Friday, April 29, 2011

On Suffolk's Situation

To readers outside Suffolk, this is about the CEO of Suffolk County Council. I am writing about her because she has been at the centre of Suffolk County Council's direction in recent years and has, almost from day one, been a controversial figure.

It is fashionable, especially if you're not a Conservative - and possibly now if you are - to publicly denigrate Andrea Hill. Everything she says, does, believes and wears tend to be conflated into a big soup of hostility, to such an extent that some Councillors (who should have known better) have described her as a 'hate figure' on the streets of Suffolk.

The truth, of course, when you separate things out is more more complex. So let's look at that soup - and its ingredients. First let's deal with the simple stuff. There is, without a shred of doubt large slices of misogyny and snobbishness in all of this. I can' honestly imagine a man in her position, earning what she does, getting as much stick. There are council CEOs all over the UK who get more who none of us have ever heard. Then there's the poorly concealed irritation that a youngish woman from an ordinary Essex background can get a job normally reserved for the grey-headed, Children - normally sons - of the Revolution.

Other ingredients are more subtle and complex, concerning her personality. Again we can break this down into character and style. Lined up on one side I can mentally list countless people I know who have worked with her and found her to be an inspirational manager. She is viewed by many as brave, thoughtful, principled and smart. My own experience of her is really positive. She strikes me, as an experienced CEO, as someone who clearly 'gets it' in her analysis of public services. Furthermore, I actually like her. In person, she isn't the hard-nose people make her out to be. While resilient and strong, I know that, like any decent human being, she really struggles with the negative attention that she receives. Who wouldn't?

Part of Andrea Hill's problems have been the fault of politicians. She, not the Leader, was the public face of the Council following her selection as CEO in 2007/8. Some put this down to her desire for attention. While I am sure there is some small truth in this, certainly early on, I think overall she has been put in an unfair position - the public face of the Council but unable, like a politician, to respond and engage as only the Leader can. The last leader, Cllr Jeremy Pembroke, was a good man, but treated the role as a chairman-of-the-board role. Which, in good times, worked OK - just. However, the Council has, since 2009, needed much more visible and clear political leadership. The absence of this has put Andrea Hill who, while a talented manager is no politician - into the frame more than is normal or right for a CEO.

But my purpose here isn't to lionise Andrea Hill. It is to say that the truth is more complicated than it seems. I do have my criticisms of her, made in other blogs. I feel her public style has been too confrontational, too dismissive at times. I don't think she has managed to get enough support for her more radical policies beyond the very top group in the Council. She has possibly underestimated the potential for rapid improvement in public sector organisations run by politicians. And while her 'political management' skills in terms of dealing with the Leadership are supreme, her ability to respond to the public mood isn't strong. But, after all, she is not a politician, so this isn't actually a proper criticism.

What next for Andrea Hill? Although, like us all, she has her faults, I have felt that she had the right idea and was courageous enough to speak frankly about the need for change. Compared to many of the non-entitities you see as CEOs of councils, she is intellectually and in vision-terms, plainly superior. Until recently, it seemed that she would lead a programme of change which would be historic in UK local government terms. As such , she had my quiet support. Since coming into local government in 2009, I couldn't believe how poor most services were and how a deep municipalism seemed to conspire against a public desperate for better services. Andrea Hill understands that and came up with a plan to make that better.

What recent events have shown is, at best, that she lacked the political skill to get the big changes through and at worst, depressingly, that there is in fact no appetite for radical change in local government and that she made a big misjudgment in trying to be so radical. Neither , in my view, were they true, are not something to incite the kind of oppobrium she has received. What we probably have here is an ambitious CEO who may have over-reached herself. Not a firing offence in my book.

What will happen now remains to be seen. A regime which has washed its hands publicly of her strategy has, in effect, disowned her, and if I were her I would be considering where else my talents might be used. I would be surprised if she wasn't, given that the little political cover she did have has just been removed. Without explicit support from the leadership, I think her position is tenuous. As a Lib Dem politician, I shouldn't really say this, but I did actually think she was, while she, had top level backing, a good thing, overall, despite the negatives.

I hope in writing this I have separated the soup of criticism into its separate elements and shed a little light on what I believe is a complicated situation.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dick Turpin's Gibbet - and the nature of contentment

Just had a great day in York.

