Search This Blog

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Drink coffee; change the world

I was in Swansea last week speaking on social entrepreneurship at an event organised by the Wales Cooperative Centre. The two day conference formed part of a digital inclusion campaign, which is successfully getting more social enterprises, charities and community organisations online.

The even took place at the DVLA's super training centre. It was a suitably high-tech venue from which many of the presentations were streamed live to viewers around the world. (Who tweeted questions to me @robertashton1)

But I want to talk about Avenance, the company who run the catering here. They are a national provider of excellent catering services. The food was good and the service exceptional, but a huge opportunity was missed. You see the espresso machine was not turned on and the staff on duty were not selling nice coffee, or selling sweets. You could only have the catering included in the conference package.

I asked the audience for a show of hands: 'how many of you would have paid for a decent coffee today?' Around 50 hands went up. And that's the lost opportunity for us all. You see had they sold coffee to those willing to pay the premium for froth, chocolate sprinkles and freshly ground beans, they might have taken £500 over the counter over the two days. The staff were there; the till was there and the coffee machine was there.

What could Avenance have done with that money? It would be 'bonus income' and thus available for CSR activity, such as providing additional staff time to help provide work experience to someone regaining confidence and workplace skills after a spell of poor mental health. It could have been given to the local playgroup to fund much needed new toys, or used to pay for a pensioner Christmas lunch in that same venue.

You see were well all willing to pay and the money could have be used in many useful ways. Instead the opportunity was lost. This surely is what Big Society is about - responding to opportunity, meeting a demand and using the profits for social good. It's not difficult; all that's needed is for employers like Avenance to empower, excite and entrust their people.

Add all these small opportunities together and the money is there to change the world. Let's do it!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

I've been outed by the BBC as a fan of Big Society!

I've long stopped being worried about speaking in public. I've also now done several radio and TV interviews and of course with help from my friend Nik written and presented my own series on a Sky channel.

But the BBC felt somehow different. I was interviewed for this week's BBC One Politics Show (the BBC East) version. My brief was to explain why I think Big Society is about much more than saving the Government money and persuading Britain's good folk to volunteer to deliver public services. 

So the first half of the programme (the national bit) had big names including Norman Lamont talking about big issues like Ireland's national insolvency. Then it was teenage pregnancy in Great Yarmouth and then Big Society. I appeared after a grumpy, cynical trade unionist and was followed by Phillip Blond, Mr Big Society himself!

What surprised me was the mounting anxiety as the moment neared. How had I been edited? Would I be presented in a positive way or as an idealist, out of touch with reality? Of course it was fine and tomorrow afternoon's BBC Look East will have me re-edited to respond to the comments phoned in after today's broadcast.

The thing is, Big Society is a huge opportunity for everyone to make sure that what happens in their locality is what needs to happen, rather than what some centrally generated Government policy prescribes. It's common sense and very exciting. And now the BBC have outed me as a Big Society enthusiast, I can't wait to see what happens next!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Be nice to a bureaucrat today!

I recently wrote a newspaper column about my experience of 'Big Society' . In it I mentioned the fact that the team at Norfolk County Council's Children's Services are making a huge effort to adapt to the fast changing environment. Traditionally schools and local authorities rarely agree on everything and too often the relationship becomes rather adversarial.

Here in Norfolk I'm working with a school to create a 'Big Society' solution to their urgent need of a new campus. The way school and local authority are working together with my help to create the best result, involving both private and third sector partners is breathtaking. It's a pleasure to witness the enthusiasm with which both teams are looking for the pragmatic middle ground between safe but slow bureaucratic process and edgy, innovative new ways of working. Good governance must be maintained, but so too must opportunities be grasped before they disappear.

Feedback from County Hall suggests that my column was well received and rightly so. It's too easy to default to past mindsets and be critical, missing the fact that times have changed. Everyone is in the same boat now, anxious about the inevitable change, but also excited by what the future holds.

So before you start complaining, kicking and undermining the bureaucrats in your life, think again. Recognise how times are changing and try being nice to them instead. You'll be surprised by what happens!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Why drive a Golf when you can have a nice Trabant for the same price?

I'm beginning to wonder if the phrase 'social enterprise' needs to slip gently beneath the surface of our economy. The principle of social enterprise is sound, to create businesses that pay equal regard to people, planet and profit, but in practice

I think we're beginning to see that 'brand' devalued. In my view, too many folk are trying to win work for their social enterprise not because of what they do, but what they are.

It must have been the same in East Germany, when people were encouraged to save up to buy a Trabant knowing that just over the border, people were driving the VW Golf. Protectionism protected the Trabant from competition and so the need for innovation and engineering excellence was less important. Those currently calling for our current stock of social enterprises to be subsidised could be said to be heading down that same path.

