Maths: “Bring 5,000 empty homes back into use using new capital funding…”

I am going to dispense with too many convoluted sentences or opinion and get straight to the point. This is really a question of maths.

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have announced a major housing and planning package that will help deliver:

“Up to 15,000 affordable homes and bring 5,000 empty homes back into use using new capital funding of £300m and the infrastructure guarantee”

I am interested in the 5,000 empty homes element of this.

Taking a step back, the charity Empty Homes, through much supportive campaigning of Mr George Clark, now has an amount of £3million from government to administer a National Empty Homes Loans fund.

Purely on that £3million, with an average loan of £10,000 per empty property, we’d be looking at 300 empties brought back into use.

Plus, there is the advantage of the repayments of those loans being invested in running the loan scheme, and being recycled to provide loans on an ongoing basis.

Using the same (very simplistic) maths model, to bring back 5,000 empty homes into use, £50million pounds of the £300million would be required.

Now, the initial target of bringing back into use 5,000 empty homes appears not particularly ambitious, when considering the national figure of over 700,000 empties.

However, if the £50million funding is administered through a recyclable method, ie the National Empty Homes Loan fund way, this reinvestment surely has the potential for increasing year-on-year the money available to invest.

While it remains far too little an amount to significantly reduce the 700,000, it surely would have the potential to achieve far greater numbers of empty homes being brought back into use than the 5,000 target released.

I might be wrong, or being far too simplistic!

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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!

Albert Camus, Introspection and the Social Media Journey

English: Albert Camus in 1957
Albert Camus – The Fall (1956)

Albert Camus is one of my favourite authors. I haven’t read all his novels; probably never will. I don’t (and won’t) pretend to understand the ins and outs of his work; my mind doesn’t have the capacity. He’s one of my favourite authors because of one novel, The Fall (1956). This is a story about ‘a successful Paris barrister…who has come to recognise the deep-seated hypocrisy of his existence. His brilliant, epigrammatic and, above all, discomforting monologue gradually saps, then undermines, the reader’s own complacency’. Wow, bleak, eh?

Though, it’s not bleak. Not as far as I’m concerned. It is an introspection that goes deep into the human psyche, posing questions about our nature and character, morals and our penchant for judgement of self and each other. It is the introspection that appeals. Introspection is part of who I am, as I reflect often on what ‘makes me tick’ as an individual; I want to understand myself better, so I become better, more effective, able to employ skills learned directly into the work I do. It is part of my lifes journey – a blessing and a curse. To search, discover, disect piece by piece, give rise to provision of a solution. Camus’s, The Fall, allows me to reflect on this as a positive approach to continued learning about human nature, helping me navigate life in a much more positive way.

With this positive aspect in mind, there is a particular passage that struck me recently, offering up a peach of a reflection and opportunity for constructive introspection.

You were wrong, cher, the boat is going at full speed. But the Zuyderzee is a dead sea, or almost. With its flat shores, lost in the fog, there’s no knowing where it begins or ends. So we are steaming along without any landmark; we can’t gauge our speed. We are making progress and yet nothing is changing. It’s not navigation but dreaming.

This, to me, is powerful writing. It is exactly this sort of literary description that I connect with, where imagery through prose conjurs thoughts that syncronise with situations of the present. In this case, I link the passage with the social media journey.

More and more of us are becoming a part of this journey, for pleasure, for work, both; intertwined. We are going at full speed, while each of us at our own pace. We are being swept along in progressing our knowledge, often without knowing where we began or where we’re going. There are no landmarks, only the wake of others froth and bother as they speed along. All our paths cross constantly, a mass of tracks. Sometimes we collide beautifully, creating fleeting moments of shared vision, before speeding off again.

“We are making progress and yet nothing is changing”, and right there is the ultimate pondering moment, of social media, open data, new web technologies in local government. Progress is being made. I read it. I’ve seen it. I’m forever being amazed by the new ways people speak about what they’ve done and what they’re doing.

Change will come, when its ready, subtly slinking its way into everybodies conciousness. It will begin to apply itself in new ways of thinking, about how services are delivered. We will keep on going at full speed, lost in the fog, and it will be brilliant. Paths of navigation will be left in the wake for others to follow (I’ll be following), by the dreamers who dare to hurtle along, unbound by beginnings or ends or safety of landmarks.

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?

Partnerships have matured, it’s time to invest in digital transformation!

Digital display 2
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve recently been considering service delivery in local government; especially areas where citizens are involved (or should be), or where services work directly with or within communities. It’s not ‘how’ we deliver services I have issue with, rather it’s about how we perceive that service delivery would be improved. To highlight the point, I’m going to use broad headings of ‘Partnership’ working and ‘Digital Technology‘ and the shift that I think needs to be made.

Partnerships born of expensive initiatives:

Our desire and pushing for services to work in partnership with one another, whether internally among council services, or with Police, Fire and health services (not forgetting the voluntary sector, community and faith groups) has been long established.

This has been done with a number of reasons in mind: looking at ways to understand each others service objectives; potential for sharing resources; finding out what the community needs; finding out what the community wants; what are the social and operational issues that influence service delivery…and many more.