We got the train from Knaresborough where we have a really brilliant swop - just by the viaduct and gorge. Took Wilf on my own to the National Railway Museum - he's a bit of a train and bus geek - and then, as we were coming out, I saw an open top bus and just jumped on.

While my intention was simply to engage Wilf, I spent my next hour transfixed by this enthusiastic member of the Historical Society taking us back through time and York's history. Vikings, Romans, Dick Turpin's favourite boozer followed by his gibbet.

The hour flew by. I didn't take my phone or watch and, for once, felt quite timeless.

They say the key to happiness - or contentment - is gratitude. I find it quite easy to feel grateful - blue sky, healthy kid holding my hand, most of my hair, wife still interested, Bolton in the Premiership, good business with promise and a column in the Guardian next week.

Enjoy it while you can, whistled the wind in my ears as York passed my heightened eyes.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New Broom, New Strategic Direction - What next for Suffolk County Council

Bit of a local politics blog this. But don't switch off, it's interesting! Suffolk County Council has been in the news all year for its big plan to divest all local services to social enterprise, private businesses and voluntary organisations. Under its radical CEO, Andrea Hill, Suffolk was going to be the first English Council to respond to financial constraints not with simple cutbacks, but with Organisational Transformation.

I use capitals here deliberately because this was as much part of the plan as outsourcing services. Under this analysis, the Council's whole modus operandi was outdated and needed to be changed quickly - and by force if necessary.

This was all going fine until a series of events this year which, cumulatively, led to the New Strategic Direction being, for all intents and purposes, junked. Firstly, the CEO herself was caught in some unfortunate and largely unfair media spotlight. Secondly, the Council decided, in its wisdom, to intro the policy by cutting road crossing patrols for kids. And thirdly there was a series of resigniations: the Leader of the Council, the Director of Resources, the Monitoring Officer. Following this, there was the tragic, potentially related, suicide of a senior manager in the Council.

Then an election. Odds-on favourite, and close ally of the Leader, was, to everyone's surprise easily defeated by the backbench Chairman of Scrutiny on a promise to review the new direction and to tend to organisational morale said to have hit rock bottom. His first act on getting elected was to restore crossing patrols and to order an external inquiry into the management culture of the organisation. The new leader, possibly wisely, sees stability and a pause for reflection, as the most urgent current need.

As a Lib Dem Member of the Council, I am supposed to welcome all of this. And I certainly do welcome the pause for reflection and the assertion of political control after a difficult period in which leadership seemed to disappear from view. But I wonder whether, despite the confrontational communication of the New Strategic Direction, it was actually, the right overall policy for the Council long-term. By placing services outside the Council it gave space for new providers and a diversity of supply which is still sorely lacking. If the outcome of all this is to stop this movement to new providers, I think we will have lost an opportunity.

What can be learned from all this? On reflection, this is a big lesson to anyone seeking to bring in fundamental change. While alignment between the top team is essential, this isn't enough. The middle of the organisation has to be brought on board. While the New Strategic Direction enjoyed some support, both from Councillors and Officers, this was always a minority. Culturally, it always felt like a very tough line - get on board or miss the boat. It felt very confrontational and unyielding.

This is where leadership gets tricky. Part of being a strong leader is being that figure of granite and conviction. People tend to like this. But another element of leadership is getting alongside people, including opponents, acknowledging feelings and fears, and seeking to bring them with you. My hunch is that not enough of this went on, leaving a large constituency of the alienated.
There will always be detractors, but if this becomes the majority, you can find yourself in quicksand should circumstances change, as they just have in Suffolk. There is almost no residual support for a strategy a lot of people felt didn't hadn't embraced them. Leadership, if it is about getting people to follow you, is a test that some leaders, particularly those with a tough message, struggle to pass.

I really do feel for anyone trying to lead change in a crisis. It ain't easy and the medicine is always pretty awful. There is also a reality that institutional self-interest has to be tackled - and that this hasn't been tackled in the past. You see Lansley struggling now, as the leaders of Suffolk did, with ideas which, essentially, took change too far too fast for many of the key stakeholders - including the public - to deal with.

