The Song Remains the Same

And so it happens again.

A benevolent funder/project sponsor breezes into our city with a great project to build social capital, spread information, to raise the profile of local issues and to  report on the local political process.

And just as things start to find their feet and make a real difference, they breeze out again.

It happens all of the time.  Funding runs out.  Patience runs out. Commitment runs out.

Because for the project sponsor this is little more than ‘an experiment’.  Or ‘a contract’.  A community to dabble in.  A kind of train set for grown ups.

This is not their community.

This is not where their children will grow up or their parents will grow old.  Of course they will have local people on the ground – but the ones that really call the shots?  This is not THEIR community.

This is what passes for community development work these days.  A never ending stream of short-term projects that raise aspirations, engage people, make ground and then, in the vast majority of cases, fade away – leaving behind a sense of betrayal, frustration and in some cases apathy.

But it is alright because there is always another funding stream to apply for, another gig to get, another project to manage.  We just need to secure the standard evaluation that declares ‘Much has been achieved – but much remains to be done’ and we can all move on holding our chins up high.  This is the standard pattern of the ‘development industry’ – less so in the developing world these days but still almost exclusively on domestic ‘projects’.

And most of us development professionals are complicit in the process.  We kid ourselves that THIS funding stream is different, that THIS project will help to shift things, that THIS building holds the keys to the kingdom, or at least pay our mortgage for another year or two until the right opportunity comes along.

At some point we have to recognise that change that is prompted from outside, that is funded by someone else, that delivers someone else’s policy goals or answers someone else’s questions is really unlikely to provide us with any hope of transformation.

At some point we have to recognise that for any real long-term success we have to start from where WE are, and work with what WE have got, and break this dangerous habit of relying on external ‘benevolence’.

Redefining Apathy

Some great ideas on redefining apathy from Canada, at least some of which translate well over here!

‘A heroic effort is

  1. collective
  2. imperfect
  3. voluntary.

…about following your own dreams – uninvited

 

Interested in discussing some of these issues and how they play out in Leeds?

http://leedsengagement.eventbrite.co.uk/

Happiness is Contagious…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bc6WW1GGjbk]

An interesting counterpoint to yesterdays self interest post.

Helping others pursue their self interest maybe the best way to pursue your own…

de Tocqueville on Self Interest via Stiglitz…

de Tocqueville once described what he saw as a chief part of the peculiar genius of American society—something he called “self-interest properly understood.” The last two words were the key. Everyone possesses self-interest in a narrow sense: I want what’s good for me right now! Self-interest “properly understood” is different. It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest—in other words, the common welfare—is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being.

This is an excerpt taken from an article published by Vanity Fair and written by Nobel Prize Winning Economist Joe Stiglitz.

What Now Leeds…for the economy?

The draft Vision for Leeds is nothing if not ambitious when it comes considering the city’s economy:

By 2030, Leeds’ economy will be prosperous and sustainable. We will create a prosperous and sustainable economy, using our resources effectively. Leeds will be successful and well-connected offering a good standard of living.
Leeds will be a city that has:
  • a strong local economy driving sustainable economic growth;
  • a skilled workforce to meet the needs of the local economy;
  • a world-class cultural offer;
  • built on its strengths in financial and business services, and manufacturing, and continued to grow its strong retail, leisure and tourism sectors;
  • world-class, cultural, digital and creative industries;
  • developed new opportunities for green manufacturing and for growing other new industries;
  • improved levels of enterprise through creativity and innovation;
  • work for everyone with secure, flexible employment and good wages;
  • high-quality, accessible, affordable and reliable public transport;
Who are the ‘we’ who will create a prosperous and sustainable economy?  And, what breakthroughs might allow this utopian economy to be achieved by 2030 but that has prevented us achieving it to date?  Or perhaps this is one of those ‘shoot for the stars’ to give yourself a chance to hit a nearby moon type plans?
But, the question of who are the ‘we’ is, I think, an important one.  Is it various collections of the anointed and the appointed, gathered at city and city region level (while the RDA might be going we retain a ‘Leeds city region‘ and have a new Local Enterprise Partnership that covers the whole city region.  The city region representing 11 local authorities across North, South and West Yorkshire, claims to represent the ‘real economy’) to plan economic development?
Or is this a challenge that demands a wider response?
That must engage a much wider group of those with a stake in the future of our economy?
This matters because, depending on the answer, we can either leave the ‘Vision for Leeds’ as little more than a document that steers the work of a small number of civil servants, politicians and strategists or use it as a vehicle for much broader engagement.  Is the vision really for all of us? Or is it just a piece of the political furniture?
The problems of definition seems to me to be immense.  What do we mean by a ‘sustainable economy’? Has this been thought through or is it just another example of what was memorably referred to at a recent Leeds Salon as ‘environmental Tourette’s’.
Perhaps it is OK for us all to have our own working definition of sustainable?  I know from personal experience that for many entrepreneurs ‘sustainable’ means ‘financially viable’, with no environmental implication whatsoever.
What does ‘prosperous’ mean in practice?  Is it OK just for the economy to create more cash, or is there something about how the prosperity is shared that should also matter to us?  Are we sure that ‘prosperity’ should still be the goal of our economy, or should we be considering other metrics such as well-being or happiness?  If part of what matters in our economy is health, then would we really use public funds to subsidise the expansion of the sugar industry?
If a vision is to work in mobilising action, then these issues of definition and meaning, and a robust social process for their negotiation is critical to creating alignments and the possibility of progress.
But let’s set the challenge of definition and meaning to one side.  Let’s look at just some aspects of content.
One of the first things that disappoints me is the way that ‘people and skills’ are once again put to serve the needs of the economy.  Why not try to develop an economy that actually honours and reflects the skills and passions of the people?  Develop an economy that serves people rather than people that serve the economy?  We spend fortunes trying to bend the labour and skills market (people) to meet the unpredictable needs of the economy, perhaps we could instead help people to develop their own economic engine built on the foundation of their passions and skills?  Of course if we have a Strategy Board and a Local Enterprise Partnership dominated by large employers such a shift in thinking towards a DIY/craft/artisan/enterprise based economy is unlikely to get serious consideration.
What does it mean to ‘improve levels of enterprise’.  Is this a euphemism for increasing the start-up rate?  Or is there something more subtle here that might allow us to encourage fewer but better equipped start-ups?  The phrase is dripping with ambiguity….
I love the idea of work for everyone.  Secure, but flexible employment with good wages.  What a difficult challenge. But what a great prize.
And as for ‘high-quality, accessible, affordable and reliable public transport’ bring it on I say!
Who shall lead us to this land of milk and honey?
‘Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true? Or is it something worse?’  – B. Springsteen.
So shoot for the stars and hit a nearby moon?
Unlikely.
Once again if we trace the current route from the high level statements of vision through to the 4 Year Priorities and then on to ‘Headline Indicators’ there seems to be whole lot of dilution going on.
Take for example the challenge of work.  Remember the ‘flexible, well paid and secure work for all’ of the vision?  Well, in the 4 Year Priority this has become ‘More jobs are created’ and the Headline Indicator ‘xx jobs are created’.  We go from a Vision of great ambition to a headline indicator that will allow partners to carry on, pretty much as usual pretending that they create jobs in a modern economy.
And ‘high-quality, accessible, affordable and reliable public transport’.  Well as a 4 Year Priority that becomes ‘Improved journey times and reliability of public transport’, and the Headline Indicator at the moment is ‘Reduced Bus journey time variability on the core network’.
Is there a pattern emerging here?
High falutin’ rhetoric for what will be achieved by 2030, undermined by 4 year priorities and headline indicators that appear to be almost devoid of ambition?
The ‘people of Leeds’ may have spoken when it comes to the Vision for 2030.
I wonder what they would have to say about these draft City Priority Plans?
If they were asked….

