Small charities in crisis but fear not…here comes the government

commissioning20report20coverThe excellent ‘Commissioning in Crisis’ report from the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales recently set out how ‘broken commissioning threatens the survival of small charities’. And just a week later the Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, announced a programme to help get small charities into the public service supply chain.

Excellent – responsive government, sensitive to the needs of small charities and acting on available evidence in a decisive and timely fashion, right?


Or perhaps it’s merely encouraging more small not for profits down the road of wasted hours, time and thankless bureaucracy in the forlorn hope of winning contracts?

To help me make up my mind (and mindful of the political dimensions of interpreting evidence), I thought I’d start by taking a look at what Commissioning in Crisis says.

Much of the report’s content will not come as much surprise to anyone who has worked for or with small charities (or for that matter a SME). Phrases like unacceptable hoops, poor scrutiny and irrelevant requirements are sadly all too familiar to those who have ventured bravely down the public service procurement path. It is worth mentioning at this stage that this type of bureaucratic time-wasting is not the preserve solely of government. At their worst charitable trusts and foundations ae also guilty of poor processes and systems that place huge unnecessary burdens on applicants. It is by no-means widespread and substantial effort to improving things has been made over the past 20 years or so….but not to the extent that charitable grant-makers can start pointing out the inadequacy of government without impunity.

My perspective here may not be unique, but I have worked as a grant-maker; I have developed commissioning processes in local government and I have applied for numerous grants and public service contracts within small charities. In my experience, public sector procurement is far far worse than almost all charitable grant-makers application processes.

What is not new, but has now reached epidemic proportions, is the shift away from grants towards contracts for no other reason than the new public management orthodoxy says grants are bad and contracts are more efficient. It is a widely held view and one that I have absolutely no sympathy for. The evidence to justify this politically-motivated approach is noticeable only by its complete absence. I am not for one minute suggesting that contracts are inappropriate in some circumstances, what I am saying is that they are used crudely and inappropriately far too often.

The solution offered by the Minister is – as Gethyn Williams pointed out – very reminiscent of government policy circa 2005…but without the money to back it up. We have a Public Service Incubator, a commissioning kitemark and a voluntary, community and social enterprise crown representative.

I had never heard of a ‘crown representative’ before but it turns out it’s something that was introduced in 2011 in order to ‘help the government to act as a single customer.’ Strategic suppliers – which appears to mean big business – have Crown Representatives. The likes of Serco, BAE Systems, Tata Steel and Lockheed Martin have named individuals on a document on the Cabinet Office website. There’s also one for the banking industry, one for the energy industry and one for SME sector.

Clearly someone feels that’s a model which is working so well it ought to be replicated for the not for profit sector. I wonder whether the Federation of Small Businesses would care to comment on the efficacy of the approach?

In 2005 we didn’t have Public Service Incubators we had a national training programme through the ‘Partnership in Public Services’ programme.

An article in Third Sector magazine from 2006 says this:

The Government has pledged to make procurement processes fairer and more proportionate by drawing up a set of standard contracts for public bodies contracting services from the voluntary sector.

Sound familiar?

The fact is that huge budget cuts and increasing demand on public services has made things far worse, not better, in a great many instances.

Smaller charities may well be facing a crisis; indeed it is one that has been rumbling on since 2008/9. The belief that the solution is to spend time learning to navigate the labyrinth of public sector procurement processes and compete for an ever-diminishing pot is misguided. Surely the solution is to change the system rather than suggest everyone learn how to play by the broken rules of commissioning?

I’m not suggesting that’s an easy task for central government or local government. But I’d like to think that if we put our minds to it, we could come up with a better solution than a commissioning kitemark and crown representative. And maybe it involves small charities and community groups getting on with delivering social benefit without necessarily delivering public services.


A study of predicting welfare scroungers and providing targeted support to vulnerable people

“Test predicts which children will grow up to be drain on society – when they are just three years old” screamed the headline in the Telegraph this week. Posting the article on Facebook sparked a flurry of fascinating discussion, ranging from eugenics and normalisation through to private education and Philip Larkin. Some of it rather took me by surprise…

Whereas I had, perhaps naively, assumed that the knowledge of how we could better target resources on preventative interventions to those who most need support, others saw this as a sinister development.