Interestingly, my hunch is that, once the dust settles the new leadership will embark on a path that isn't much different from the New Strategic Direction set out by Andrea Hill. It will have a different name. It will be slower, more consultative and done with less pzazz. But the essentials of it - divestment of council services, the build-up of community capability and a new role for the council as commissioner rather than provider will, over time, prevail.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fighting Deep Municipalism: Guest Blog from a Leader of a new social business that has stepped-out from a Council in England

At an early stage in my thinking I resolved that leadership from the front was important.

It would have been easy as a director to allocate the task to a more junior member of the team and indeed my observation is that spin outs trying to do social care at some scale will struggle without senior players being prepared to put themselves on the line.

Having taken this step it was remarkable to see how many staff were reassured by the fact I was not asking them to do something I was not prepared to do myself. This is powerful stuff and I'll have a lasting memory of the buzz created by the possibility of making something new and providing a safe route out of the organisation for staff who had been subject to death by a thousand cuts over the years.

The buzz was also about the creativity that was unleasehed. People were coming up with ideas about how services could improve in ways they had not done before because they could see they would have a stake in the new company with representation on the board and a share in the benefits going forward. The idea of a bonus scheme was popular and there was a good sense of realism about the need to change, develop or close buildings and services that were well passed the sell by date.

People were up for a change in their roles and recognised the need for terms and conditions around sickness in particular to change. I was struck by how many people were fed up with the few who took advantage of the current system.

The process brought home to me how distant from the front line my role had taken me. I worked with people two or three layers below the senior team and it was a revelation, which rekindled some of that old fire that had over the years been refined into a politically acceptable glow.

The process also brought out some visceral opposition from those ideologically opposed to enterprise that could be viewed as private sector doing the public sector's work regardless of it being not for profit. I was disappointed but not too surprised at the deep deep municipalism that pervades a local public sector. The grip too of unoins that were in our case not representative of 2/3ds of the workforce. Unless its ours and we are in control its not going to happen.

From day one the conversations about control in the governance of the spin out were challenging. These were more hints than demands but eventually we resolved as a company and with some senior colleagues in the council that being completely separate was really the best way in our situation.

I was publically accused of trying to feather my own nest on more than one occasion and it did cut to the bone. Here was me, a dutiful public servant of 25 years standing trying to come up with yet another innovation to get us out of a mess and offering to take a career change risk to find that I was personally villified - more than ever before. It made me think I must be on the right track!

I've been humbled by the support of my family, the hands of friendship from colleagues in the social enteprise and private sector, the risks taken by people coming with me, the values and support of some noble politicians, the support of financial backers and the willingness of other authorities to take on the enteprise's ideas, without which we would not have survived the first few months.

It's as if you cannot be a prophet in your own land. Stepping out is divisive. Those that get it and want it can be seen as a risk or a threat to the remaining system rather than the pathfinders seeking solutions that will also reduce the burden on what remains.

The Backwoodsmen have spoken

Yesterday, in Suffolk, something small but important happened. The ruling Conservatives on Suffolk County Council elected a new leader. Not the person we all expected, but a backbencher, and Chair of Scrutiny, Cllr. Mark Bee, who has expressed reservations about the Council's much publicised New Strategic Direction or 'Virtual Council' strategy.

His first act as Leader has been to reprieve all of Suffolk's crossing patrols and to pledge that no public service will be divested until all options had been fully explored. You could smell the rubber on this particular U-turn. If this is a flavour of what is to come, it is quite possible that the New Strategic Direction could very quickly become the Old one.

So how has this come about? What has turned Suffolk from daring outsourcer to protector of crossing-patrols in 24 hours? Very simply, the power of the Backwoodsmen - shire-Tory Councillors who, for the last six months, have been getting in the neck at Parish Council meetings. This breed are often not deeply political. Many are One Nation types who don't like anything fancy, and prefer to see the Council out of the news. Others are big community players who like to be seen on the side of the people. For the Backwoodsmen, the New Strategic Direction has always been a challenge.

But what tipped the balance? What caused them to elected a new Leader totally unassociated with the current direction of travel You could say that the media campaign against the CEO of Suffolk, Andrea Hill, has not helped. However, what really did it was very simple - crossing patrols. Last month, in order to save £180,000, Suffolk County Council decided to pass responsibility for its crossing patrols to unspecified others - Town Councils, Boroughs, communities, schools even.

