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Small but perfectly informed

May 10, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Credit crunch 

After yesterday’s massive screed of a blog (someone sent me a text saying ‘I read the first half but had to stop when I realised I was losing the will to live’), something shorter and lighter.

I gave a lunchtime talk today to ACEVO (the third sector CEOs’ organisation). When they first asked me they said forty people were coming, then it was nineteen, then twelve and finally eight of us sat down to lamb cutlets or sea bass. Despite the slight collateral damage to the battered Taylor ego (still smarting after being left off the Metro ‘top 6,000 quite intelligent Londoners called Matthew’ list), it was actually quite nice to be in a small group.

I had decided not to make a big speech about 21st century enlightenment but to explore some of the challenges facing the third sector in the long period of austerity ahead. Being in the company of some very impressive leaders I ended up hearing a number of interesting points. One that will stick with me was the charity which sees its major corporate partners not only, or even primarily, as financial donors but as sources of organisational expertise, guidance and support. Rather than seeing the relationship as a way into money, this charity saw the donation as a way into a relationship. This is a thought and indeed an ambition I have had before but it was powerful  to hear of it in practice.  

Another was a point about collaboration to the effect that the best partnerships often start off being disinterested – just organisations wanting to find out more about, and learn from, each other. It is only later that the opportunities for joint projects and funding bids start to emerge. This contrasts with what has generally been my own experience – shotgun marriages of convenience.  It made me think about which third sector organisations and leaders I most admire and whose aims most clearly align with our own, and also realise that I didn’t need to wait for a concrete proposal before suggesting a conversation.

Finally, I also heard about ACEVO’s report on the Big Society, which is being published on Monday. I shan’t break their embargo but from what I was told the report confirms – but this time with proper analysis and evidence – most of the concerns I have been airing on this blog. I hope to write more fully about the report when it is published.


Sport and the Big Society – a new pitch

April 20, 2011 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

As Easter approaches perhaps I can be allowed to be even more self-indulgent than usual? I am using today’s post to give vent to a deep frustration and to issue a challenge.

When it comes to the Big Society, kids’ football is an amazing success story. I don’t have the figures to hand (if anyone does, please comment) but I think I recall that on any given weekend more than a million parents are involved in in some way: coaching, organising, giving lifts or just being there to cheer on their offspring. This is in support of an activity which is unambiguously beneficial: improving children’s health, developing their capacity to work in teams, to understand the difference between healthy competition and unacceptable aggression, and to handle success and failure.

Best of all, and again I wish I had the stats to hand, volunteering for kids’ football is not nearly as socially stratified as most other forms of civic engagement; working class and ethnic minority kids and parents are just as likely to get involved.

But there is cloud hanging over the park pitches of England.  As austerity bites and as the costs of football rise (kits, pitch fees, ref’s fees, the burden of regulation) many clubs are finding it difficult to survive. Here is one example which has made the news: Senrab– the team which helped develop the skills of John Terry and Sol Campbell – is apparently under threat. Given its famous links and the publicity it has received, Senrab will probably survive but every week many other clubs fold as exhausted enthusiasts give up the ghost.

The big issue here is the amount of money flowing down to community football, and I would be keen to hear from anyone who can comment on that overall picture. But I want to focus on something more specific. One of the problems for tens of thousands of kids’ clubs is not only the cost but the quality of the pitches on which they have to play. After the winter we have had, and now a long dry spell, pitches combine an uneven surface with a high and erratic bounce. It’s like trying to play snooker on corrugated metal. People who don’t play football might think this is all part of the challenge – after all both sides have to cope with a bad pitch and isn’t adjusting part of being a good footballer?

Well, not really. Of course, players have to adapt, especially to different weather conditions. But becoming a skilful player is a lot to do with developing an intuitive ability to judge a pass, predict a bounce and look up from the ball to see options. If the pitch is terrible, it is impossible to develop these skills; good players get demoralised and effectiveness comes down to size and determination rather than skill and intelligence. This is not just bad for the skilful players who get demoralised but for the ones who succeed due to sheer strength only to be exposed if and when they try to play at a higher level. The other problem with standard grass pitches is that they are often simply unplayable. This year my own son’s team played about three games between November and February.

