Wandsworth’s Big Society Fund opens for another round of bids (although at the time of writing the web page doesn’t reflect this) on Monday.

The Big Society Fund exists to give small grants to smaller community based projects, so does not have hugely restrictive requirements on being a formally constituted body or requiring years of accounts in an overly formal bidding process. The sums are not huge, the biggest grant is £5,000, but are the sorts of money that make a difference to a grassroots project.

The types of organisations that can bid include residents’ associations, sports clubs or parent and teacher associations. Bids over £1,000 are usually expected so be able to show some other form of contribution, either monetary or in time, to match any council grant.

Bids need the support of a Wandsworth councillor so if you are in the area, or perhaps have a project with which I have a particular affinity, I’d be more than happy to consider giving my backing.

The council’s website has all the forms or feel free to contact me if I can help.

A bit of lazy blogging. But going through various bits and pieces from last week it occurred to me that I didn’t post my speech from the Neighbourhood Watch conference I referred to in Tweeting not twitching in Wandsworth.

I don’t often write speeches – which probably shows through in my performances in the council chamber – but was pressured to put a bit more preparation into this! And having done it, I’ll be damned if my words of wisdom won’t be available for all on the internet (with the usual “check against delivery” caveat):

Hello and welcome everyone to the Battersea Park Pump House for this afternoon’s conference on the Big Society and Neighbourhood Watch.

I would like to start by thanking Wandsworth Community Safety Trust for funding this afternoon and to the Wandsworth Community Safety Team for organising it.

I’m particularly excited by this afternoon’s programme because I have long believed that Neighbourhood Watch can be the leading example of the Big Society, and, here in Wandsworth, our work has been proving just that.

However, while we can throw any number of buzz-words at Neighbourhood Watch: whether we think it’s the Big Society, an example of nudge, traditional community empowerment – and I think there are plenty of examples to illustrate each concept and far more besides – the key thing about Neighbourhood Watch is that it just works.
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Nat Wei, the Government’s Big Society advisor, has an interesting blog which often highlights good Big Society examples. It now appears he’s rating them as well and recently introduced his ‘power rating’ (and thanks to Warren Hatter for highlighting it) which “seeks to express the increasing degree in which a platform or initiative takes power from those who currently possess it and puts it in the hands of citizens” giving it five ratings:

  1. does something good for citizens,
  2. shifts power, data, and opportunities closer to where citizens live, perhaps by reducing bureaucracy, enabling different providers to operate services, or using the web and other means to allow more direct access,
  3. seeks to harness cognitive surplus, presenting tasks and activities in more accessible ways by changing the way we think about them to appeal to our interests and passions,
  4. strengthens social capital (particularly the bridging kind) by encouraging peer to peer activity online and offline,
  5. finds ways to open its governance, funding, and surplus involving employees, members, and users using cooperative or other methods to create a strong sense of group ownership over the venture

Now, the language is not the best, even as someone who rather likes Clay Shirky’s concept of ‘cognitive surplus’ I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I would attempt to use the phrase. But the principle is an interesting one.

I’ve recently been talking to a friend about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and it was impossible to see this and not make a connection.

Despite some critics, the principle of Maslow is common-sense. Some needs take priority over others: you need air to breath and food to eat. Once you have them you can start thinking about shelter and security. Then onto more fulfilling needs like friends, family and self-development. Even blogging, if that’s a need…

But when you tie that back to government, it’s rooted firmly at the bottom. We’ve all heard variations of “the first duty of government is…” Most often it involves protection or security.

To a degree that has to be right. For example, as a council we have certain statutory duties. We need to protect the vulnerable. We have to provide housing for those that cannot get it themselves. We have to provide education. Perhaps, though, we need to think more about how we help people with those less existential needs.

One of the criteria of the Wandsworth Challenge is that it should improve the quality of life of our residents. I’ve touched on the problem with this before, that people all have different opinions, and what enhances one persons quality of life might diminish another’s. We could plough lots of money into, say, a Wandsworth Opera Company, but that would offer little direct benefit to those who don’t like opera.

