Friday, 25 February 2011

A Day In The Life

The M53: How most days begin...
One of the most frequent questions I get is what a typical week is like, so here’s a snapshot of a standard day.

As mentioned in an earlier post it's quite difficult to define exactly what my role is as a CEO because you have to have at least an awareness of every element of the organisation. Of course the balancing act is to make sure that while you have a good overview, you are not trying to do everything within the organisation.

I always try to start Monday early and this week was no exception. 05.40 alarm, straight into sports kit and a very familiar fifty mile trip down the M53 and M56 to Trafford – this morning the fact I’d had the car brakes done the previous weekend really showed, although thankfully no emergency stops needed. The journey itself is spent listening to the radio or often putting various thoughts in order so that I know what I'm thinking about when the working day begins.

07.15By seven I’m at the Leisure Trust in Stretford and on my bike by the time the spinning class starts at 07.15. James works us all hard for 45 minutes and then shower, change and I’m in the office, raring to go by...

First up, it’s a meeting with the Chief Executive of VCAT – the umbrella body for voluntary sector organisations in Trafford. They’ve got some challenges ahead as they have a key role in making the Big Society work, but in an era of cuts, have no certainty about their own funding. There’s a paradox for the policy makers.

Two hours into the day and the second of several meetings. This one involves the key players on Trafford’s housing scene come and plan the final details of a partnership conference that we are hosting. It’s a challenging time and we feel pretty pleased by the end that there’s going to be an interesting and challenging agenda for the 50 or so people due at the conference.

Just half an hour after that finishes before our fortnightly Executive Management Team meeting and I squeeze in a session with one of my Directors. At the moment I’m asking all the senior team to “give it to me straight” about what they’d like me to do differently. The most consistent things to come out so far are to stay focused and make sure there is greater rigour and vigour about keeping everyone on mission to drive up performance. It's an interesting challenge!

12.14Spurred on by my discussions with the Directors I chair the EMT meeting with more vigour and rigour! And as we finish half an hour earlier than the allotted time I have a moment to do some emails and post. Then it's into a briefing session with the wider leadership team to brief them on the key things to have come out of EMT.

How Monday's usually end.
16.00 As soon as that finishes, we all get a briefing on the Sunshine event that is due to take place later in the week. This starts with our HR Director Elaine telling the assembled company that there’s not very much for them to do this time, before revealing the reason – I have to do three consecutive 30 minute briefings to about 120 staff at a time – so basically I’m doing all the work!

And by now, with the clock ticking round to 17.00 I’d ordinarily be on the badminton court near home by 6pm.

It’s a men’s four and we’ve been playing together for about 15 years and its one of the things that keeps me sane! Thrashing a shuttlecock around is the best stress reliever I know. But this week, two of the guys can’t play, so the day ends with a wander round the building and a few casual chats, followed by a last clearance of emails.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Could The Big Society Bank Change Our Communities?

One of the ongoing criticisms of the Big Society is that it lacks definition. As mentioned in a previous post I’m cautiously optimistic about the philosophy itself, but I thought it might be interesting to show one way in which the Big Society could have a genuinely big impact on funding within the community. This is sketched out in back-of-the-envelope figures so don’t take me to task on the numbers in this post! It's just a way of showing that at least in theory there are changes afoot.

For Trafford Housing Trust there is roughly £700,000 of funding each year that goes through our Community Panels - which are about local people making decisions for their neighbourhoods. If we look at the Big Society Bank we could start to imagine what size loan this would produce if instead of thinking of that money as a single yearly amount, we looked at it as being the repayment of interest and principal for a loan. Suddenly, rather than having a single yearly figure of £700,000 then you’ve got a five or six yearly lump sum of £7-10 million. 

What could we achieve with that level of Big Society funding?