What Now for Leeds Culture?

So the consultation phase on the Vision for Leeds is now over, and the resulting draft Vision with City Priority Plans is snaking its way through various committees and boards on its way to adoption by the City Council and its partners as the strategic planning framework for Leeds.

And while our opinions and thoughts on progress are no longer actively sought, the process is open and transparent and it may be appropriate to put it under a little scrutiny.

So what do the does the draft Vision and City Priority Plans have to say about ‘Culture’?  Is there enough of the right stuff here to help us improve our cultural report from C minus – Could do better…?

The Strategic Partnership for the City will be led by the Leeds Initiative Board which will oversee the work of 5 Strategy Boards, and culture has its home, with the economy, on the ‘Sustainable Economy and Culture Board’.

Now personally, while I can see some advantages in this, I am always a little deflated when culture is seen as synonymous with, or a comfortable bedfellow of ‘ the economy’.  Once we start to conflate culture with the economy all sorts of things can start to happen.  Not least of which is the relegation of ‘culture’ to providing a ‘necessary and becoming backdrop’ if we are to attract and retain ‘proper’ wealth creators in our city.

If the main benchmark for investment in culture becomes GDP, ROI or some other financial metric surely we are failing to understand the fundamental role of culture in our communities; to provide opportunities for self-expression and development, to bring people together and to provoke fresh insight?  But it seems that much of the cultural ‘leadership’ is happy to justify its existence on purely economic terms so perhaps they will be happy to be bundled in with ‘the economy’.  Perhaps that is how our cultural leaders emerge, through their fluency in economics as much as culture?

The problem of cultural representation on the Sustainable Economy and Culture Board will be an interesting one.  I can find no hard information on the composition of Strategy Boards or how they will be appointed.  But I would guess that the Strategy Board will be dominated by business and economic interests, with places going to big business (retail, finance and other representatives of large employers), and a place going to the Chamber of Commerce as the ‘representative’ of the small businesses in the city.  I also suspect that property developers and their ilk will be well represented. And of course tourism will need a place.  So how many places will be made available for ‘culture’?  Time will tell.  And in a Strategy Board that will almost inevitably be focussed on the ‘sustainable economy’ it will be interesting to see just how much airtime the cultural questions get.

It will be interesting to see whether the large, diverse, and poorly defined sector that gets labelled ‘cultural’ is able to put forward its own widely supported suggestions for credible and effective representative leadership.  I suspect not.  And this might be a challenge that it wishes to reflect on.

But enough worrying about governance. What does the draft City Priority Plan have to say about culture?

Well, at the top-level it says that Leeds will be a City where ‘People enjoy a high quality and varied cultural offer’.  Now already I detect a bias towards consumption of culture over its production, but perhaps that is more a reflection of my own prejudices than anything else.  The City Priority Plan goes on to describe what it calls a ‘4 Year Priority, that ‘More people get involved in the city’s cultural opportunities’.   It then offers a ‘Headline Indicator’, what I believe to be a first take on how we will measure progress towards both the 4 year priority and the overall Vision: and the Headline Indicator is the ‘Proportion of adults and children who regularly participate in cultural activities’.

Now for those who work in the cultural field this maybe both straightforward and sensible. To me it looks like a nightmare of definitions, baselines and measurement.  What counts as culture?  Who decides?  Who counts and how?

But set all this managerialism to one side.

The thing that worries me is that this is likely to advantage the large players over the small.  The ones who can offer large audiences.  The big set piece events over the local.   Is this the direction that we want to move in?  Or should we set a 4 Year Priority and a Headline Indicator more likely to promote independent and grass-roots culture?

But perhaps most worrying  for me is that with the arrival of the Leeds Arena, however we define and measure this headline indicator progress is likely to be achieved without any additional effort.  With a new 13500 seat arena looking to put on over 100 events a year the ‘Proportion of adults and children who regularly participate in cultural activities’ is surely bound to rise.  But that ‘proportion’ will surely overwhelmingly represent the well-heeled of the city.