We urgently need thousands more high quality artificial grass pitches. They are always playable and can be played on back to back. Because they can always be used it becomes more economical to install cheap portable floodlights to provide longer playing days in the winter. A collegue here at the RSA contrasts his local town which has four pitches which are all pretty poor and often unplayable with the town in Germany where his girlfriend lives. The German town has a single shared artificial pitch which is played on for ten or eleven hours a day all weekend (and also on some evenings). The one German pitch is not only better but, over the year, provides as much playing time as the four English ones.

The technology of artificial pitches is improving all the time. I met earlier this week with the inspirational CEO of a company called Desso. Pitches are 20% of their business and they are also committed to a cradle to cradle manufacturing process which means pitches get fully recycled when they have reached the end of their lives.

The problem – as it seems to be on so many issues nowadays – is finance. Few, if any, clubs – even if they muck in together – can afford the upfront cost of a pitch. Most pitches wouldn’t anyway be owned by one club, they would need to be managed by a trust which would then cover its costs by hiring fees. The clubs or trust would need a deal whereby they can either lease a pitch or buy it over several years. The risk should be manageable because even if a club goes bust the pitch can be leased or sold on to someone else.

So what we need is easy. An alliance between a bank which is willing to develop a finance package which is simple, and affordable, a supplier of pitches willing to offer a good deal to clubs including support and maintenance (with great sustainability credentials) – judging by the enthusiasm of the CEO, Desso could be such a company, and the FA which would administer the scheme and provide  clubs with upfront costs and advice. How about a target of 5,000 more artificial community use pitches by 2015?

As if often the case, this blog is strong on passion but weak on research (comes of being a busy CEO with a butterfly mind). So, there may be an obvious problems with my idea or it might be that there is already some scheme out there just like this. But unless we can enable our youngsters to play football on better surfaces then most of them will not learn the beautiful game but instead – at best – become proficient at kick and run.


The irredeemable anecdotalism of the Big Society

April 7, 2011 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

I hope she doesn’t mind me telling this story (after all, it’s only really my mum reading), but when she was Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport I once gave some rather impertinent advice to Tessa Jowell. It went something like this:

‘You are a politician who is sometimes portrayed by her critics as being a bit lightweight and fluffy and you are running a running a department that tends – at least in Whitehall – to be seen as rather lightweight and fluffy. So, every time you are asked to asked to make a speech, write an article or do an event you need to ask ‘will this make me and my job more seem more, or seem less, lightweight and fluffy?’. Only say ‘yes’ if it’s the latter’.   

Now is the time to give similar advice to the champions of the political project called the Big Society:

‘Your project is widely perceived as being vague and your assertions based on nothing but anecdote, so whenever you are asked to talk about, write about or host a discussion about the Big Society try at all costs to be concrete, specific and evidence based’.  

This is not advice which appears to have been offered to either Essex County Council or cabinet office minister Nick Hurd, and if it has, it’s not been taken.

To start with the minister, who always comes across to me as thoughtful and progressively minded. This impression was underlined when he introduced a seminar I attended earlier this week at the Cabinet Office.

The big issue, he told a room of two dozen or so Big Society thinkers and practitioners, is how we ensure that handing more power to communities does not exacerbate social inequality.

This is important. Take one example – mine, not the ministers – well-off people live longer, so in middle class communities there are lots of skilled and healthy retired people (the bedrock of community activism) while in poor communities there are very few.

The topic was right and it is encouraging to see a vital and difficult issue (which I have mentioned before in this blog) being picked up. But I’m afraid the good news ends there. For what followed was a meeting in which each person took it in turn to share some combination of (a) extolling the virtues of their own charity (b) telling us about the wonderful work of Mrs Muggins who has single-handedly transformed her council estate from violent chaos to a communitarian paradise (c) and holding forth on their own pet theory about community mobilisation (in case I sound overly critical, I did exactly the same when it came to my turn).

I’m not saying there weren’t good examples – some very good – and intelligent points, but overall the whole thing was about as robust as a tissue paper suspension bridge and about as illuminating as reflective jacket in a coal hole.

