Saturday, June 28, 2008

Some thoughts on 200 blog entries: the FE sector, social housing and the third sector

As I’ve posted 200 entries on this blog, I thought it was time cast a look over my shoulder.

Back in late 2006 when I was setting up I thought that a blog might be interesting as an opportunity to share ideas and information as well as occasionally pontificate. Everyone seemed to have a blog. Many blogs were interesting – either informative or a little weird such as the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Perhaps not everyone had a blog – there seemed to be a lack of blogs on housing and further education – two sectors where I have done a far bit of work over the years.

Since 2006 we’ve acquired a new prime minister – and a fair few commentators speculate that we may have another one before long whether before or after the next general election. Public sector reform is still on the agenda. The language has shifted a bit – away from competition and choice towards contestability and personalisation. Some of the agenda has been adopted by the Conservatives - and taken further as in the case of Michael Gove’s proposals on schools choice. Even the Liberal Democrats are advocating empowering the user of public services. One major change that we have seen in the policy environment is a significant tightening of public finances although the implications of the Comprehensive Spending Review were well-heralded and analysed by the experts at the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

In social housing we’ve seen a review or two leading to end of the Housing Corporation as we know it – with a de-merger seeing English Partnerships absorbing investment (aka funding of new affordable housing) and a Tenant Services Authority (briefly known as Oftenant) taking over regulation. The TSA might even have a sector-wide remit including all social housing if the government listens. The nature of regulation is a bit of an unknown. Housing inspection will live on at the Audit Commission for the moment anyway – with new short, sharp, shock notice inspections coming in after some years of talk. We’ll probably see some new council houses at long last – although not many. Indeed there is a bit of uncertainty over all house-building after the credit crunch – who worried about sub-prime in 2006? (Arguably not enough people.)

In further education we’ve seen the announcement of the death of the Learning and Skills Council. Its role will be parcelled out – perhaps neatly, perhaps not - among a Young People Learning Agency, Skills Funding Agency, a National Apprenticeships Agency and dozens of local authorities and “sub-regional clusters”. We’ll see how joined-up that is. As a result of the changes we’ll probably see LSC staffers finding new homes – hopefully not too many will compete against me as freelance consultants. Another key development will be sixth form colleges “rejoining the local government family” – a good or bad thing depending where you are. (I won't quote Tolstoy or Larkin.)

Of course, the third sector – particularly social enterprises – are even sexier now than 20 months ago. Politicians are falling over themselves to woo charities and other third sector organisations. The other week it was the Conservatives offering the sector treats including the Office for the Third Sector which NCVO welcomed. Yesterday it was the government promising the third sector a role in service delivery. As always, reality may be less rosy – as seen in the disappointment when the Department for Work and Pensions gave the lions share to the private sector in a major commissioning exercise. Still we have seen actions as well as words – funds for third sector organisations, ambassadors for social enterprise, training for commissioners, new and flexible forms of legal entity for social enterprises.

I am sure that I have missed a few developments. Its seems a lot has been happening even if much of it is skated over in the mainstream media.

I wonder what I’ll be writing about after another 200 blog entries.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Stock transfers delivering on promises: more evidence of improvements

The Housing Corporation just published a thematic review of housing association formed by “stock transfers” from local councils.

The thematic review found stock transfer associations are “making considerable progress towards the delivery of its promises to tenants made at the point of transfer. The one or two cases where associations have been unable to deliver on their promises are generally due to circumstances not directly related to the transfer process.”

While the study was primarily one based on self-assessment by housing associations, it is consistent with other evidence such as the National Audit Office’s finding in 2003 that “RSLs have largely delivered the expected benefits to tenants of better quality social housing, better housing services and opportunities for tenant participation.”

Thursday, June 19, 2008

“Poking” civil servants: the public sector on the internet

Today we learned that senior civil servants are to be taught to use social networking sites by junior ranking "digital pioneers". Its sounds like Whitehall is being Beboified.