Take an example of a community centre. One that's tired and needing money spending on it and then once refurbished, likely to run at a loss for some time (indeed if ever) before it is able to support itself from paid-for activity. If you had a system where you used part of our Community budgets to repay a loan that would do up (or possibly even build the centre itself) and it was partly used to run the community centre in the right way on a diminishing level of subsidy against an agreed business plan, then you’ve got a very different model for use of that money than just putting up some railings or making some car parking spaces.
Could the Big Society Bank go one step further?

There are two other factors that make this switch in funding interesting. The first is if you factor in social impact bonds. For the uninitiated this is a form of payment by results stream. It might be that you say that you want to start a community project and the impact of it will reduce a set social issue by x%. That improvement will save the government £y million per year, so they promise me that money if I achieve it. When I’ve got that promised income stream I can then use it to raise money from a bank. However, if I don’t achieve that result then I still have to make the payments on the bond. Add in the proceeds from a social impact bond and our initial £700,000 of funding per year has now become a very significant sum of money indeed.  

Then we factor in another element based on the simple truth that success goes to success. If we wanted to attract philanthropic money, or go to large companies and get access to their Corporate Social Responsibility money then these are sources of funding that like to see success. Naturally, they’re not going to want to throw money after projects that fail or don’t make much impact. Like it or not – "iconic" projects are one of the things that they like. Getting something off the ground with large capital investment is intriguing because it enables you to go to philanthropists and CSR money and say look what we’ve achieved – with your money we could double this, or replicate it somewhere else – suddenly you’ve got even more community centres.

So how does this relate to the real world? What could you build? Sale West is a great example. There’s a community centre there that’s been fragmented into at least four and – I’ve had two meetings already on this and I still don’t truly understand how it’s set up – potentially five or six management regimes - so the building isn’t managed effectively. When the Sale West estate was built there wasn’t a church and the church there uses the centre on a Sunday. They would like to build a church and their view is that instead of it being a community centre that the church is able to use, that there should be a church that is also community centre with the two spaces both working for each other. Now that means doing something quite ambitious to the site, something which would require significant funding, something perhaps that the Big Society Bank could do. How's that for definition?

Friday, 11 February 2011

Why I'd Be Happy If The Big Society Cost Me My Job

People often look at me strangely when I say this, but the ultimate measure of Trafford Housing Trust’s success is that our organisation isn’t needed anymore and I am left out of a job. People often look at me even more strangely when I say that I would be phenomenally happy if that ever actually happened.

Big Society - Big Idea?
It’s not that I’ve got a particular desire to spend more time gardening, the real reason I’d be happy is because it would mean that all of the complex and troubling issues that we deal with as an organisation would have been solved - and how could that not be a good thing? If that’s ever going to happen though, then it starts with a shift in power – not with organisations taking more power, but with us giving more of it away to individuals, and that’s why I’m cautiously excited about The Big Society.

You can argue that The Big Society – David Cameron’s rallying cry for community empowerment – has happened at an inopportune time. Against a backdrop of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the biggest cuts to public spending since the Second World War, any philosophy where the central tenet involves returning power to individuals is always going to draw fire. After all, it’s far too easy for critics to say that The Big Society is just shorthand for communities picking up after themselves because councils no longer have the funding to and for relying on volunteers where once there were salaried employees.

But I can see a bigger reason – that of renewing the sense of personal responsibility of citizens. Remove power from people and you create dependency; people then want a “hand out” from those with that power. Give power away, create independence, then what people will want is a “hand up”. So if The Big Society is about reversing that trend and giving power back to individuals, as well as providing a fund of resources that communities can access, then I think it is a game changing movement. This way it will produce stronger citizens, more resilient societies,  the essential ingredients that you would need to do away with organisations like ours.

It’s fair to say that there’s still some confusion over how The Big Society actually works in practice – where will you be able to see it in action in your local community? Well, the fact is that there’s every chance that volunteers are already active in your own street – you might even participate in some form of community work yourself. The Big Society is about empowering that activity and giving it greater licence to take control away from governing bodies. What it absolutely is not, is a chance to simply re-brand that activity or take credit for the benefits it brings.