What was missing? First, some kind of structure for the conversation, identifying key issues and then exploring them in turn; second, any evidence of the current problem and its nature and causes; third, any credible account of how the Coalition intends to address the issue, with perhaps some policy options and dilemmas; fourth, any quantifiable aspiration of what the Government would like to achieve, in relation to which they might even one day be held accountable.   

Now, such meandering anecdotalism is fine for a radio phone–in or for a panel event (like the one I spoke at last week with Jesse Norman), but it won’t do from a Government that claims its big idea as a justification for some pretty tough decisions and as the foundation for a better future.

A large local authority should aim higher too. So, whilst there is plenty to admire in ‘Good for Essex’ the Council council’s ‘Big Society prospectus’ here again there is complete reliance on description and a total absence of analysis.

What is there to dislike about the ‘Essex County council employee volunteering service’, ‘our support for police neighbourhood action panels’, ‘our work to inspire ideas amongst communities’, ‘the work of stroke support partners’  or any other of the fifty five projects listed in the brochure. But to what does it all add up? Is there more or less support to third sector organisations, is all the support creating a more engaged county and how is this impacting on more basic measures of individual and collective well-being?

Surely these are relevant questions given not only the general context of cuts and austerity, but the overwhelming evidence that the last few decades have seen, on the one hand, little or no change in rates of volunteering and philanthropy and, on the other, a continually worsening regressive social gradient in all forms of engagement?  

I have said in the past that the Big Society thesis is – to use a disparaging term used by economists – ‘not good enough to be wrong’. This means it doesn’t even assert something which could be proven to be false, let alone something which could be shown to be true.

It may be fair enough that the Coalition is trying to get rid of targets and most forms of social measurement, for example, the citizenship and place surveys which could actually have told us what was happening to community engagement. There were far too many targets under the last Government and if services are being cut who is going to say a survey is a priority? But if intelligent Government ministers and effective local authorities ask us to judge the Big Society on such flimsy evidence it will just become harder and harder for those of us who still see merit in the project to defend it.


Bottom up sweet spots for the Big Society

March 10, 2011 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

A few days ago I wrote about big business and the Big Society.  Businesses can lever their relationship with customers to encourage changes in behaviour which then loop round to support the company’s commercial strategy and so on. The example I gave was the support Nike gives to sporting participation. There is also Flora’s ‘how old is your heart’ site which encourages people to think about the health and reduce their cholesterol by measures including… buying Flora’s cholesterol-cutting spread.

A third example is provided by B and Q stores which provide DIY training courses for their customers (and very popular they are too, apparently). In my post I called the point where the brand supports socially-benign behaviour change which in turn supports the commercial strategy ‘the sweet spot’. It is hard to identify, hard to reach and hard to sustain but offers a major opportunity to channel private investment into social capacity and to strengthen brands.

This morning I heard a way of commercialising the Big Society from the bottom up. This is a Fellow who has started a company which provides neighbourhood safety services not through a narrow and reactive security model but through workers who seek to build the community’s own capacity and resilience .

As the company says on its web site: ‘we also ask customers to be part of the solution joining a neighbourhood watch, being a peer mentor, or taking forward volunteering opportunities in conjunction with our charitable partners’.  

The company calls itself a social enterprise even though in governance terms it is a conventional small commercial business. This opens up the question of what counts a as a social enterprise and whether it is purpose, ethos, impact or governance that matters most.

Many social enterprises I come across are constituted in ways that lock in their social purposes, for example as Community Interest Companies. But many of these also have business model which rely on grant funding or some form of philanthropy. There are many great ideas for new social businesses, but there is a displacement issue; at some point new calls on government funds or public donations simply compete with existing demands.

In contrast, the community safety model takes something which would have been done commercially – but in a way that didn’t engage the community – and turns it into a model which has a positive multiplier; the better the company is at levering community capacity the more effectively they will do their job and the more contacts they will win.