In some ways, that's already happening. I've visited charity shops that are so dire and dirty that only the most intrepid bargain hunter dares to enter. I've also visited several Oxfam bookshops. These are also charity shops, but with a professional look and feel. You don't have to endure embarrassment and discomfort to shop in a store that employs vulnerable people and raises money for a good cause.

I can see a time emerging where what you are doesn't matter, because it's what you do that people will value. If what you do benefits vulnerable people in a sustainable and sensible way, then that's good. But surely encouraging all enterprises to do that is how we're going to create a more equal future, not just those structured as social enterprises.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Why tender when there's too much at stake?

I don't tender for work. Not because I don't believe I can win tenders, but because I don't want to take on projects that have rigidly defined outcomes. The skill of tendering in my view is to show how, beyond reasonable doubt, you will deliver exactly what the client is asking for. When I take on a project, both I and the client have a shared understanding of the issues and opportunities. We also have agreed that there is room for creativity, innovation and serendipity too. Sometimes you don't know what might happen until you let it.How do you define that in a tender that will be scored against a pre-prepared matrix.

Of course I could simply take the money and deliver what is asked for, but somehow, I don't have it in me to overlook what crops up that actually might deliver a better result. My clients sometimes wrestle with the problem of tendering from the other perspective. They think I can deliver what is needed but as yet, cannot define either the outcome or process in a way that enables them to offer the project out for open tender.

It's about being honest, open and most of all trusting each other in my view. The tendering process too often replaces trust and openness with cunning and secrecy. Isn't it time people made buying decisions based on trust and instinct? Sometimes there's simply too much at stake!

Monday, 27 September 2010

Releasing potential

It's such a pleasure to help really nice people escape from the confines of their public sector past. The cultural and attitudinal changes demanded by 'Big Society' are huge and not everyone finds it easy to adapt.

Last week, I was able to introduce a state school Head Teacher, let down by the demise of BSF, to someone able to bring together private investors to build the new school she needs.The penny only really dropped when the lead investor explained that although he could fund the whole project himself, he'd prefer to work with others. I don't think she'd met many really wealthy people before.

I don't think the Head Teacher had realised that whilst the public sector agonise and plan for months, even years, about any investment decision, then spend many more months making sure it's 'done correctly', the private sector listen to your pitch and decide on the spot. If it feels right, it must be right and the detail will inevitably fall into place as the principle heads of agreement are reached.

Increasingly I am working as a deal broker in this way, preparing the two sides then bringing them together to share the vision I have helped them imagine. It's rewarding, great fun and surely what 'Big Society' is all about?

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Rules and how to bend them

 I've just suggested to Norwich City Council that they put the rule book to one side and respond to an emergency. There are 300 of their former workers who transferred  out under TUPE and found themselves out of work when Connaught (to whom they had TUPE transferred again) went bust.

The press reported that the Council had the work and the budget but rules forbade them from hiring the workers directly. They hoped that the new contractors they hired through an open tender process would take on some of the now redundant workers.

My suggestion, that the workers form a cooperative and contract with the Council was met with some enthusiasm. But the rules say it can't be done like that I was told. It reminds me of the case recently where a child drowned because the first emergency worker on the scene did not have the right training to wade into a pond to save the child.

Sure breaking rules always carries risk, but at what point to you lay the rule book to one side to deal compassionately and quickly with an emergency. Many of the 300 workers were employed for decades by the Council before all this contracting nonsense took them into the private sector. They are vulnerable people, being pushed around and now punished by a system over which they have no control.

To me, 'Big Society' is all about putting people first. Here's a great opportunity for a city to work together to do what's right for the people. The people who now find themselves out of work; the people whose Council owned homes need repairs and the people who together make Norwich one of the world's nicest cities.

I've even found a man with the perfect combination of skills and experience to make it happen. I've made the introduction and now need to sit back and see what happens. I hope everyone rises to the challenge!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Tunnelling to freedom

Last week I had a coffee with a couple of senior public sector managers. Enthusiasts of 'Big Society' they had long held plans to take their whole department out of the organisation to create a dynamic social enterprise. With several hundred staff and many vulnerable service users, this is no small step. However the plan is robust and the benefits plain to see. A new organisation, focused entirely on meeting the changing needs of its service users, flexible enough to adapt, collaborate and innovate. Free of the crushing bureaucracy that so often stifles creativity in the public sector.

A bold timetable for devolution has been created and the plan is widely supported. However, in the public sector, things have to be done by the 'rules' and change is never rapid. What does this mean? Well the timetable has already been scuppered because of the infrequency of meetings at which the plan can be discussed and approved by the people at the top.