So how would a commitment to The Big Society work for an organisation like ours? In our business we involve tenants and residents all the time and for a number of reasons. For one, our regulator says we have to, but since when has the dead hand of regulation been a good reason for doing anything? A better reason is that by having that tenant perspective we see ways of improving services that we might not see on our own. But in that case, the benefit is actually to our organisation, not the individual.

The best reason – The Big Society approach – is that you develop it one step further so that it’s mutually beneficial. Then, the purpose of the involvement is to transfer skills to residents, to teach, to educate and instill a sense of belief and purpose; the mechanism is a discussion about services from which improvements can be identified; the outcome is then improved opportunities for tenants and better services from us.  

Of course, the modern managerial mindset is always to look for the mechanisms that measure and report on the success or failure of new ideas. So how can we see that The Big Society is working? In this case I’m not actually sure that’s possible. After all, how do you measure the effectiveness of a philosophy which is wider than a single initiative and which has to be judged from the bottom up, not the top down? No wonder the overly bureaucratic system of the past is being swept away – confusing and counter-productive acronym-clad measurements like KLOEs, KPIs, LAAs and BVPIs that could never cope with the subtleties, the focus on changed feelings and behaviours that will mark a successful Big Society.

We should look instead at real world examples and set these as our markers. In Sale Moor there’s a pub called The Piper that has been through numerous owners and is now closed and has become a source of anti-social problems. The very active and very successful community group in the area knows what their community needs – and they have a vision for how the pub can best be used. The measure for them of Big Society success is that all the public service agencies in the area come together to make that vision happen and that in doing that, local people get opportunities to volunteer, train and work on the project.   

So I say to politicians: prove your detractors wrong; keep the momentum of The Big Society going over the next few years and remain committed to the idea that the power should rest with the people. Harness the curiosity and excitement of those like me who believe in the profound difference this could make. And if one of the things that we achieve together is something as strange as me being put out of a job – wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Stretford House And High Rise Living

Stretford House (source)
On an earlier blogs there was a comment asking for an update on Stretford House. I'm not sure if this will only be of interest to a limited number of people but I'm very happy to shed some light on how things have been going.  

The most important point to note when it comes to Stretford House is that in total the programme involved over £4 million of investment. This makes it the single largest improvement the Trust have ever been involved in. This has clearly been a very large project which would inevitably involve some level of disturbance to residents. This being the case we’ve had to work with residents and try to inform them at the earliest possible point when work was going to impact on their homes and their lives. 

By one measure this seems to have been a success as our surveys show that there is 100% satisfaction with service and 98% with the finished product. I’m confident that this doesn’t tell the whole story though and judging from the original comment and my own sense of the project it’s clear that it wasn’t all smooth sailing. 

To give you some background, the work that needed doing was fairly complex and in addition to improving kitchen and bathrooms (something we're getting a lot of practice at after undertaking work to over 6,500 homes in the Borough) it also involved replacing an out-dated heating system with a modern centralised boiler plant to provide more economical heating, which is even more important at a time when energy bills are going through the roof.

Alongside the improvements to the individual homes we also had to replace crumbling sewerage and drainage pipes running through the centre of the building which as you can imagine was a real challenge. All of this had to be done whilst a majority of residents remained in their homes.

Some of the more notable problems we ran into involved an issue with the fire-stopping works. Asbestos was found between the floors and access to flats proved difficult at the time. Making sure residents were safe was our number one concern and this had a number of knock-on effects including delays in starting works and having to visit homes on two or three extra occasions.

Our aim in this project was to ensure we provided the best quality homes possible for the people who lived in Stretford House, we also have to ensure their safety while the work was going on and try and minimise the effect that this work has on their lives. The issues we came up against ultimately led to a delay - with work finishing on January 11th rather than December 10th. I know that there are a small number of issues still being resolved which we will complete as soon as possible - if these affect you then please contact us by email or call 0300 777 7777.