Culture as just another vehicle for economic transaction….

What Now Leeds…?

I spent a bit of time yesterday looking at the latest DRAFT ‘Vision for Leeds’, developed by the Leeds Initiative.  It has been under development for months now, and many of us will have contributed ideas through the ‘What If Leeds’ workshops or through the online forum that was set up for the job.  Depending on your point of view this document is either of central importance in influencing the development of the City, or just meaningless verbiage.  The amount of time I have put into this over the last year or so I really hope it is the former.

The new Vision for 2030 has been drafted, including City Priority Plans covering the work of 5 sub-boards:

  • Children and Families
  • Safer and Stronger Communities
  • Sustainable Economy and Culture
  • Regeneration
  • Health and Wellbeing

Clearly there are overlaps between these boards with much of what needs to be done needing co-ordination across several of them.

It is important to recognise that none of these sub boards have any powers. These remain with the partnership member organisations, including The Council, NHS, Police and Fire Authorities, Education, the private and third sectors. The boards simply provide a mechanism through which each organisation’s work can be co-ordinated and perhaps influenced to fit in with the over-arching development of the City.

But back to the draft Vision.

The Vision itself is incredibly bold and ambitious.  As the Vision says, the people of Leeds have spoken – and this is our Vision!

By 2030, Leeds will be locally and internationally recognised as the best city in the UK

By 2030, Leeds will be fair, open and welcoming. Leeds will be a place where everyone has an equal chance to live their life successfully and realise their potential. Leeds will embrace new ideas, involve local people, and welcome visitors and those who come here to live, work and learn.

By 2030, Leeds’ economy will be prosperous and sustainable. We will create a prosperous and sustainable economy, using our resources effectively. Leeds will be successful and well-connected offering a good standard of living.

By 2030, All Leeds’ communities will be successful. Leeds’ communities will thrive and people will be confident, skilled, enterprising, active and involved.

Nothing if not ambitious.

Each of these headline aims are expanded into a number of bullet points, such as:

  • people are treated with dignity and respect at all stages of their lives – (which I love because of the sheer scale of its ambition)
  • we all behave responsibly (which I love because of its sheer idiocy and unwillingness to accept human nature for what it is! Imagine the focus groups defining ‘responsible behaviour’, and the fun that might be had with enforcement!  And we all behave responsibly when?  All of the time?  Some of the time?  Once in a while?  In public places? We might need some kind of ‘responsibility licence’ where we get ‘points’ for irresponsible behaviour.  Too many points and your banned.  Perhaps each community can shape its own definitions of ‘responsible’ allowing us to develop communities with distinct cultures.
  • local people have the power to make decisions that affect us – (I am guessing that in this case the ‘Us’ is the council and its partners – just imagine that, a city where citizens had the power to make decisions that affect the state!  We could call it ….democracy….)
  • a strong local economy driving sustainable economic growth (a local economy! Not a regional, national or global one.  Just imagine that.)
  • work for everyone with secure, flexible employment and good wages – a city of full employment and good (above average?) wages
  • high-quality, accessible, affordable and reliable public transport
  • successfully achieved a 40% reduction in carbon emissions (by 2020)
  • people have the opportunity to get out of poverty (now I would like to think that we could strengthen this to say everyone that wants support to get out of poverty is able to access it and use it to make progress, or some such)
  • community-led businesses meet local needs (look out private ownership – the Peoples Republic of Leeds is after you.  You can go and meet the needs of non locals – but here, we look after our own.  Community led banks, utilities…everything! By 2030.)
Now I love a big hairy audacious goal as much as anyone.  They require great leadership, tremendous commitment, phenomenal communication, a willingness to fail in their pursuit and, usually a lot of time and money.  And if you are going to engage me in the pursuit of a BHAG, you had better be serious about it.  Any hint that this is hot air or political posturing without the commitment and resources to have a real crack…..
The draft vision then starts to move towards implementation in the form of a series of City Priority Plans, one for each of the 5 sub boards.  And here I have some real concerns – because some of our BHAGs get diluted,  BIG TIME.
City Priority Plans
So the Vision (or BHAG) of Leeds being a ‘healthy and caring city’, becomes a 4 Year Priority to ensure that ‘More People Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices’ which gets translated into a Headline Indicator that tracks the number of adults smoking.  A vision that could be something to rally people around becomes a simple quantitative goal that the NHS and Government taxation will ensure happens anyway.
And this is not a one off.
The City Priority Plan for regeneration has a Four Year Priority to ‘Support the recovery of the Leeds Economy’.  And the Headline Indicator for this?  Development of an as yet unspecified number of hectares of brownfield land!
If we are not careful we will end up with a bureaucratic response to the ‘Vision for Leeds’ that will enable the various strategic partners to get on with what they were doing anyway.
At least some of the people of Leeds spoke their minds when it comes to setting the vision for the City.  I think that we now need to speak our minds again when it comes to developing the City Priority Plans.
You can download the full document in pdf format here.  Just click the link for ‘Tuesday 15 March 2011’.  The Vision for Leeds starts on page 37.

