Explore—Dream—Discover | Mark Twain

Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Mark Twain


Charities need performance judgement, not measurement and spurious scientism

An eight year old article from the days of CEOing at youth homelessness charity Centrepoint.

Performance Judgement in Charities | Copy of an article in Governance

The sad and persistent commercialisation and marketisation of charity

NSPCC ‘How Safe Are Our Children 2015’ report on UK child abuse and neglect — Evidence-based advocacy, or advocacy-based evidence-making?


The new NSPCC report asking ‘How Safe Are Our Children? (2015)’ NSPCC report was all over the news yesterday morning. It is the third in an annual series of reports which seek to monitor and interpret the position in the UK in respect of child abuse and neglect. The NSPCC is a major UK charity with an illustrious history, working on one of the UK’s most important & troubling social problems. All my instincts are to be supportive. Some close, deeply caring and  very expert friends of mine work for and have worked for NSPCC. I have used their guidance when leading other charities. I have donated in the past. However,  I cannot throw off some unease with how NSPCC uses statistics. The child abuse problem in 2015 is bad enough and important enough without the NSPCC opening themselves and the case to challenge through their approach to the use of data. Furthermore, today they report at a time when trust in charities—especially those largely dependent on public donation as the NSPCC is—is being challenged, for example in the light of the suicide of an elderly charity supporter in Bristol, and RSPB’s proposed building on land bequeathed on condition of no-building.

The headlines yesterday and today are everywhere, informed no doubt by NSPCC’s own vigorous press work, emphasising that their study finds a big rise in reported sexual abuse for under 16s—up a third (or sometimes quoted 38%) in a year. This is indeed a large increase, but, as they point out, this may reflect  increased reporting and improved recording. My suspicions of spin, and advocacy-based evidence-making, are aroused by a small but significant detail about the reporting.

For the first few ‘indicators’ in the report, the picture (e.g. for homicides) is presented and interpreted using a moving average—presumably because NSPCC recognises that this is, prima facie, an appropriate form of indicator for a trend, better than year-on-year data. Indeed, this particular indicator encourages some optimism about the decline in deaths through child abuse; NSPCC themselves comment that “…it is heartening that key outcome indicators of child deaths continue to point in the right direction, as the number of children dying as a result of homicide or assault remain in long term decline.” More NSPCC data 2015 homicidesIt is a surprise to me,  therefore, that the next section, on abuse reported by the police, does not use the moving average. It changes to use absolute figures and rates for each year. (The note about ‘trend’ on the chart speaks misleadingly of a one year change as a trend.)

2015 NSPCC Data

Had this section used the moving average to give a picture of the trend, the ‘increase’ (for the rate per 1,000) would be ’10%’, not the much larger, much publicised rise of 38% (in the absolute number) between this year and last. Bad enough, but a much less dramatic headline number.

As I have noted, the problems of child abuse and neglect are indeed large and significant. More cases are coming to the notice of the police; this may or may indicate an underlying increase in child abuse itself in the present. The problems must be tackled vigorously—by prevention work as well as intervention.

In making the NSPCC case for increased provision, at the conference launching the report, the NSPCC Director Lisa Harker emphasised that “Compiling this data is part of (NSPCC’s) commitment to evidence”. There is however a step between compiling data, and making evidence, which is interpretation. To help us all make sound  ‘evidence’ and derive well-grounded conclusions , NSPCC (and all in the charity world) should make a parallel commitment to appropiate interpretation, and accurate, consistent presentation.

The Labour party’s processes and actions have the motivational effect of a slap in the face with a wet manifesto

Shortly after the general election, fearful of another 5 years of anti-austerity Osbornomics, I asked the Labour Party about the benefits, expectations and costs of becoming a ‘registered supporter’. I had to write via the ‘contact-us’ page at the official website because there appeared to be no way to uncover the information on the site itself.

It’s the kind of predictable question for which I assumed the party would have a prepared, easily accessible, enticing answer. I was wrong. I tried asking via Twitter, squeezing my question politely into a 140-character message to @UKLabour: “Grateful to know how I become a ‘registered supporter’, the benefits etc., any cost, and if allowed to vote in leader contest.” That’s the kind of customer enquiry that usually evinces a rapid reply on Twitter from successful modern enterprises, savvy about social media. Labour, however, is not one such. I received no reply at all on-line for almost three weeks.