This wasn't, of course, about saving money. It was a Big Statement, to say, this is what we are doing - and it's up to communities now to pick up where the state is leaving the stage. Many of us sensed that, regardless of the merits, this was Bad Politics - and a really daft way to get people signed up to major change. But the Administration pressed on, despite an outcry. Rather than pull back and say 'We're listening', they said ploughed on, leaving many on their own side, privately, very upset.

Which brings us back to politics. Good politics is, often, about the successful management of change. Getting people on board early. Giving people a chance to feel heard. Offering them influence over what is in their domain. Responding to emotion and being prepared to give a little in exchange for full backing. The reason why Suffolk's New Strategic Direction is now vulnerable isn't so much its content - much of which is laudable - but its political management. It has been presented in a confrontational fashion and politicians haven't done the necessary work both inside the Council and beyond to see the policy through to implementation.

What will happen next? Like many Councillors, I am pleased to see a clear commitment to listening. However, I also worry that moves to shift services into social enterprises and charities will stall. I worry that the cuts we need to make will come from procurement from large global corporates, and by closing services, rather than intelligent divestment. And I fear the effects of any profound change in direction in between elections. For those organisations seeking to partner with the Council, these cannot be easy times.

So, the Backwoodsmen have spoken. Who says backbench Councillors have no power?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Guest Blog - Scott Darraugh from Social Adventures on stepping out from the NHS

Since stepping out of the NHS and going-live as a new social business, it's been quite a couple of weeks ! The whole things as been like running the London Marathon wearing a Gorilla costume.

Friday (1st April) last week has been be the most surreal day for my career to date !

9am we all received P45's from NHS Salford which was emotional for me and the team after 10 years for NHS service. Some members were visibly upset. And to be honest I did have a lump in my throat at that point.

At noon I signed the contract with NHS Salford for the next 3 hopefully 5 years. Next stop was HR to collect the crate with our HR records. The whole floor was deserted bar 2 ladies one collecting name badges, laptops and mobile phones and the other handing out records to the staff moving to the local authority or acute trust. By the time I got back to the office the first quarter's cash had hit the account !

Then to the local pub to celebrate !

I did for some strange reason think that this would be a moment where things would somehow get back to normal (pre right to request) where life would be again just be about developing and delivering services. Errrm no! I now find myself the expert in VAT, HR law, negociating new deals with suppliers and organising a new payroll system !

But does it feel different ?

YES things are somehow more productive. There has been a cultural shift within the team. People are driven to make a difference to take ownership and I believe that has to be better for the people we serve. With the right to request comes lots for new responsibility, responsibility to service users to deliver great service and to employees to be a healthy and happy place to work.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reflections and Being Older and Younger

It's Saturday evening. A stunning day of weather, the best of the year so far. Warmth from the sun. A cool, gentle breeze. My perfect weather.

All a perfect antidote to my 'Saturday hangover'. Not drink-related, but the fogginess and heaviness I often feel after a long week. I had these all the time while a CEO and now, as Stepping Out hots up a bit, they're coming back.

'You're not 30 any more', my wife helpfully reminded me this week, as I emerged, punch-drunk from a long evening session on Thursday. She is keen to point out that my powers at nearly 42 are not what they once were, a message I am of course equally keen to avoid.

However, the body at 41 is, in many and subtle ways, different to its 25 year old self. Even if, like me, you try to eat the right stuff, keep fit and go to bed at a decent time. I can't get on the floor these days because my knees bloody kill me. Nor can I really cope with anything more than a glass or two of wine, let alone a bender.

Mentally I feel less creative, slower somehow a lot of time. It can be 10am before I feel properly able to do anything. And this is a bloke who, as I said, looks after himself, keeps the stress to manageable levels and doesn't do late nights. God help me if I wasn't.

Back to today. The garden is, as often happens to people as they get a little older, becoming more absorbing. I have recently become quite fascinated by my new lawnmower. I just can't get enough of it. The stripes it produces bewitch me. Strimming has, in recent years, become a pleasure rather than a duty. I get lost in it, like I sometimes do when reading or writing my blog. Breathing cool, fresh air under a cobalt sky on an English spring day feels like one of life's treats, to me anyway.

The children have been great today. They're at a good age - 3 and 4. So much easier than just a year ago and capable of a lot more. We play hide and seek in the park, they searching for me then me seeker. Hiding is such fun, I find. It takes me back to long evenings as a kid playing an elaborate hiding game called Kick Can, where a team of hiders play a team of seekers.