Of course, in this model there are tensions. Most obviously will the community members be happy that their efforts are feeding into the bottom line of a commercial venture?  Invovlecsp will have to show that it reinvests most of its profits in enhancing its social impact. And if it works it will have to look out for dodgy imitators. I remember my grandmother, who lived in Crosby on Merseyside, being persuaded on the doorstep to join the local ‘neighbourhood crime watch’ scheme, paying £25 for a information pack and a window sticker only to find out the whole thing was a scam!     

Still, I am impressed by the idea that the sweet spot is something than can by hit from the bottom up through innovation as well as from the top down through corporate strategy.


Can big ideas succeed in politics?

March 9, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

Some of you may remember Dennis Norden used to have a steady flow of ‘being old means…’ aphorisms, as in ‘being old is when you realise your get up and go has got up and gone’. I suspect they have gone a bit of out fashion now that so many middle aged people continue to try to behave like twenty somethings. Perhaps a new one might be ‘being old is when you look back and find Dennis Norden aphorisms poignant and amusing’. Anyway, my own is additon to the canon is ‘being old is noticing that the point in the week when you think ‘I’ve had enough of this – it’s time for the weekend’ is getting closer and closer to Monday morning’.  

Such meanderings are by way of providing half of a reason for posting twice in one day. At lunchtime I wrote a piece for Reform to go alongside a conference they are holding on the Big Society. As sometimes happens when I am dog tired, I managed to sit still for a full 15 minutes and bash out the whole piece in one go. So I am sharing it.

The other reason is that my earlier defence of IDS is already causing lots of nice progressive people to go crazy with me, so I am hoping to distract them by being a little bit snide about the Big Society.

Here is the Reform mini-article starting with the title they gave me.

‘ Can big ideas succeed in politics? I guess the answer to this question lies in part in what we mean by a big idea and what we mean by success. ‘Cool Britannia’ was a big idea which referred to something real; the success of the UK in the creative and cultural industries. But as no one who is cool calls themselves cool, the phrase came across as silly and hubristic.

New Labour’s Third Way was also a big and timely idea; namely that social democracy had to adapt to modernity and in particular the rise of consumerism and the impact of globalisation. But it was a rotten brand. Not only had there been other, discredited, third ways in the past but the idea smacked of tactical realignment rather than a deeper progressive project. At a Labour Party conference in the late 90s John Prescott was told of an opinion poll that revealed that people were more likely to the think the Third Way was a chocolate bar than a political programme: ‘that’s funny’ he said ‘ I always thought it was a fudge’.

But what of today’s grand idea; the Big Society. It has inevitably been the subject of sardonic humour. At a recent RSA event a speaker got a good laugh when he said “ the Big Society or, as my grandmother used to refer to it, ‘society’. More damaging has been the consistent complaint that the concept is vague or that it is merely a cover for cuts. 

So if David Cameron and Steve Hilton had hoped the Big Society would be greeted with popular acclaim they must be disappointed. If, however, their objective was to get the idea into the bloodstream of public discourse and (if I can mix my metaphors) try to create a new political battleground they have more reason to be pleased.

Literally not a day of mine goes by without receiving an invitation to attend or speak at a Big Society themed event. However much the commentariat, the Opposition and the grandees of the third sector claim to despise the idea they can’t seem to stop talking about it.

I have no need to disguise my enthusiasm for the concept. After all, my first annual lecture for the RSA – back in 2007 – was on the topic of what I inelegantly called ‘the social aspiration gap’. I argued that if ‘we are to be the people we have to be to create the future we say we want’ we need a population which is, in aggregate, more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social. This is, by the way, my answer to the question ‘what is the idea behind the Big Society?’.

My problem is not the idea but its implementation. The Reform conference is a valuable opportunity to discuss this. But let me end with a quotation from Tory Council leader, Sir Merrick Cockell: ‘in the end Government cannot build the Big Society. It can prepare the ground and get out of the way’. Right on Sir Merrick, but if you know how to prepare the ground while cutting deep into community sector budgets you have answered a question still baffling the rest of us.”

And if you’ve got through that, here’s your reward; perhaps my favourite getting-old one liner, from Bob Hope:            

‘ I don’t feel old. I don’t feel anything until noon. Then it’s time for my nap. “


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