For numerous reasons, greatest emphasis or drive for targeted partnership working has always been on the most deprived neighbourhoods and communities. Single Regeneration Budget (SRB), Neighbourhood Renewal (NR), and Neighbourhood Management (NM), have all had significant funds and focus over the last few years. These types of program were designed to address flagging economies of towns, or to create projects that addressed the needs of communities, create aspiration that would result in communities themselves contributing to dragging the areas out of deprivation…narrowing the gap!

Projects were funded to cover improving education, employment, training, capital investment, community safety, improving aspirations, with a myriad of services and people coming together to support their introduction.

With background in Neighbourhood Management and Neighbourhood Renewal, I am not without insight into how these projects or programs of work are decided upon and how funding is allocated. I have been involved in some really good projects, with a range of people, all onboard with delivering work that really mattered. To this day, I wouldn’t question our intentions of the time, the projects we funded, and the legacy we imagined we would leave behind.

Intentions with projects from within these funding streams always had a focus of ‘legacy’. That is, that they should be sustainable once the funding had come to an end. Some services are good at this bit, but more can simply sell you the idea they are and tell you what you want to know, just to get the funding. I attended a number of NR and NM conferences where a range of officers openly shared the idea that this was the case.

The crux of it, in my opinion, is that for all the hundreds of thousands of pounds, millions nationally, quite possibly the only real lasting outcome was the development and embedding of services working in partnership, rather than any massive lasting impact of projects that received funding.

Out of expensive initiatives come embedded partnerships:

There have been a number of initiatives that came out of focussed work in the communities, not least Neighbourhood Management Groups (NMG’s), in some areas. These became the on the ground, frontline service get togethers of Neighbourhood Policing Teams, Fire Service, Ward Councillors, Community Safety Officers, Community Workers, Environment and Highways service officers. They facilitated a coming together of local intelligence, where issues could be discussed and in many cases start to form solutions, or give focus to specific areas of need within communities.

Not only does this allow for awareness raising and addressing issues on the ground, it provides ward councillors with continued intelligence about their ward. This, coupled with information they get direct from their community, can then be taken into other forums and structures, like local area committees or if need be, scrutiny functions. It might result in a ward councillor being better equipped to debate or make points to at their political group meetings or in committee situations. It certainly better equips them to be able to feed back to and discus with communities what action they might be taking over a particular issue, immediately through frontline workers and strategically through local government mechanisms.

At a senior level in public sector organisations, Local Strategic Partnerships (LSP) have been developed, and tend to have a wide range of responsibility for developing partnership strategy. Below these, more service specific areas of focus exist in the form of Local Service Partnership Boards. Consisting of senior managers and range of public services and councillors, from a service delivery point of view, this is a means to linking top down strategic with bottom up intelligence.

The result of approaches to working in communities to narrow the gap, has for me, helped develop and embed not just the idea of partnership working but the practical application of such. To work successfully in partnership, we don’t need initiatives or expensive teams; we just need the correct mechanisms, a solid combination of shared service planning within a clear and focussed governance structure. A large number of councillors and officers have been around long enough now to more naturally gravitate toward working in partnership, who really understand the benefits of taking such an approach, and who equally no longer require full on intervention from officers who continue to try and make the links, when everybody knows already what those links are.

So, what’s my issue?

Why organisations should re-focus and re-double their efforts on transforming services through use of digital technology:

Senior management and frontline officers along with councillors in their leadership role, know how to make the links and get the best from partnership working, are intelligent enough to be able to use the governance mechanisms in place to best effect. Therefore, especially in these austere times, organisations need to start re-thinking where they are investing their funds when it comes to improving service delivery, with a focus on real outcomes and outputs.

Partnerships need to continue. I am an advocate of partnership working. Further heavy investment in such approaches is, however, not necessarily required. These well established ways of working will continue successfully without continuing to throw major funding behind specific teams.

What public sector organisations should be re-evaluating and making serious investment in is how they can better utilise digital technology to help transform services and create new approaches to engaging with the public. I am not simply talking about a social media approach to engagement, but recognition of using new web technology and where it is best placed to do this.

It is important to distinguish between social media and new web technologies, both of which have a big role to play only in different ways.

If you work for a service where citizen engagement is necessary, then social media (genuine two way interaction, building a relationship) should be looked into. A serious investigation into how you could do this, what the practical implications are and what the added benefits of it can bring to the organisation and the citizen, what of the many tools should be used to do this, and what it means to an individual service within a large organisation, all need to be looked at. Do I need to go over the point that social media is not a fad, that it is here, and growing at exponential rates? Probably not to the circles who might take the time to read this post, but circles of the less informed might do well to start looking into such methods of engagement. Equally, as is recognised across the experienced within social media circles, we are not blinded by the technology we use, and recognise the great importance of real human contact; we’re not geeks who want only communicate via pc’s and mobiles. Social media is adding avenues and outlets, bolting them on to traditional engagement methods.