A Maslow for government, therefore, should address those crucial needs (care, education, housing) but then act as an enabler. Nat Wei may be on to something – and while the wording needs work – it really needs to a test before decisions are taken, not a rating afterwards.

I am excited to see the Wandsworth Challenge finally launch a public face this week. I know that some might be sceptical, even cynical, about it; but I’m not one of them.

I’m excited in large part because it marks a new way of working for the council. Wandsworth has been remarkably successful at running a strongly managed council over the years, but as times – and people – change so must the council. They may be fads to some, but the latest thinking on things like nudge, the impact of our social network, or collective wisdom can only add to the strong foundation of effective management and financial control.

I’m also excited because there has been some interest expressed already. It may be that I’m more aware of it but I don’t recall any other time while I’ve been on the council that I’ve had such extensive conversations with people about how the council works.

And part of my excitement is because I believe in the Big Society. Let’s be clear, Wandsworth Challenge is not the Big Society, but there are considerable overlaps and you it’s possible to consider one a subset of the other (or as two parallel policies). That we have launched a Big Society fund adds to the potential for small projects to take off.

But if anything troubles me it is the what the public response will be. Will it consist mainly of accusatory suggestions (sack Town Hall fat cats?), or ideas that are entirely outside of our remit (bring back hanging, or at least hard labour), or will it be the worst of all: a deafening silence (because people are so used to the public sector doing everything, they do not see any value in contributing).

One of the key success criteria will be the amount of workable ideas that come from frontline staff and the public. I’ve spent time today hopefully encouraging one of the teams in my portfolio to throw themselves into the Challenge. And something I’ve given a lot of thought too (and had a lot of good advice from others, but still not fully reconciled) is how we make the process transparent; there can’t be anything worse than seeing your idea disappear into a black hole never to return.

But there must be hundreds, thousands of good ideas out there. Some may be radical, some might be simple. Some impossible to implement and some done in a day. But every single one of us has been in the situation of dealing with a public service and thinking “this would be so much better if only…”

So what are your experiences? Is there a small tweak or a radical overhaul would make your dealings with the council better?

I have been a rubbish blogger recently. In my defence the dream of mainly working from (a small) home hasn’t been so dreamlike since the birth of our second child! The result has been that a lot has had to suffer, including this blog. I want to, and will, keep it going, but why? What motivates me? It takes time, generates no income and – while undoubtedly a good thing for someone who’s elected to do – is not essential and I’m first to admit is ignored by far more Wandsworth residents than read it!

I came across this video from the RSA the other day, and was struck by the relevance of it to, well, pretty much anything but particularly the Big Society and Wandsworth Challenge, so it wasn’t that surprising a day later when I read about exactly the same research in Jesse Norman’s book Big Society!

The crux of it is that money is not the motivator it is often thought to be. Once comfortable, other things drive us more (one of the examples used is why on earth anyone would want to play a musical instrument as a hobby, since it brings no income only cost). The research suggests that these are:

  1. Autonomy: The freedom to do things without direction or compulsion
  2. Mastery: The ability to gain proficiency in an activity
  3. Purpose: A reason, a calling, for doing something

All of these are available from the Big Society and the Wandsworth Challenge. People will have the freedom (autonomy) to run services or schemes that benefit their neighbourhoods (purpose) and, of course, the right to run them as well as they can (mastery).

It’s a classic example that there’s more to life than money, and as most people forced to play a musical instrument as a child will testify, it’s a lot more enjoyable when compulsion is replaced with voluntary desire.

“The council doesn’t have all the answers” was one of the closing comments by the council’s deputy leader, Maurice Heaster, during a debate on the Wandsworth Challenge last week. I would hope, to most, that this is fairly self-evident, but sometimes you wonder. You wonder first because there is a tendency for government (of whatever level and whatever form) to act like it does have all the answers. And then you wonder because there’s so often the presumption stated that the government – or council – should ‘do something’.