I realised from the outset that the Telegraph had, as is their way, taken a particularly unpleasant slant on the research to blame these people in a barely disguised throwback to the Victorian notion of the ‘undeserving poor’. How else can one explain opinions (rather misleadingly presented as ‘news’) like this:

“A simple test at the age of three can determine whether children will grow up to be a burden on society, needing excessive welfare, ending up in jail or becoming obese.”


I had not really considered that this evidence, in the wrong hands (or in the ‘wrong minds’) might provide the justification for writing off children as young as 3 as criminals. Nor had I envisaged how this research might be used to ostracise young children who fail to conform to socially prescribed notions of what is ‘normal’. The authors of the research (and not the Telegraph article) though clearly had, referencing the “…warnings (that) are issued about the myth of early-childhood determinism…”

While, as many pointed out, it is not a new idea to suggest that you can accurately predict future outcomes by looking at the characteristics or test results of young children. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (my particular favourite) and a growing body of evidence on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) support the social determinants model of health inequality.

The social determinants of health are, according to the World Health Organisation the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness. These circumstances are in turn shaped by a wider set of forces: economics, social policies, and politics.”

 What the WHO doesn’t tell you is how political perspectives can take you from evidence of childhood experience and life outcomes to characterising children as deviant scroungers.

Reporting the same research, the BBC felt it appropriate to point out that “the researchers stress that children’s outcomes are not set at the age of three.”

Now this post was not intended to be about epistemology and the search for knowledge and truth – I’ll leave that to Karl Popper. Nor was it supposed to be about journalistic standards and the way facts are distorted by shoddy hacks and ideologues. It was supposed to be about the way that evidence can enable a more targeted and insight-led deployment of resources. If we are able to identify people that might need support or be at risk in the future then surely investment in preventative interventions is a good idea.

What I have learned is that the values and views of the world which underpin our approach are crucial. If you start with the view that people are inherently good and that with support they can achieve great things the way you might interpret these research findings will completely be completely different to those who see the poor and vulnerable as ‘broken’. Jude Habib has eloquently explained why we need to challenge this ‘deficit language’ and start adopting a strength-based approach which recognises and nurtures people’s talents and capabilities.

Where some see evidence that can inform a sensible way to target support to those who need it, others see it as a reason to write people off. In my work at Social Engine we advocate an evidence-based and insight-led approach but this discussion has reminded me that data are not and cannot be neutral, passive and objective when seen through the eyes of an individual.


For the epistemologists among you, the research was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour and can be found here.

Is this collective purchasing’s coming of age?

In a previous post I bemoaned the failure of collective energy purchasing schemes, in particular the Big Switch which is supported with public funds, to deliver financial benefits to consumers. Despite the real potential for consumers to join together to flex their collective purchasing muscles, the deals that had been ‘negotiated’ to were merely those already available to any individual bothered to ‘compare the market’….to borrow a phrase. Despite the rhetoric and public money the big switch was more than a little whimper as a display of collective purchasing’s potential.

This failure to do anything other than signpost people to the best energy deals available was a source of huge frustration to me. I am delighted to say that the game appears to have changed with the entrance of consumer advocacy giant Money Saving Expert (MSE).

MSE recently announced that they were getting involved in the collective energy purchasing game, using their huge network of some 9 million registered users to negotiate energy deals. Unlike previous efforts, MSE have managed to extract a more competitive and attractive deal from the bidding energy companies than the products they routinely offer. Not only have they done this, they’ve done it with four different types of product, reflecting the interests of consumers looking to buy in to long term and short term fixed deals, a pre-pay rate and a green energy tariff.

MSE’s founder, Martin Lewis, has written how he was ambivalent about collective energy purchase schemes, for reasons much like my own – that they fail to deliver any real benefit to consumers. But now, with their move into the collective purchasing space, the goal posts have moved and energy companies have responded by offering better deals.

I’m delighted that MSE have demonstrated the real potential of collective purchasing on a scale that places the power in consumers’ hands. I hope that others will follow where MSE have led and that, finally, collective purchasing will come of age.