For the next few days I pursued the party left, right and centre on Twitter. The people @UKLabour apparently had time every hour to tweet invitations for new members. So, I asked if they themselves had time to answer my question, noting that they might get a new ‘registered’ supporter. Answer came there none. Candidate-for-leader Mary Creagh tweeted followers, urging us to join the Labour Party: “it only takes two minutes”. I tweeted her that the Party seemed to need a lot longer than that to respond to a simple enquiry. Could she help? Prompt with an apology, she ‘ followed it up’ with the Party, but I heard nothing further.

Andrew Sparrow of the live politics blog at the Guardian does, however, respond to Tweets: he followed the matter up, to be told by Labour HQ of a page-link for signing-up. I found that it led to a dead end—a Google error message. I tweeted Labour HQ about the error: again, no response. I tweeted BBC Radio 4’s World at One (#wato), and found that they also do take rapid note of tweets. They made reference that lunchtime to my struggle for information, to be told by interviewee Harriet Harman that ‘registered supporter’ status was new (it is not), but that she would follow ‘it’ up. She hasn’t, at least not with me!

The culture and reality of an organisation is manifest in the little things. You can extract the essence of an organisation from the smallest of incidents. Swedish consultant Richard Normann in his book on Strategy and Management in Service Business (1991) called these the ‘moments of truth’. An organisation’s real attitude and values are betrayed in the detail of the daily thousands of moments of dealing with customers or donors or members or voters.

Labour’s failure to respond to me, at all on-line until a third reminder, and completely on Twitter, represents a collection of such ‘moments of truth’, all conveying the same message. The Party may think it has moved on from a crushing general election defeat to the important business—a forward-looking one-member-one-vote leadership contest; but the continuing inability to connect with would-be and wavering supporters permeates its every action. Its leaders and officials speak of their desire to connect with aspirational voters, but the party’s processes and actions have the motivational effect of a slap in the face with a wet manifesto. And this is not new; such attitudes and poor processes dogged the party ten years ago.

Back then I was a paid-up member of the party. But I was affronted by the saga of Iraq, appalled at the creeping authoritarianism of party and government, fed-up with attacks on young people and their educators, despairing of attempts to remove benefits from homeless young people. There was no way to influence the party as a member. I stopped my direct-debit and emailed to tell the party why. I received just one reply saying they assumed my lapsed direct debit was ‘merely an oversight’. There were no regrets; no thanks for past efforts and support; no request for illumination about reasons. They were not interested in why I had chosen to leave. They have not been interested since in trying to attract me back.

For Labour, extracting lessons from this sorry saga would require a commitment to learning the meaning of administrative and service mistakes. It would require a degree of humility in the assessment of why so many people have left the party in recent years—not boasting about numbers joining in recent weeks— and an interest in the actual experience of interacting with the party if you are not a devotee, if you are outside not inside. It would require a respectful application of the disciplines of successful commercial and not-for-financial-profit enterprises. In short, it would demand a reckoning with the concerned, questioning people who desperately seek a modern progressive political movement in which to place their trust south of the Scottish border.

Without such an approach, a revival of the Labour Party’s fortunes will not be possible. Leaders, members and officials will collude to maintain approaches with which they feel comfortable, oblivious to lost opportunities and new voices, until they are supplanted—as in Scotland.

The task is not just to focus again on re-shaping policy. Sure, problems of policy and vision are intense and long-term: the Party needs to secure support simultaneously from apparently very different sets of voters in Scotland, in the North, in the South-East, and outside urban areas. Nor is the answer to seek salvation in a new leader. The results of machine politics as usual are evident already in candidates who were nowhere near the front of the election last time, or who see the future in appealing to conservatives and returning to a renewed Blairite blueprint from another time.

The centre-left needs a truly responsive, respectful, learning movement. If the Labour Party cannot respond, respect and learn, it cannot change and it will not be embraced by those who currently do not ‘support’ it but actually would quite like to.