Through recent project work I am undertaking in housing, tenancy support, I have discovered many and varied ways that we can create products and spaces to help and support our clients. From using Screenr and Jing, YouTube, flip-cams or phones, txt messaging, twitter and Facebook, I have started to look at how we can work with the team members to grab their knowledge and experience and turn it into long lasting products. The potential for developing support products for very little resource is vast, and even in a team who are ‘not IT friendly’, they have already contributed ideas and thoughts of what might be produced and what would help support them to improve the service they provide.

So, finally…

Local government and public sector organisations should seriously look at where they are investing funds to improve services and get the best out of meagre resources. I don’t believe it will come through continuing pumping money into teams designed to develop partnership working in the traditional way. Structures are firmly embedded to do this through a culture change that has taken place over a number of years, and services know themselves what they can deliver together, what they can’t, and where no amount of nagging and cajoling can change the fact they don’t have the resources to deliver everything, everybody wants.

Investment now should be made in areas where most development needs to take place, where services can develop new ways to deliver differently and make savings, and where by proxy partnership working will actually continue to be strengthened through development of client and citizen support products. New web technologies and social media should be given the same rank of importance now, as many other government initiatives were given in the past. I reckon that for a fraction of the cost, a smaller team of people going around and working directly with an individual service, will in the long run not only revolutionise and help us catch up with and engage better with citizens, but save a heck of a lot of money whilst making local government and public sector services far more effective.

Webcasting the net that bit further

Webcasting, once a thing of mystery and in the eyes of many a questionable investment, has become far more widespread over the last few years. This has been down to progressive private sector thinking, by organisations such as Public-i, who grasp the concept of community and political environment and how the two relate to each other.

As a consequence, those local authorities who have taken on webcasting, could in some respects also be classed as progressive councils; they have grasped what this technology means, understanding it’s value. That is, the ability to reach a much wider audience than they could have previously only dreamed about, opening up democracy and providing transparent decision making, to the public they represent and serve.

Eric Pickles at Conservative Party Conference
Image by conservativeparty via Flickr

I’m a big believer in transparency, and webcasting is a tool that allows for displaying such. It was therefore refreshing when Eric Pickles, openly supported this and called for more of it from councils across the country.  What does surprise me is that there are some councils who have pushed against this openness (pre and post Pickles comment).

The technology for webcasting is now long established. I expect if those councils who have webcast for a number of months (if not years) all of a sudden stopped, there would be be some kind of public and local media outcry. Such activity as webcasting gets into peoples psyche, and in this case it manifests into a ‘citizen’s right’ to observe what goes on in the meetings of the electorate; a powerful thing, that kind of mindset! Of course, this is only my opinion.

However, webcasting of council meetings is only a part of the story. In most cases it is no longer innovative; certainly not on it’s own. In some places then, such as Kirklees Council, webcasting is becoming normal practice. So, just what is it that continues to make webcasting a useful tool? Well, I’ve been lucky enough to play a part in it’s implementation, so here’s what I think.

Who does it reach?: Openness and transparency, as stated, is very important. We vote to elect our representatives, and as citizens have a right to see what is going on in those corridors of power. But more than this, it also allows for officers to watch and educate themselves, about the wider debates and reasoning relating to decisions. This can be especially pertinent when their service is one of the hot topics of the night. The idea of a better informed staff, should be embraced by any local authority. Specific encouragement of officers to watch these meetings should therefore undertaken; innovative ways to help staff educate themselves, rather than send them on a political awareness training course (at least use some of the footage from a webcast).

Other media: The introduction of other social media tools is something else that, in places, has been cause of some consternation for some councils. Tweeting during a meeting has been frowned upon, but I find the frowning flawed. I won’t go into a rant about it, but…a mixture of tweets from citizens, officers and councillors, further opens up the transparency and engagement that the ideology of local authorities should be striving to do. A combination of media, in this case “Watching and Tweeting Democracy”, has worked well so far. There is no real reason it should stop, as the dialogue has been respectful and everybody has been very adult about the whole thing! The innovation then is how we can start to use a combination of social media tools, not simply one here and one there; get them in the same place.

Internal communication: This is an important addition to the webcasting of council meetings, a small step in more innovative uses of the tools at our disposal. At no other time has a local authority needed to open up the communication channels with it’s employees, as it does now. A number of Meetings with Directors have taken place, allowing staff to listen to and ask questions of directors. On a couple of occasions, webcasts have been recorded. What this has achieved is the ability to reach a greater number of employees, in effect creating a greater transparency and humanity in communication (rather than the obligatory long email; which actually still has it’s place, of course). The potential savings on conducting some communications in this way, is significant, and necessary and certainly as a taxpayer myself, something I welcome in terms of the council making best use of it’s resources.

In terms of uses for webcasting as a tool, I believe we have barely scratched the surface. The uses outlined above, themselves, all need to be driven and built upon in order for them to generate greater value, and that is possible through a bit of hard work and creative thinking. Where an authority empowers it’s employees to think and make decisions that best serve it’s citizens, engaging citizens in that more and more along the way, there is much that can be achieved.