Working on Stretford House has been a big learning curve for the Trust with lots of challenging experiences along the way. We are now planning the works to a further five tower blocks in Old Trafford (you can keep up-to-date with all planned improvements here). The real test will be how we transfer these experiences and learn to provide an even better service and an even better finished product. 

Friday, 4 February 2011

Things To Do In 2011

Just because you’re a CEO it doesn’t mean that you escape the yearly employment rituals of assessments and objective setting. If anything, when you’re a CEO you’re subjected to more checks and balances than other employees and that’s probably not a bad thing – after all, the original point of objectives is to provide some structure to the year and set targets.

Late in December the board identified the five things that they’d like to see happen. Rather than keeping these secret I thought I’d share my To Do list with you – after all, there’s a chance that you will have a part in helping these to happen, so it makes sense that you’d at least know about them!

1 – Identify The Things That Really Matter To Our Tenants
This is particularly important when the allocation of resources has to be carefully managed. We need to know exactly what our tenants want and do our best to deliver those things. One thing that the board added to this point, which I thought was interesting, is we should think through what we expect in return from our tenants, and that doesn’t just mean that they pay their rent. It might be that you’ve got your own ideas about what (and if) a tenant should be asked to do and please feel to add a comment below this post or tweet me.

2 – Protect Our Income Stream
I mentioned in my last blog about how the cuts to public services would affect our work and to give you an idea of how much it’s changing our world and our customers’ worlds, there have been over fifty benefit changes already and there are more on the way.

That raises a risk to our income stream between half a million and two and a half million depending on how you calculate it. So from doing everything we can do to encourage people to pay rent (for example we now have a voucher that a family member or friend can buy to help someone struggling with paying their rent), through to looking at how we can support people getting into jobs - those are the two ends of a spectrum that is now a crucial focus for us.

3 – To Investigate The New Development World
This world sees new affordable housing development - something Trafford and indeed the whole country desperately needs - being funded much less by capital grants from Government and much more by the future tenants themselves through higher rents much closer to the levels charged by private landlords.

How will new development work in 2011?
We quickly need to get to grips with this new reality and make sure that, if we do develop new homes on this basis, we are doing so without making rents unaffordable for the future tenants. This is a difficult balancing act and we will need to consider the options very carefully. We are not alone, Housing Associations up and down the country are grappling with the dilemmas that this new Government policy creates. Again I'll blog more about new development in future posts.

4 – The Big Society
The Big Society is something that I’m unfashionably optimistic about and there’ll be more on that next week. The Big Society is something that I’m involved with both through Trafford Housing Trust and personally – and I’m really excited about the possibilities that it has. In the simplest sense if you remove power from people, you create dependency; people then want a “hand out”. But if you give power away and create independence, then what people will want is a “hand up”.

5 – Develop Our Care And Support
This is another huge opportunity to develop the way we support and help our customers. In Trafford we have around 3,000 residents who receive some kind of support and the funding for that support has been cut by between 50 and 70%, so there is a real dilemma – do you cut your service - which is most people’s instinctive reaction. We are interested in taking a different approach; we want to throw ourselves right into building a strong and robust care and support business.

So we are planning how to take our support work and back it into a much broader range of care. We know we will need to invest in that business in the short term for the next three or four years but are looking at how it can become self-financing, meeting the needs not just of our present customers but also of others who are prepared to pay for a trusted and reliable service. This could have a big implication for pricing and before we take any steps we need to know we can get to the critical mass of customers to make the services affordable – and, you never know, that may be through acquiring an existing care business.

So there you have it – a short list of five things to do, which will ensure we are all kept busy. Generally speaking I’m not seeing very much positive on a wider social level until 2013, I think the impact of cuts will make the next 18 months difficult, so it’s important that we stay true to our vision of creating neighbourhoods where people choose to live and maintain our energy, so that as the economy starts to recover we find ourselves in an even stronger position to help our communities.