Maybe before long the civil servants at HM Customs and Revenue will be allowed to use email. On the other hand, perhaps things are not that advanced.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ujima and the Housing Corporation: why stricter regulation may not be the answer

Along with the news that Oftenant will be given the catchy title of the Tenant Services Authority, last week's Inside Housing carried a feature on the fall of Ujima (pdf available). The article asked "Why didn't anyone step in?" and set out the warning signals in the run-up to the first housing association to go bust.

The magazine highlighted that over the last five years the Housing Corporation's regulation staff shrank by 31% and its investment (i.e. funding) staff reduced by 26%. This apparently reflected the demands of the Gershon "efficiency agenda" – fewer staff were overseeing the expansion of funding in new social housing.

There are some echoes with the Financial Services Authority’s handling of Northern Rock. As the Economist noted when discussing that case in March: “Writing more rules may do more harm than good if the regulator is unable to enforce them”.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Equality and diversity: the Third Sector struggling to match words with actions

The community investment foundation Olmec has just published A Guide to Equality and Diversity in the Third Sector (pdf available). The guide provides a useful set of signposts to more information.

The guide came out of the findings of an Olmec survey of 159 third sector organisations (pdf available). The study found that the third sector had its heart in the right place with 97% of organisations having an equality and diversity policy but problems in putting it into practice.

The study found more work needed to be done in two main areas:

Firstly in ensuring that the commitment to equalities is demonstrated at the
highest level of an organisation. Secondly that this commitment is transmitted across all policy and strategy areas as well as in individual work plans, performance targets, measurements and reporting requirements. In particular organisations current monitoring systems do not lend themselves to reporting on outcomes and the difference their work has had on those who it is set up to serve. Equalities monitoring was largely directed by funders requirements rather than because it was part of an internal drive to achieve better equalities outcomes or part of externally accredited quality standards.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Comparing performance: tenant satisfaction in council housing

The polling and research firm IPSOS-MORI have published an interesting analysis of tenant satisfaction data. The Housing Futures study (pdf available) aimed to offer “a more useful insight into tenant satisfaction levels than is possible from a simple league table approach”.

The study modelled the effect of largely external factors on tenant satisfaction – “the nature of place and the challenges it brings”. The model predicts tenant satisfaction on the basis of four factors:

1) Deprivation - the more deprived an area the lower the level of satisfaction.

2) Ethnic fractionalisation – “a measure not only of the proportion of people from ethnic minority communities, but the extent to which there are a wide range of different ethnic minority communities in an area” – with it being more challenging to meet the needs and expectations of more diverse populations

3) The proportion of elderly social tenants (aged 60+) - older tenants that are more likely to be positive about the services they receive.

4) The proportion of housing stock which is council owned – “As the percentage of total stock owned by the council increases, satisfaction levels decrease”

The study went on to identify where local authorities out- (or under-) performed the tenant satisfaction levels predicted by the model. Carrick, Ealing, Blyth Valley and Welwyn Hatfield were the joint top performers. (Three of the four have Arms Length Management Organisations.)

The fastest improving local authorities were identified as Ealing, Leeds, Redditch, Gloucester, Bury, Hounslow, Stevenage and Islington. (Again with ALMOs well represented.)

The study does usefully disentangle organisational performance from external factors. Perhaps similar studies should be performed and published for other public services. (If they have been, I don’t think they have been publicised enough)

My only criticism is the lack of any analysis of how relative performance maps across to different models – in particular, comparison of housing department performance with that of ALMOs. The study does contrast various types of local authority but ignores the ALMO debate.

Social HomeBuy initiative: three council houses sold

I’ve not read all 111 pages yet but yesterday the Department for Communities and Local Government published an independent evaluation of the Social HomeBuy initiative.

The evaluation is timely. Only three council houses had been sold via Social HomeBuy by the end of 2007. The scheme has been more successful with housing associations but we are not seeing great strides towards an asset-owning society.

In the executive summary, the evaluators note:

An average of 70% of tenants receive benefits and therefore would be ineligible for a mortgage. Of the remaining 30% of tenants, demand remains limited by income, demand to be a home owner and the desirability of their current property.

