This week’s Radar looks at Iain Duncan Smith’s quest for the holy grail, questions whether there are too many charities, and embraces changing working patterns. I hope you enjoy it.
Another week, another far-reaching reform from the coalition government. Whatever your politics, it’s difficult to deny the ambition behind the last few weeks’ flurry of activity. What the product of that ambition will be is still far from clear, but this government’s efficacy in fundamentally changing the landscape of the country is irrefutable. And even though this week saw the first manifestations of real anger and unrest at government plans, that sentiment was largely directed at Nick Clegg’s party rather than David Cameron’s. I’m sure that the Tories will feel the heat at some point, particularly if their gamble on public spending leads us into another recession, but at the moment the Liberal Democrats are providing exactly the cover Cameron probably hoped they would when the coalition agreement was being hammered out. And with Labour still floundering slightly, currently without a leader as Ed Miliband enjoys his paternity leave, things look pretty rosy at the moment for Cameron and Co.
The student protests around Milbank distracted attention slightly from a week that was really supposed to belong to Iain Duncan Smith. Making it easy for the sketch writers, the Christian Conservative minister described the refusal of work as a ‘sin’ on the morning of his announcement of what many call the ‘holy grail’ of social policy; a universal credit. The underlying principle of this reform is to simplify a chronically overcomplicated system and to ensure that it always pays to work. The White Paper that IDS delivered to the house can be downloaded here, and a Guardian summary of the key points can be read here. Duncan Smith described his reform as arguably the most significant change to benefits since Bevan, and outlined intentions which, at least at their most fundamental level, drew support from across parliament. But the backlash was as swift as it was inevitable, within parliament and without. The morning of the announcements had seen the Times question (paywall) whether computer problems would hold up the implementation of the credit, and it was the practicalities which also seemed to drive questions, with Labour MPs in particular asking where exactly the jobs would come from in the wake of spending cuts. As with the spending cuts, much comment was generated about whether the reforms were fair. Duncan Smith insisted that there were no losers from the introduction of Universal Credit, but as the FT points out that depends on how you define loser, and many of the major welfare charities were deeply sceptical about the long term effects of the reforms, with the chief executive of Scope saying “despite a progressive vision, this white paper does not address the state of the employment market today, nor take into consideration the reality of people’s lives”. I also found this blog post on Public Finance particularly interesting, it again admires the principle but this time quibbles with what it describes as the ‘big bang’ approach. Ultimately, we can admire both the ambition and the principle of Duncan Smith’s policy but, as with much recent government policy, we’ll have to wait quite some time to know whether that ‘holy grail’ has genuinely been attained.
My eye was also caught this week by a Stephen Cook editorial in Third Sector which questions whether there are too many charities. This is a question that has been raised before, and in the last couple of weeks it has been highlighted by both the former and current chief executives of the Charity Commission, who expressed dismay and surprise respectively at the low levels of collaboration between civil society organisations. The reason often given for this lack of collaboration is the personal investment of people who set up charities that serve causes that are close to them. The example given in Cook’s piece is that of the charity being set up by Lindar Norgrove, who is setting up a charity in memory of a son killed in Afghanistan. Cook makes the point that it would have been more sensible to connect with a proven organisation working in the same field, but also acknowledges that being sensible probably doesn’t figure much in Norgrove’s motivation. I think there is probably little doubt that there are too many charities, inasmuch as there is a huge overlap and duplication in the work being done, and subsequently much inefficiency. The spending cuts will almost certainly have an effect here, with charities struggling to make ends meet in an increasingly competitive commissioning and fundraising landscape, but the personal connection which drives many people to both set up their own charities and to resist mergers will persist. In this context collaboration becomes totally essential to the productivity of not for profit organisations, particularly as resources become increasingly tight. Whether this collaboration does come in the form of mergers, for example this week’s coming together of DTA and BASSAC, or in less conventional partnerships, like our own charityworks programme, will be interesting to see. A Harvard Business Review article from last week is worth bringing in here as a perspective on collaboration from a different sector with partially distinct priorities and objectives. They introduce four rungs of partnership, from Accidental Engagement (where 1+1= < 2) to Integral Partnership (where 1+1=11). By their logic relatively few partnerships operate on Rung Four, but one example they do give is a partnership between Infosys and Tata Group.
I should admit here that I’ve had a bit of a HBR binge this week, and have really enjoyed it. I’ve been thinking particularly about how working practices have changed and are changing for people at all levels and in all sectors. This article from last week points out that 20% of people no longer go to a traditional office space every day, and asks the question of whether there even is such a thing as ‘business hours’ any more. This feels particularly relevant at Vanilla at the moment, as we move into a new flexible office space called the Cube in Spitalfields. We are an inherently flexible organisation, with a team of associates who work on a case by case basis being the base from which the organisation has grown. I, for example, work part time for Vanilla and part time for RNID, and spent last year on the charityworks scheme (where I was employed by Vanilla but did two six month placements). I’m also writing this from home before going into the office later. This suits me really well, but I can’t imagine this kind of flexibility would have been available even a few years ago.
Finally, this article about CEO remuneration in the private sector also struck me as interesting in terms of what really defines leadership; many of the CEOs mentioned in the article are paid $1 a year (though obviously with payment through other avenues), and it includes this line – “PayPal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel has called low CEO pay the best predictor of startup success, since it puts a cap on others’ wages”.