becomes socially normal. This will end unnecessary suffering and help to use limited health resources more efficiently (i.e on the young and those with potentially many years of healthy life ahead).

A bit of a hotch-potch I know. And controversial in party. I could go on but that would be too long for even the most patient reader. But there's themes here: a strategic state - but not one that just lets the market rip. A concerted attempt to become world-leaders in key areas - and to market ourselves. Taxation and spending at sensible levels. Devolution of power at all levels. Dramatic unilateral action on the environment. Break-up of monopolies, state and private. A liberal criminal justice policy. Britain in Europe. Huge encouragement to entrepreneurship and enterprise at both the micro and macro level. Improvement of work-ethic and end of something-for-nothing culture.

What this makes me politically you can judge for yourself. When I look at the list, it isn't hugely Liberal, Conservative, Socialist or Green but has elements, possibly of all. I find some of my own ideas quite unsettling - but then again I can't see many good alternatives to certain problems.

Views welcome, as ever.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On the motivations of entrepreneurs

Stepping Out, my new business, has had a good first six month. We have won business, delivered it to high satisfaction and, yes, made a bit of money. Not that much money, but enough to keep body and soul together.

Although I have run social businesses before, I haven't run a standard company but what strikes me is that for all the talk about profit as the differentiator, how little profit enters the head of for-profit entrepreneurs on a daily basis and also how damn difficult it is to make a profit in any business.

Profit net of all costs and taxes is actually a fairly pootling portion of the total amount a company has to turn over in order to survive. That these amounts are the cause of such debate among the for-profit/ not for profit sectors feels, to me, to miss something.

The reality is that business, in whatever sector, is primarily about doing things extremely well. I find that private entrepreneurs are not,on the whole, driven by money. This is a bit of a myth. They are normally passionate about an idea, they love owning and running their own business. Often they forgo profit to help customers.

I am, these days, less convinced than I was about the real differences between social business people and private operators. At least the good ones.

Off to Brighton for a week now. Swopping our house for a week - a great way to have cheap holidays - and protect your house while you're away. Looking forward to some good running and time with my children. And perhaps some discreet blogging if I am allowed.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Big is the Word..

You can't move for the Big Society at the moment. It's everywhere, like the Very Large Bloke on the bus, trying to edge past but, without meaning to, putting his armpit in your face.

Clearly, it's time for the other Big Man (in Downing St) to rescue the Big Society following the loss of Lord Nat Wei to employment of the paid variety. Cameron's intervention was a sure sign that there was nobody really Big enough (or both willing and able) in the current line-up to sell the idea to our Sceptical Isle.

Personally, like most people of the centre ( I am pro Big Society. I recognise its critique of the creeping state and its desire to place power back in the hands of communities and individuals. Love it. It's what I'm all about too.I see every day of my life how much more could be achieved if we didn't have so much State.

But changing the country is a bit like changing a massive company. Culture shifts slowly. You need to work very hard on gaining agreement about what's wrong and then start working up ideas, then solutions about the new world. More than any other policy, you can't just pour this stuff on, like Brill cream, and remould society.

Which is why the left's objections sound so powerful. How can you volunteer in a library asks Ed Miliband, when it's closing down? He's right, of course. It takes ages to develop the skills and confidence in communities to take things over.

I am working with a group right now to take over a community centre with a £35k turnover. It's taken months just to get a business plan. And these are quite capable citizens. As a response to cuts, Big Society looks painfully inadequate. Cameron has now started to address this but the damage, I fear may be done.

I have to go to Council this week to vote against Suffolk's budget. Nearly all our youth services are going, and the libraries have a three month stay to allow community bids to run them. We have put in an amendment listing equivalent savings, most of which are cashable. Unlike Labour, we're thankfully not going down the 'cut's aren't necessary' route.

However it is good to see Ed Balls back isn't it? He's great value on the economy, even through he's a Deficit Denier, and he knows how to put one on the Coalition.