That has relevance across housing policy more broadly.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is big beautiful? Futurebuilders' heavyweight board

As the size of boards is one of my stable of hobbyhorses (as evidenced on this blog), I was interested to read Stephen Bubb, chair of the Adventure Capital Fund, suggest on his blog that his 14-strong Futurebuilders board was rather on the large side. He wrote:

I wanted a diverse board which combined talent from investment banking and venture capital and great people from the sector. And we have managed to get sector people from small, medium and large charities and a social enterprise. But to confess. we have done this at the expense of a perhaps too large a Board. But in time people leave so it will work out I guess. A challenge for the Chair. It will keep me on my toes; but that is good . I do not like the supine. Nothing better than intellectual challenge to sharpen decision making.

Managing those meetings with all those high-powered professionals on board will definitely be a challenging task. My concern would be whether such a large board will be able to keep managers on their toes.

I would be a bit uncomfortable relying on people leaving “so it will work out” – although members might walk if they feel that the board is too large to be cohesive and effective (and they struggle to get their voice heard in the crowd).

We’ll have to watch this one.

Putting people into public services: better regulation and inspection

The National Consumer Council has launched a new, short report on Putting people into public services: better regulation and inspection (pdf available).

The report should be required reading for the new Oftenant in social housing. Indeed all regulators and inspectors should be asked to think about the issues raised.

The report warns of the danger that services are modelled on what satisfies regulators rather than the public.

The report’s vision is of a regulatory system that:

1) is organised for the benefit of the people who use services, not for the convenience of regulators and the regulated;

2) inextricably links efficiency, value for money and satisfactory outcomes for the people –specially as new and different providers enter the market;

3) builds on continuous conversation with service users and the public – starting from where people really are, rather than from assumptions of how they might think and behave;

4) makes the most of service users as the experts on what it feels like to receive a service; and

5) builds popular support for difficult regulatory decisions.

I would also add that wherever possible choice and competition should be used to drive improvement – rather than relying exclusively on regulation and inspection regimes. While the regulator and the inspector may ensure recognition of social benefits and costs, promote good practice and protect the vulnerable and poorly-informed, they are not so good at generating innovation, encouraging value-for-money and tailoring services around individual needs.

A social enterprise stocktake

Now – with the sale of ECT Recycling – is a good time to take stock on social enterprise. There is a timely review in this month’s Director magazine.

If anyone thought the situation was simple, the article will disabuse them of that notion. It warns of charitable and corporate entities being re-sprayed as social enterprises – “carpet-bagging”. It also suggests a distinction between the Body Shop as a social business and the Big Issue as a social enterprise. (I'm not sure about that one: it sounds like the government when it suggests that the "business" in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is something different from the "enterprise".) The article also points to the challenges – such as “scalability” with capacity issues in expanding to be in a position to deliver big contracts.

I have recently worked with one social enterprise that was thinking about seeking growth through mixing commercial and public funding. That poses a whole set of new challenges – not least for governance and accountability.

I suspect this bandwagon will keep rolling.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Social enterprises, muck and brass

I was surprised to read that the social enterprise ECT Recycling (linked to leading social business Ealing Community Transport) has been bought for £3.4m by private sector company May Gurney.

ECT Recycling is a community interest company required to return only 35 per cent of its profits to shareholders with the rest reinvested in operations.

The CIC regulator has said it will be monitoring developments. It will be important that this deal does not go sour – otherwise there will more cries of “privatisation” when new providers are involved in delivering public services.

Friday, June 06, 2008

HA boards: one-third fits all?

On the Great Governance blog for Welsh housing associations there is the executive summary of a report on governance commissioned by the Community Housing Cymru for the current Welsh Assembly Government review on the subject.

The report rightly recommends that

boards recognise that citizen and community engagement should be a defining feature of the governance of housing associations, constantly seek to innovate in their engagement with citizens and communities, sharing experiences and learning from others, and ensure that the direction and decisions taken by the board are informed by the engagement.

It also recommends that boards of associations which are responsible for providing housing services include one-third of their membership from tenants. Does one size really fit all?