As an under-10 I was allowed out pretty much all the time. These were the days before parental anxiety. The truth was that a lot more kids in the 70s did die in accidents, murders etc than today. But I wouldn't have swopped my childhood freedoms for al the X boxes in the world. I loved my adventures, still remember then like yesterday.

Will I let my kids roam the same way? I actually hope I do. As long as they keep their mobiles switched on.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Big Dilemma

As some of you will know I live in one corner of a big public park. The park is run by the Council - but for how long into the future we don't know. In preparation for the day, the Council has wisely set up a 'Friends of' group which could, in time, evolve into something more.

So last night I missed bedtime stories and trooped down, Big Society-style, to the park to the Friends meeting. I had extra motive because, without saying very much at all the Council had put whackin' great fences up around my favourite meadow in some hare-brained attempt to earn revenue from grazing - except no revenue actually comes in till 2017 because the grazier has paid for the fencing.

Anyway, nuff said there. The meeting was composed of various people from the community, mostly older and all, I would say, not high in confidence around their role as a group. The dominant force in the meeting was the man from the council, who, for the most part, was letting people know what was happening.

The interesting bit here is the future. The park is a great place but financially not that viable. It has buildings in it which if sold could raise funds - an endownment effectively - for the park. Equally, they could, with investment, be made into rustic retail and garden-centre type operations which, in turn, would generate revenue.

But who would do this? The Council themselves probably don't have the skills. But neither too do the community. This isn't an area full of up-and-at-it professionals who will lead a new social venture, attract the investment, redevelop the site etc.

So who will do it? I suspect an enterprise bringing all of the parks in West Suffolk under one umbrella is the likely answer - some kind of spin-out which can attract revenues which the council can't. Then comes the question of where the commercial skills will come from. Because one thing is certain. The man from the council will still be at the centre of things and we could be no further on.

My dilemma therefore is this: do I work with and on this gentleman, bringing him along to appreciating that the park is not his park, to share power a little more and, yes, let commerce play a role in a sustainable future? Or do I argue that parts of the park need to be sold off now to create an endowment - and probably put the man from the council out of the picture?

Interesting one - any thoughts?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Why names matter in the charity world- my piece for Third Sector magazine

What's in a name?

Well, quite a lot in the world of charities. You see this when mergers or takeovers come on to the agenda. For many charities, keeping their name above the door is one of the red lines where a stampede towards merger judders to a halt - even if this increases the risk of the charity going out of business.

I used to think this was plain daft. Having taken an organisation I founded into a successful merger, I just couldn't get my head around people who would, when pushed, rather lose their organisation than their name. But a couple of things have made me think again.

The first is that our own merger - that of Speaking Up with Advocacy Partners - didn't see a takeover of one organisation's identity by the other. We forged a wholly new identity that drew on the heritage of both organisations. Trustees and staff got involved and we all celebrated the result. Feelings of loss were offset by a bigger sense of our new start - as VoiceAbility.

The second prod to think again was a realisation that names and brands matter deeply in the charity world, more perhaps than we imagine - and not in a trivial or petty way. Names carry important messages about values, heritage and identity to which staff devote their careers, users offer their trust and funders invest their cash. The potential loss of a name, therefore, can feel like the loss of something very important.

A takeover doesn't always make sense either. Carelessly taking over an excellent local charity is like mixing a fine Bordeaux into a case of Aussie Shiraz and expecting it, somehow, to influence the resulting blend.

Rather than create a disappointing mix, might it not be far better for both sides to agree to move the Bordeaux to a larger organisation's cool, well-maintained cellar where it can both be enhanced over time and increase the value of the cellar as a whole?

One way to do just this is through a group structure in which one charity operates as a supported subsidiary of the larger body. It enjoys the benefits of operational independence while buttressed by the capabilities of the larger player.

Another is a formal strategic partnership in which infrastructure and fundraising support is traded for access to the smaller charity's talent for innovation. None of this happens without trust - but for trust to take root, both parties, particularly the smaller one, must feel they aren't going to be swallowed up. If a merger is just about being absorbed into a bigger brand, with none of the old identity intact, it actually makes sense for the smaller party to fight on alone.

None of this is a case against mergers. It is a case for saying that there are ways for larger, stronger organisations to work with smaller ones without scorching the delicate ecology that makes the small charity an attractive partner in the first place