What I fear no politician can current tell us is much about where our country is going long-term. We have got by so far by climbing the value-chain as our old industries migrated overseas. While I am sure the tree has many more branches to climb, I am not sure how many jobs that will sustain.

Indeed if we didn't have the English language, a fortunate time-zone and a knack, as a country, for inventiveness, I would be very worried indeed about how we are going to make a living in 30 years time, as China and others supplant us in science, technology and, one day, financial services.

When I am in my old people's home - or more likely my Elective Life Termination Suite - I will probably be looking out on a world which is not longer US and Europe dominated, but in which, like Australia and New Zealand now, we're a quiet corner with the real action thousands of miles away. I just can't see even British soft-power surviving more than a generation.

How 'Big' a society we will be by then is one to ponder. However, we will, beyond a modium of doubt, be a very Old one.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Love Of Mankind

Like a football match, work-days are also games of two halves. The morning was spent dealing with a very challenging issue in an organisation in which I volunteer. I emerged into the afternoon feeling like a squeezed dishcloth, hoping for the day to be over.

The afternoon, however, provided an incredible contrast, as uplifting and reviving as the morning was difficult and upsetting. The difference was a group of three young people from Walthamstow, east London, who, together, have founded a new organisation called Love of Mankind. While the name sounds a bit OTT or religious, it is actually the English translation of the Greek word Philanthropy. Love of Mankind is one of the first - if not THE first- philanthropy foundation set up in an English FE college.

Three of its four founders met me at the Commonwealth Club in London. Saima, Abu and Shezad all attend George Monroux college in Walthamstow. They are all 18-19 and have set up LoM with the intention of it being both a way to generate funding for social projects, to place local young people in top firms for work experience and to raise the standing of their college by establishing the Philanthropy project as a Department in their college.

Two things really grabbed me most about this particular group. The first was their savvy in putting together a group of supporters from corporates, the media and social sectors. They used their time with me to extract, in a very charming way, my best contacts in the media and venture-philanthropy world, plus a commitment to write 350 words for their blog. They turned up with prepared questions, focus and a welcome respect for getting all done in the time. I was impressed just by that.

The other thing that grabbed me was their bold appropriation of the idea of philanthropy. In the UK, we tend to associate philanthropy with old white billionaires who try to fix their legacy by giving away some of their money. Well, these lot are under 20, British-Asians with no money of their own - but the chutzpah to set themselves up as a philanthropic foundation for their own part of London. I just like it.

There was one potential elephant in the room which I broached early on - what would happen when these three bright sparks went to university or whatever. To that, they replied that they weren't planning on doing this - the £9000 fees appear to have put off at least these three. All were carrying on this this after college, one, possibly, on a near full-time basis. This, for me, differentiated them strongly from the many sixth-form societies who fancy a bit of CV enhancement on their way to the Russell Group.

This lot, I sensed, were of a different order and quality. I will be very surprised if all of them do not become very successful entrepreneurs, either commercial or social. You get an eye for that quality, even in young people. When I think of the slightly hopeless-case I was at 18-19 and compare myself with them I cannot but be impressed. Given the lack of silver-spoons, they showed incredible confidence, breadth and ambition. I take my hat off to them - then go home to happily do the fifteen things they have persuaded me to do for them!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How to Close a Charity - piece from Third Sector mag

I had to close a charity once. It was seven years ago and I had just taken over as chair after the loss of the chief executive and the chair within weeks of each other.

One look at the books and the remaining staff and trustees, and I realised it was game over. Not only had we run out of money, but also of the energy and desire to carry on. We were dead men (and women) walking.

I remember it well because it was the week I got married. Between suit-fittings and trips to the barber were meetings with suppliers, customers and staff to tell them that the end was nigh. People were surprisingly nice, their mood helped by the fact that we were not yet totally insolvent.

It was not a great time, but we brought things to a satisfactory close with money still in the bank and all of our people well looked after. We even managed a champagne-free celebration of all we had achieved.