One of the things that has amused me over the recent protests against cuts is how often you hear “tee hee, I bet this isn’t what David Cameron had in mind for the Big Society!” It amuses me because, actually, I think it probably is what he had in mind. He might not have specifically envisaged people super-gluing themselves to the windows of Top Man (because, apparently, Philip Green should be sloppier about running a business and pay more overheads) or setting fire to the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree, but he did want to see an engaged population that were active, not passive, clients of the state.

And, for me, that’s what the Wandsworth Challenge is about. It’s inviting everyone to be engaged. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I, or the council, will like all the ideas. And it doesn’t mean that the council will implement each one. But the council will have to justify its decision.

That’s where my real interest lies, in the interplay between community empowerment and politics. It’s certainly true that power needs redistributing from Whitehall down to the town hall and from there to the ordinary citizen. But that’s not to say that the town hall doesn’t still have a role to play where it is best placed to deliver a service or a strategy. This is something that could re-democratise local government and local politics, giving everyone a role to play (as big or small as they like) and engaging them in the process. Everyone is better – community, council and government – when each is playing a full role and challenging the other to be responsive and do the same.

You don’t have to look far in the Wandsworth Challenge to see the small and large ‘p’ politics. The three tests themselves are politically loaded, despite seeming fairly innocuous:

  1. Does it help achieve a distinctively high quality of life for our residents?
  2. Does it make the most of the resources available from all areas?
  3. Does it enable individuals to take more responsibility for their own lives?

The first two are, certainly, a matter of opinion. For example, we could make Battersea Park into allotments, for some that would pass all three tests – with people enjoying the great outdoors (test one), using open space for food production (test two) and help increase self-sufficiency (test three). But what about those who value the park for sport and recreation? Those allotments would fail the first two, and possibly even the third if they were, for some reason, unable to use an alternative.

So, if faced with competing suggestions about the use of Battersea Park (implying there are different views and priorities out there) the council itself will have to show prioritisation – I suspect in this case we might favour, and therefore give a higher value to, the leisure use than the food use.

And the Wandsworth Challenge is, like the Big Society, something that harnesses the power of the nebulous. It’s back to the Patton quote I’ve mentioned before: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” By not defining it too tightly we give free rein to ideas and innovation, and with a population of 280,000 people, there have to be some great ideas out there.

So, what are your ideas? What do you want to see? What don’t you want to see? How should we capture them? Or are you just not enthused?

Andrew Lansley in Roehampton for the public health white paper launch

Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health, came to Wandsworth to launch the public health white paper yesterday.

I’ve been very remiss in not posting much about health on here, despite the fact that it’s probably the most exciting area of local government at the moment and presents a huge opportunity for local councils and communities.

The main point of the white paper is that public health will soon be a council responsibility again (it was stripped from councils in 1974). It’s a sensible move: it’s commonly recognised that the NHS actually plays a small role in the health of the nation. We might all think of health and think about our GPs and hospitals, but in fact it’s largely a result of our lifestyles and behaviour; the cumulative impact of even small changes (a slightly healthier diet, a little more exercise) would make a huge positive difference to our collective health.

The challenge now is how we carry this out and made sure that the decisions the council takes all take account of the public health impact. And the real challenge for (much of) local government will be a new way of working, like any government publication the white paper has a couple of mentions of Big Society, but it also has references to things like nudge and the influence of networks and all three are quite alien to the traditional directive approach of councils.

A further challenge will be measuring the impacts. While the white paper hints at how they are going to baseline public health (and offer reward funding for success) it is not specific, and it’s hard to imagine exactly how we are going to measure the impact on things like life expectancy which, by definition, won’t be felt for years.

But despite those challenges the collective reforms for health offer the biggest positive change for health and healthcare I’ve ever seen – moving decisions away from a centralised bureaucracy and as close as possible to patients and communities, which is exactly where they should be.