Principles for village learning!

In an increasingly self-interested, materialistic, and atomised society people benefit from learning in communities not just as individuals. Acting together we can be engaged in the world, pursue interests, and forge new possibilities. We can be together and converse, tell stories and imagine futures, make and create, discover and learn, tackle problems. ‘Have-lots’, ‘have-littles’ and ‘have-nots’ can come together for mutual support, and to harness and develop the talents of all.

Much education these days is instrumental and pre-determined. Learning is over-examined and over-certified. The joy of discovery is unknown to many learners. The pleasure to be had from learning and teaching has disappeared for many. So, there is a place, indeed a crying need for more opportunities which embody these characteristics.

  • Valuing learning as part of living well—now—as well as for creating possibilities for the future.
  • Attending to self-respect, self-confidence and self-esteem. People benefit from being confident in their own worth and abilities, and feeling secure and valued.
  • Valuing people not labels. We need opportunities to converse, learn and act which do not  respond to people primarily as fitting some prior category such as ‘old person’ or ‘young person’, ‘parent’ or ‘child’, ‘villager’ or ‘commuter’, ‘rich’ or ‘poor’,  ‘tenant’ or  ‘homeowner’, ‘NEET (not in employment, education or training)’ or ‘retired’, ‘pensioner’ or ‘employed’ or on ‘benefits’—even when these are relevant characteristics, perhaps even concerns for the people themselves.
  • Respecting similarity and difference. We should encourage people to express their distinctive identities and aspirations, whilst also promoting respect for diversity. We must challenge unfair discrimination—whilst recognising that some differences are not so easily reconciled.
  • Tipping power, to help people exercise more control over their lives. People thrive and develop when they are resourceful and resilient, with a sense of ‘agency’ in the world derived from their relationships, attitudes, knowledge and skills. Educational opportunities can try to tip the balance of power in lives a little more in learners’ favour. Furthermore we are all influenced by friends and family, groups and communities, and social institutions—so we need, where we can, to help people to influence that wider context.
  • Working with each other in groups. People can learn from each other, recognising each other’s expertise. With the vision and expertise of skilled supporters, and some appropriate ground-rules everyone—not just ‘experts’ and ‘teachers’—has the potential to enthuse, to be supportive and informative, stimulating and challenging.
  • Learning together requires skilled action, generous relationships, and good leadership. It does not necessarily require ‘professionals’, but it does need all involved to seek to be purposeful, professional and accountable (to the full variety of stakeholders) n all that they do.
  • Being intelligent about risk—balancing it with reward, knowing that learning and change  often comes when people are outside their comfort zone, but not so far outside that they panic.
Version 1.2 June 13th, 2015

Optimism pays

In this world, the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive. Even when wrong, they are positive, and that is the way of achievement, correction, improvement, and success. Educated, eyes-open optimism pays, pessimism can only offer the empty consolation of being right.  The one lesson that emerges   is the need to keep trying. No miracles. No perfection. No millennium. No apocalypse. We must cultivate a sceptical faith, avoid dogma, listen and watch well, try to clarify and define ends, the better to choose means.

Source: Landes, David S. (1998), The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, New York: W. W. Norton.

State, market, civil society | Different sectors, different values

Market, state and civil society organisations differ in the relationship they seek with those who ‘use’ them, and in their approach to power and value. Uncritical advocates of ‘partnership’ between organisations and across sectors tend to assume that all sectors and organisations value the same ends and means. They do not. The starting point for any successful collaboration must be an honest, insightful exploration of such differences.

Commercial organisations in the market seeks relationships based on buying and selling. For government, the relationship it is about voting and telling. But for the voluntary sector the essence of the relationship is giving and sharing. The market stresses a politics of competition and the state the politics of accountability. But in the charity sector, a ‘politics of generosity’ should rule.

For the market, ‘profit’ is the concern—the difference between income and costs. For the state, the preoccupation is ‘cost’, not withstanding talk of public value (the difference between public benefits and costs). In the charity sector, the emphasis is on benefit, often regardless of cost