Generalists, specialists and the creative process

About once a month or so, it seems to cross my mind that I should jolly well decide what it is I am interested in or want to ‘do’ and start concentrating on that. Sometimes the thought passes fleetingly past my eyes and out of sight. On other occasions it stays with me, lingering around, causing me to mull it over for a few days…like it has this week.

So I thought I’d get it out in the open and see what others thought.

I have pretty varied interests, as I’m sure most people do. Where I’ve been really lucky, is that I have been able to find ways of working on all of these different things – some of it paid! 😉

I don’t know that they are particularly connected, other than being things I am interested in and work on. Local government reform, open data, banking and community finance, education, community participation, regeneration and the built environment, experimentation, grant making….it’s a bit of a funny list. I suppose you could lump it all under the broad heading of ‘social good’ – at least I’d like to think it would all fit under there. But it is, I think, pretty varied.

So, within all that (and that’s just the stuff I’m currently working on…I’ve done a fair bit of other stuff in the past) it’s probably hard to be an expert in anything. I suppose I like to think of myself as knowing a thing or two about community engagement – so that’s maybe one area I’d consider myself pretty well informed. To be honest I don’t think it’s really to do with how much you know about something.

I think I know quite a bit about some of those things. However I think if you work across a wide range of topics, I think people are probably less likely to see you as an expert in any of them. A polymath is perhaps a rare thing.

One of the consistently beneficial aspects of having varied interests, in my experience, lies in the ability to be creative and innovative. New ideas come, often, from the ability to connect things which might previously have been unconnected. As Steve Jobs said:

“Creativity is just connecting things.”

The wider the range of disconnected inputs we have, the more chance we have of being able to make connections. Although I work across a wide range of subjects, I am constantly seeing connections and ways that approaches can be applied. I believe that the vast majority of my ideas come from taking what is commonplace in one sphere and applying it to another.

Being a generalist – and having a passion for learning new things – gives me a tremendous advantage in seeking creative and innovative solutions to social problems. Whether it’s thinking about using open data in education or applying community investment practice to local government reform, the cross-fertilisation of ideas from one area of work to another is seemingly never ending.

So maybe I should stop worrying about not being a specialist and celebrate the joys of being a generalist…at least for another month.

Bright Ideas inspires throughout the week

love the enthusiasm and excitement from our new Archer Academy students’ blog….and this post on the talk from author of ‘365 Ways to Change the World‘ (and my dad!) Michael Norton.

brilliant! 🙂

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That is how my Mum described me when I returned home from the Bright Ideas session on sustainability. Michael Norton’s inspirational talk convinced me that we have the power to change the world. You may think that this is impossible as we are still very young and can’t even vote .Michael Norton assured us that we are capable as even a tiny mosquito has a huge impact if it is buzzing in your room. He gave examples of children of our age, some even younger, making a huge difference. A six year old boy decided to earn one hundred pounds to fund a well in Africa, however, once he had the money, a charity told him that he actually needed two thousand pounds! This boys was so determined that this blow did not stop him; he continued to raise more money.

At the end of the wonderful presentation we…

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Mandela shows us the importance of forgiving but not forgetting

I, like countless millions of others, am today mourning the death and celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela. Madiba has great personal meaning for me and has been a profound influence on my life. It was through the anti apartheid movement in the 1980s when I first became politicised, immersing myself in South African politics and learning about the struggle for a free society. I spent many a day on protest marches and the 24-hour picket of the South African embassy.

‘We will be here till Mandela’s free, on a non-stop picket of the Embassy’ we sang over and over again…and so it proved to be.

The anti apartheid movement showed me the power and the horrors of collective political action. The ridiculous rows over who was a Trotskyite and who was a Marxist was symptomatic of the worst aspects of identity politics that bedevilled social justice campaigns for a decade. The frequent splits and counter splits were reminiscent of Monty Python’s ‘People’s Front of Judea’ in Life of Brian. I learnt a lot from those years of activism, in particular that we may have differences, but we are far stronger when we put them aside and focus on what unites us.