Wearing various hats I’ve found myself spending a lot of time talking about the Big Society recently (including, if you’ll forgive the name-dropping, with Nat Wei) and one common theme has emerged: failure.

Failure has been the first thing on the agenda in pretty much every discussion, whether with councillor or resident, Conservative or Labour, urban or rural. The big question, it seems, is what happens when (not if) it all goes wrong. But, as I have said in the past, failure is no bad thing; this isn’t to say we should look to fail, but we certainly shouldn’t fear it so much it stops us trying something new.

This fear of failure manifests itself in two ways; pro-active and reactive. They are both two sides of the same coin, essentially believing that people are, ultimately, not capable of running services for themselves. The pro-active version talks about the enormous about of support and development needed before people can take on responsibility (sometimes the argument is more refined; the ‘middle classes’ will be able to do this but those in deprived areas lack the skills; although I suspect that there are people in those deprived areas who have developed far better budgeting and time management skills than I will ever have). The reactive version assumes eventual failure and, therefore, means that councils will always need the capacity to bring services back in house.

But until we shake this fear of failure the Big Society will never work.

The first problem is that expectations are incredibly important; expect failure and that’s probably what you’ll get. Instead we should expect great things, like the Patton quote: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” If we start off expecting failure, people find it easy to live up to those expectations.

The second problem is that it isn’t Big Society, it’s essentially nursemaiding; like giving a child a bike, but never taking the stabilisers off – no-one will ever know if they can ride on two wheels or not. To me Big Society is all about moving the state away from being a provider, to being an enabler for most and insurance for some. This is the exact opposite, it’s sending the message that the state will continue as the insurance, because it doesn’t trust people to look after themselves.

The third problem is that when failure defines the policy, you have to define failure. If councils are the watchdog, ready to step in and ‘rescue’ failing services how do they know they are failing? They will have to set their success and failure criteria which means the council is effectively recreating a commissioning model. The town hall, not the community, will have decided what level of service needs to be provided and it will monitor and step in if necessary, in exactly the same way as every other contract it has, from refuse collection to home-help.

And the alternative? In a lot of cases we can let failure happen. There are some places we must strive to avoid any failure (child protection is an obvious example) but in the vast majority it will not be the end of anyone’s world, an inconvenience to some, perhaps, but not so much that it worth limiting everyone else’s potential.

Indeed, in many cases the failure is relative. When posting about Reinventing Government I touched on an example that achieved a huge amount in tackling crime and unemployment before ‘failing’. And surely part of the trust in giving people power to run their own services includes giving them the power to make mistakes, get things wrong and learn from the experience. In the words of one person at one of the meetings: “I run a successful business, because I’ve learnt from running unsuccessful businesses.” It will be the same with the Big Society, if we dare let it happen.

Years ago, as a new councillor, one of the old salts told me that he now couldn’t go anywhere in the country without seeing a housing estate and looking for indications of how many of the houses or flats had been bought or how the estate was managed.

I’ve found myself doing the same looking at public sector organisations. So today, at St Thomas’ hospital I was taken with the robot dispenser in the hospital pharmacy which you can see going through the motions in the YouTube video above. Apparently it works by placing drugs where they fit, so they are stored in the most space efficient way, then remembering the location. It will then retrieve drugs within 10 seconds of them being requested. It is quite mesmerizing to watch and MiniMe and I enjoyed seeing boxes with names I couldn’t pronounce being moved around (as well as nicotine patches, they had lots of those).

However, given that the advertised wait time for dispensing prescriptions was 15-20 minutes I couldn’t help feeling that the space saved and time saved by having a robot, rather than a human, go to a shelf and get some tablets hasn’t really made that much difference to the patient experience – who still have to sit in a waiting area and have fairly minimal human contact with the pharmacist through a small, bank-style, dispensing window.