I'm reminded of that very unhelpful tactic employed so often by those in the public sector faced with unwelcome change. They simply slow the process to the point at which it stalls, or those behind it just give up and leave the organisation.

My friend described taking her organisation out of the authority as 'tunnelling under the wire'. Isn't it a shame that those manning the watchtowers, patrolling the fence and setting free the dogs are actually on the same side? I've promised to encourage community groups to start tunnelling in from the outside, hopefully to meet those escaping half way.

Are you ready to start digging in to your County Hall to set free the social entrepreneurs being held almost against their will? Go on, I dare you!

Sunday, 22 August 2010

A tale of two cities

The new Government of an ancient nation decided to trust its citizens and let them decide how they wanted things organised. The bureaucrats were put out to grass and each Provincial administration encouraged to stop wasting money, to stop creating pointless structures and systems and instead to put control of public services and resources with the people who matter; the citizens themselves.

In the far east of that nation sits two halves of a once even older kingdom. Today it comprises two provinces, one the North Folk and the other the South Folk. The local politicians and officers in both administrations listened intently to what the new Government was suggesting. Both decided they knew the answer and both hurried to their capital cities to plan their exciting new future.

The North Folk had already created a wholly owned trading company. Someone suggested that if public services were transferred to this convenient organisation costs could be saved, public needs met and the whole thing done without the need for too much consultation or debate. The officers were after all the professionals here and providing the elected members saw change and cost saving, all would be well.

The South Folk had a very different idea. They decided to take the Government at its word and pass ownership of all public services back to local community groups. They reckoned this would save money and enable communities to mix and match services to get the best possible use out of every resource. So the library in a small town could become the hub for training courses, community group meetings and even host service providers looking for a base in that town. Flexibility, local accountability and innovation, supported by a core team of professionals was the answer they thought.

And so it came to pass that the North Folk saw little real change, although to be fair their administration did make the money go further and that everyone agreed was good.

The South Folk saw tremendous change. A host of exciting new partnerships and initiatives emerged as each community blended services and resources to meet their own local needs. The elected members and officers of the provincial authority ensured fair play, kept things compliant with the remaining sensible national legislation and everyone become very, very happy. Here, people felt they belonged, had a say and were part of something good. When they visited the North Folk they saw how little had really changed and marvelled at the progress they had made. Big Society had arrived in both provinces, but only in the South had it become real.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Mirror, mirror on the wall . . . .

When you look in the mirror every morning what do you see? Do you see the face of a person eager to confront the challenges of the day, or the face of someone tired of the same old work life work routine?

Now look out of the window. What do you see there? Has anything changed? No, I don’t mean the new car at No. 16 nor do I mean the tantalising glimpses of flesh as the Johnsons prepare for the day with their curtains open – yet again!

What I want you to see is not visible to the eye, but is certainly there and different all the same. You see your street, your town and indeed the whole nation is now covered with a thin film of new opportunity. That opportunity is called ‘Big Society’.

We all know the principle behind it. A cash strapped new Government deciding to peel away the layers of bureaucracy, over-regulation and rules to clear the ground for local people to take back control of local services. Individual communities can now design and develop the things they want and need. It’s no longer one size fits all, but a tailor made approach to public service delivery.

But what about the sad face that greets you in the mirror each morning? What does it mean to you? Well for those willing to rise to the challenge and seize the opportunity, it’s the chance of a lifetime to follow your heart and do what feels right, rather than the same old thing.

For some this means adapting their job to help their organisation meet the challenges presented by ‘Big Society’. For others it’s the chance to go it alone and replace the sad face in the bathroom mirror with an excited one, as each day brings with it new opportunities.

For Peter, James and Dean that meant starting Ethecol, the first truly ethical merchant services provider. Fed up with corporate life and excited by the new world they can clearly see, they’ve started a unique social enterprise that does business in a very different way to its established rivals.

For the small business paying through the nose for the now vital opportunity to accept card payments Ethecol is a godsend. They enable you to get a better service at a lower cost. This is achieved simply by introducing you to a bank that wants your business; rescuing you from one who sees your modest turnover as nuisance.

Next the clever bit. Banks usually pay a small commission to the introducer on retailer’s card transactions. Ethecol’s mission is to help charities raise cash, so in your area, that bank commission would be paid direct to your local Community Foundation. Here it joins commission from all the businesses Ethecol signs up in your part of the world. Collectively, you are now building a significant fund from which grants will be made to emerging and vulnerable community groups.

So what do the Ethecol lads see when they look in their respective bathroom mirrors each morning? They see happy faces. Happy because they have a business that saves customers money and generates income for charity. It’s what ‘Big Society’ is about; it’s the future and it’s here today!