To carry on or to quit? I suspect a fair few charities are facing this question right now. After suffering a nail-biting Christmas and new year, for many the moment of truth might have arrived.

What can be learned from my experience all those years ago? The main thing is not to look only at the bank account - that will be bad news anyway, I presume - but also at energy levels. Are you, and others, up for pulling through? Or have you run out of the physical and psychological resources to carry on?

If the answer is positive, you are still in the game, however bad things look. Approach your bank and your funders. Use whatever you have left in the bank to get help with a credible turnaround plan. Talk to your staff about the reality and plead with them to stay. Speak to potential merger partners (though you may have left it too late). Get your face in the media and tell the world that, like Gloria Gaynor, you will survive!

However, if your collective batteries are flat, then admit it and get on with bringing matters to a dignified end. Don't wait to run out of cash completely. Instead, pay off creditors, and inform funders and users. Help your staff to find new jobs and find alternatives for users. Your last pulses of energy should go into doing all of this - and doing it well.

As we pulled down the shutters for the very last time, yes, tears were shed. We were young people who had aimed high - and missed. And, yes, we felt guilty. Although we had been blighted by a run of bad luck - the loss of our leadership, a slam-dunk Employment Tribunal, the near-appointment of the wrong chief executive - we still blamed ourselves.

Seven years on, however, I can see events for what they were. We ran out of road and made the correct call. By being honest with ourselves, we ended up doing right by all concerned. Sometimes it is simply time to call it a day. The organisation is no longer a good use of other people's money. Keeping the patient artificially alive is not the right judgement. Let it die with dignity.
And then have a bloody good funeral.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

24 Hour Party People

This week I attended a 24 hour 'simulation'. Sounds a bit rude doesn't it? Alas it was a 'game' looking at health and social care in 2012 in 'Crafton', a fictional city in central England. 50 of the UK's top people in the field, all of us 'in role'. I was very excited to be going, it sounded like it was going to be a ball. Worth 24 hours away from the business.

Was it worth it? Well, a bit. But perhaps my expectations were too high. What felt like it should have been a creative exercise felt like a bit of a technocratic conversation captured, I felt, by the mindsets that helped get us into the mess we're in today: a highly bureaucratised, professionally dominated, managerialist approach which costs a fortune while delivering very mixed results.

The triple-whammy is well understood: shrinking resources, a changing NHS and a social care time-bomb. The answer, broadly speaking, is a new settlement between citizen and state, personalisation of resources and a massive pooling of budgets in the public sector. This would see rapid shrinkage of acute health services and much more investment in the community sector so that people could help themselves and each other a lot more easily. 'Difficult' people and families who currently absorb tens of millions in every area on a plethora of public would have much less spent on them - but with better results. Preventative projects would forestall all sorts of problems before they became expensive.

The challenge at the moment is that most resources are deployed in ways that are difficult to unpick. Dis-investing in stuff that exists is very difficult, especially when those services contain highly qualified, relatively powerful people. Having seen this group work, over 24 hours, on Crafton's issues - I came away depressed. The group didn't seem to have a sense of the potential of people do to far, far more for themselves and each other. Nor did they grasp the importance of political and civic leadership in making the debate. At times, I felt I could be at any gathering of top managers over the last few years. Lots of talk of 'pathways', 'flows', 'joining-up' and so on. Often very technical and based on the idea that bureaucracies are highly improvable.

I shouldn't be too critical. These are people who are in the front-line, managerially speaking, and I respect them. They are bright enough to earn plenty of money if they chose to. Most have commitment oozing from them. But I came away depressed. It might have been me. I wasn't exactly full of ideas myself - but I just felt outside the culture, like having to speak in a second or third language. Perhaps I am just not really part of that world. Yet I do meet people, all the time, who are on my wavelength, just not that day.

Next time I am asked on a 24 hour simulation I may just simulate being too busy.