Guy’s and St Thomas’ is a good NHS Trust, so I don’t mean any criticism, but my equivalent of asking myself about the housing mix is to look and wonder whether the design took more account of measurable outputs, like how long it take to retrieve a drug, than the important outcomes, like informed and happy patients. Too often the public sector concentrates too much on what it can measure (and is new shiny), rather than on what’s important.

The council's fault? (In this case probably yes, it's a pile of rubbish collected together to make a single collection point.)

Several weeks ago I posed the question does the council actually hinder people doing the right thing? The example offered publicly in the comments (and by email from someone else) was on our policy of charging to collect bulky items.

I’ve never been directly involved in our refuse policy. But I’m not afraid of idly speculating to cover my ignorance, so I’ll carry on regardless.

Obviously the council is aware that by charging, we run the risk of people fly tipping. There is, to use the economic term, price elasticity. Some people won’t pay, and will fly tip whatever the price (and some even if it were free). Most people will pay if it’s a reasonable amount, but as the fee increases so does the proportion of people who will just dump their rubbish illegally. The judgment is where that price covers the cost of the service (or as much as possible) without seeing the income wiped out by increased fly tipping.

But moving on from the charge, I think there are valid points in the comment about the complex rules surrounding waste collection:

Now does the previous owner’s dismantled desk that they left in our cellar count as 1 piece of furniture, or should i saw it up into 3 standard sized sacks? And if i did would they still weigh less than 25kg and how would I even know? What about the spare kitchen cabinet panels, scraps of carpet or broken pane of glass? It makes my head hurt!

Wouldn’t 1 fee be easier? Or small/medium/large collection fee? Or 1-yearly free collection?

Also when people try to do the right thing and then can’t find the information they’re looking for on the council website because it’s rubbish, I’d say that stops good behaviour.

It is, I think, a consequence of a bureaucracy (a word I always use neutrally) that it is rule-bound and, therefore, tends to think everyone and thing else is rule-bound. What’s the betting those rules are there because there restrictions on lifting heavy items? So, we have to protect our staff and contractors from potential injury and do that by passing on the rule to the resident, never thinking that many people have no way of weighing heavy items.

Going further, I wonder why we are even collecting a lot of bulky items. When we tried to dispose of a fridge we paid the bulky collection fee only for someone to steal it from our garden the day before collection. I know the fridge itself had no value as a fridge (I’d even managed to pull one of the doors off when removing it) so can only guess it had some scrap value. Why aren’t we investigating whether scrap merchants would consider taking on some of these collections for us? Or charities? Despite frowning on their use of chuggers the British Heart Foundation in Wandsworth will collect furniture and electrical items for resale in their shops.

However, when you look at the council’s page on using others it manages to contain, within five bullet-points, two references to prosecution, the need to check (with another agency) waste collection registration and the potential need for advance authorisation to take things to the tip. Not something that encourages alternative disposal methods!

And finally, I sometimes wonder if we are too good at clearing up. There are a few fly tipping hot-spots in my patch and, speaking to officers, discovered that, at times, they collect daily from them. But what impact does this have? Residents might appreciate the clean streets, they might be impressed that the dumping they see in the morning removed by the evening. But might they also think that next time they have something they need to get rid of there’s an easy route? Some might not even realise it isn’t a legitimate service!

I once suggested that we just stop collecting for a week, to see what happens. We’d tell everyone that’s what we were doing, and then use the accumulated rubbish as an example: it isn’t just for the council to remove the rubbish, it’s also for people to stop dumping it, and pass on information when they see others doing it.

Increasingly I’m seeing the way the council should operate is not as a service provider, but as a party to a contract. In this example, we agree to keep the streets as tidy as we can, and residents agree not to dump rubbish and help us find those that do. We could even bring in others, like the BHF, to play their part and give them opportunity to raise money. There are huge areas of life where residents, business and charities, as well as the council, all could have a role to play if we moved away from a simple service delivery model and towards a mature relationship where we all recognised the part we play, effectively a Wandsworth contract. Would you sign it?