That was something Mandela clearly showed when we became President of the new South Africa. Much has been said about the reconciliation role he played in uniting Blacks and Whites in a post-apartheid democracy. Far less attention is given to the reconciliation among warring factions among Black South Africans at the same time. When Mandela was released from prison, the situation was extremely volatile and outbreaks of violence between political and ethnic groups was common. Extremists like Eugene Terrablanche, head of the right wing AWB party, were ready to capture the votes of disaffected whites and there was huge tension between the ANC’s supporters and those of the Zulu leader Chief Buthelez, whom they accused of conspiring with the Afrikaners. Mandela did not just unite whites and blacks, his forgiveness and reconciliation doused flames on the tinderbox of much broader tensions.

Mandela was quick to forgive those who had opposed the introduction of sanctions and supported the apartheid regime, including many Western leaders including our own Margaret Thatcher. He graciously accepted the apologies of David Cameron on behalf of his Party, meeting him before and after he became Prime Minister. Last night, as the TV screens were filled with aging politicians who had been complicit in propping up apartheid, I grew crosser and crosser. It was, rightly, pointed out to me that Mandela had it in his heart to forgive these people and would I not do the same. I am no Madiba, but I did take the point.

However, whilst I believe we should all learn from Mandela’s ability to forgive, we must not confuse this with forgetting what happened. Far too often genocide and discrimination across the globe can be airbrushed out of history. We must not ever allow that to happen. Nor must we forget that there were many who did not stand up against the segregation and discrimination of the majority of South Africans – whether in their own countries, or in Africa. We must follow Mandela’s example in seeking a balance between remembering and forgiving the events of the past.

I never had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela, but I did have the privilege to meet his good friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu a few years ago. I told him how I had spent time on the picket of the South African embassy opposing apartheid and I will never forget his response. As his eyes sparkled, betraying his age showing remarkably youthful exuberance, he said simply ‘you see what we did’. In bringing me and my microscopic contribution in to the same realm as him and the other giants of the anti apartheid movement, he displayed the most incredible generosity. In this simple act, he focused on what unites us, not on the gulf that lay between us in the contribution we had made. It is something I will forever remember and try to learn from throughout my life.

Increasing the evidence base or reducing uncertainty?

Over the years, and in a variety of roles, I have spent a lot of time trying to ‘increase the evidence base’ to inform policy and decision-making. Evidence of what works should guide our plans for the future – this has been the mantra.

Sometimes we’ve had lots of evidence-based policy making – the Social Exclusion Unit’s Policy Action Teams is probably the zenith for evidence based policy development – and at other times we’ve had an almost anti-evidence approach. Talk of ‘conviction politics’ seems more popular these days, less evidence, more how it feels.

The politics is the politics….whatever.

But I’ve been increasingly questioning the sense of ‘increasing evidence’ if we are serious about social innovation.

They say that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, but is that the case if we are trying to change things?

If we are trying seriously to develop innovative approaches – whether it’s to service delivery, community participation, governance, design or enterprise – we cannot know what the outcome will be. If we know, then surely it can’t be innovation….it’s a dead cert. And that doesn’t sound to me like innovation.

So, with innovation and creativity, there is a risk. We take that risk in trying something new, whether we acknowledge it or not. It may fail. 

Try again, fail again, fail better!

[i just couldn’t resist putting this wonderful Samuel Beckett quote in!]

We can learn from the past, from the evidence base, certainly. But that is useful only as a means of reducing the uncertainty (or the level of risk) in our planned innovation.


If we get too hung up on talking about increasing the evidence base, I worry that we will become too confident about the impact we will have when we deliver a particular innovation. The evidence base may be useful – it may tell us how things worked in a different setting with different circumstances. But because life around us changes so rapidly, we cannot be certain that what happened in the past will happen again in the future.

The other thing that makes me nervous talking about increasing the evidence-base, is that it can stifle innovation and (managed) risk taking. If we emphasize having to have an evidence base to prove that we should do something, we may find that the evidence is never there and so the innovation is never tried.

If we talk about reducing uncertainty, by contrast, we are accepting an implicit level of risk (which is there) but that the use of evidence can help us to reduce that risk to a more manageable level. 

That may sound rather subtle but I think in terms of establishing a culture of innovation (thinking in particular about my experience of local government) I think this matters a great deal.

This is not about dismissing the value of evidence….but more about how we frame its use in supporting social innovation.