Re-thinking the Empty Homes Case Study

There is no denying that when I read a good case study about a project that brought one or a number of properties back into use, through positive partnership work and quite often sheer bloody-mindedness, it warms the heart that a community has contributed to and benefited from this.

The stories are often charted through the traditional ‘before and after’ images of the property, interspersed with those of the involved partners in various poses and states of dustiness as they strip way the old and fit the new. The group shot at the end signifies a job well done and the tired but smiling people stand there, faces full of pride. Much deserved.

These stories are important and long may they continue. Yet, I can’t help but think that the range of case studies on offer should be wider. Not only this, but that there is a gaping hole that would take tons of cavity wall insulation to fill!

Long-Term Empty Property: focus on the owners and the funding

I think empty homes case studies need to take a different approach, or at least incorporate the most important dimension; the actual owners of an empty property. It is through developing case studies around the owners that will resonate most with other owners when it comes to making locally funded projects successful.

For any local government officer or local social enterprise working to bring back empty homes into use, convincing the owner of said property that it is a good idea and ‘X’ type of funding is available to assist, can be an absolute nightmare; and I don’t necessarily blame the owner for not engaging, as being the owner of a long-term empty property is not always a straightforward position to be in.

From what I have seen or, more to the point what I have not seen, is a focus away from the journey of the building. What I would really like to see, what I think would be really beneficial, is the story of how and why the owner of a long-term empty property, decided to engage with a particular project.

If it was a low interest loan or lease management product they signed up to, who was it with, how much did it cost, why did they choose that particular option? Did they work with a social enterprise or the local authority? How much work did they do themselves: was it shared, or all done via a local apprenticeship project? What was their motivation for engaging in the first place? Was the commitment required from them long or short term? What reward did they ultimately get from it: Financial? Social? Community? Did they have doubts? On reflection, was it worth the effort? (Or were they able to just hand over the whole project, from which they have now reaped the benefits??) And the key question: Would they recommend other owners of empty homes do the same???

I believe it is the human case study that sells the opportunity, not the one about the bricks and mortar; the bricks and mortar are only a reflection of the people, partners and a community, who chose to do something about a particular issue.

Develop the case study around those owners of empty homes who have engaged with projects and I believe you will see more come forward and be prepared to take up the opportunity to develop their property.

I would love know peoples thoughts on this, more so, if there were case studies in existence that could be shared!

Entrepreneurs! Do they exist in local government…

…or are they exclusive to organisations that exist to generate capital and profit?

This question presented itself to me after a colleague of mine, @andysimcox (you should follow him), posted an interesting link on twitter titled, What’s an Entrepreneur? The Best Answer Ever. It claims ‘this classic…definition pares entrepreneurship to its essence and explains why it’s so hard. And so addictive’.

Now entrepreneurs, or the word entrepreneur, has always been a capitalist word in my eyes. If you said to me, “That man over there. He’s an entrepreneur.” I would assume he was a self-made business man. That he had seen a business opportunity, maybe a gap in the market, from which he had made his fortune (or least a decent living).

Indeed, traditional definitions seem to back up my capitalist theory: ‘the owner or manager of a business enterprise who, by risk and initiative, attempts to make profits’, or ‘a middleman or commercial intermediary’.

The definition in the article is as follows:

Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.

As the article suggests, “people…need to say it out loud 50 or 100 times before they really understand what it means”. I’m not suggesting I do understand and I’m not going to waste your time or mine, breaking down and giving you my interpretation.

It was the following interpretation within the article that struck me. This was the bit that triggered formulation of the question posing as the title of this blog:

[The definition] matched the one demographic fact Harvard Business School researchers already knew about entrepreneurs—they were more likely to start out poor than rich.

Followed by:

“They see an opportunity and don’t feel constrained from pursuing it because they lack resources…They’re used to making do without resources.”

How could I not immediately associate these elements with the current austerity confines of local government: ‘more likely to start out poor’ and ‘used to making do without resources’. It sort of just fits. So, what of it? Well, my relative experience of working in local government, in controlling and managing budgets, forecasting spend and knowing full well that once it’s gone, it’s gone, develops a sense of care – often unspeculative, uncreative.

I also assert that some of the best work a team I worked in carried out, was when our capital funding was slashed and there wasn’t as much to throw at projects. It forced us to start thinking differently. It fit more with this:

The perception of opportunity in the absence of resources helps explain much of what differentiates entrepreneurial leadership from that of corporate administrators

It is not my intention to label ‘corporate administrators’ as lacking in the vision department. What the public sector is going through currently, the enforced changes, efficiency savings, looking for new and more effective ways to deliver services on reduced budgets, in short, must be an absolute bloody nightmare.

I would assert that their position as guardians of an organisation, trying to implement programs of change whilst sustaining its integrity, is difficult. Equally, it is surely worthwhile for them to consider how they could more freely evoke “emphasis on team rather than hierarchy, fast decisions rather than deliberation”.

Overall Change versus Pockets of Invention

These are clearly two very different things.

Change, on a corporate level, has to be a top down process, but one on which to consult with your employees. In a heirarchical structure of change, the natural steps are to look at Directorate; Services; Departments; Teams; Staff.

Pockets of invention would be defined more like this: “entrepreneurs offer their team members a larger share of a vision for a future payoff, rather than a smaller share of the meager resources at hand”. It is difficult to say this, without it seeming critical of the Change level heirarchy.

Yet, these two elements can surely be complimentary, depending on how you execute the former over the latter.

The question is:  At what level within the heirarchy of a local authority is it safe to promote the letting loose of creativity in an entrepreneurial sense, whilst at the same time maintaining the stabilty of the organisation?

Surely it is worth some thought!

At whatever level the organisation conclude it is safe to let loose, it should consider its approach in the following way, but be brave enough to err not on the side of caution, but a little beyond it.

Every time you want to make any important decision, there are two possible courses of action. You can look at the array of choices that present themselves, pick the best available option and try to make it fit. Or, you can do what the true entrepreneur does: Figure out the best conceivable option and then make it available.

There are surely services or departments that through the Change approach, ultimately suffer from the first part of the above statement. From the latter Entrepreneurial approach, surely there are some services or departments that could thrive through re-invention.

The necessity for local government to uncover their own entrepreneurs

This, I guess, is the most important part from my point of view. That, just becuase a person works in the public sector, does not automatically mean they do not possess the entrepeneurial vision or skill of somebody who applies their skills in the private sector.

If we just quickly go back to the original definition:

Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.

Never has there been a time in local government, where there is so much need for the rise of the public sector entrepreneur. This is a person, or people, who operate in a way that is beyond the need of immediate resource. People who are not restrained by tradition or blinkered by long established process.

I am certain that these people exist in local government. I am certain because I’m pretty sure I know some. Not only that, I have worked alongside some who have inspired me to change the way I think about service delivery.

The unfortunate restriction is that, rather than being able to continually pursue their entrepreneurial outlook and vision, it is a second place role to their ‘day job’, which means they are heavily restricted in bringing their special qualities to the table as much as they should, which is therefore detrimental to progressing new ways of doing things.

If somebody could find a way to discover public sector entrepreneurs, freeing them from the confines of their daily chores, allowing them the freedom to explore, I believe the potential then exisits for local government to really change and meet the challenges it is currently faced with, and those it will be faced with for a number of years to come.

I sincerely think it would be worth investigating.

How do you think local government can find and let loose public sector entrepreneurs, whilst maintaing the strong governance and integrity of the organisation? There must be an answer. Maybe it needs an entrepreneur to start the ball rolling?