High Growth/High Start Up Rates – and why we must not chase them

Should we throw our limited resources at businesses that we believe have high growth potential or should we just go for lots of start-ups, knowing that a minority of them will experience high growth anyway?  I can imagine LEPS all over the country worrying for seconds over this conundrum.

The plain truth is that both are equally foolish policy goals.

We simply can’t pick winners/high growth businesses. So how do we know which to resource?

And as Drucker said ‘you can’t have the mountain top without the mountain’ . High growth businesses emerge from a strong and vibrant enterprise ecology. An ecology that is diverse, tightly knit and well connected (bridging and bonding, social and cultural capital).

Focus on building the mountain and the top will look after itself.

But please don’t build the mountain by rushing to increase the start up rate.

When we do this we just increase the failure rate too and that undermines aspiration and confidence. So start fewer businesses, but make sure they are good ones, team starts, well thought through and researched. Get survival rates into the 90%s after three years. Not just survival, but successful. Allow these small but significant success show the way to others.

So set up a broad enterprise ecology – lots of people with ideas and the confidence to act on them (this is not just about business but about social impact, culture, festivals, campaigning and so on) and build social networks, communities, that know how to support their members.

Invest your economic development budget in supporting people, who really are committed to making things better, and building communities. Smart, confident people in competent communities will not only give you the economic outputs that you require – but they might just give you something much more interesting as well.

I expect these ideas to be dismissed by those who have High Growth and Mass Start Up Programmes to sell, and by those running economic development teams who have for decades been buying these programmes and commissioning evaluations that say ‘much has been achieved but much remains to be done’.

 

But perhaps some will see that now is as good a time as any to try something new….

 

 

High Growth and High Start Up Rates: Why We Shouldn’t Chase Them

Colin Bell over at Winning Moves picks over this old chestnut in his latest post.

Should we throw our limited resources at businesses that we believe have high growth potential or should we just go for lots of start-ups knowing that a minority of them will experience high growth anyway?

The plain truth is that both are equally foolish policy goals.
We simply can’t pick winners/high growth businesses.  So how do we know which to resource?
And as Drucker said ‘you can’t have the mountain top without the mountain’ .  High growth businesses emerge from a strong and vibrant enterprise ecology.  An ecology that is diverse, tightly knit and well connected (bridging and bonding, social and cultural capital).
Focus on building the mountain and the top will look after itself.
But please don’t build the mountain by rushing to increase the start up rate.
When we do this we just increase the failure rate too and that undermines aspiration and confidence.  So start fewer businesses, but make sure they are good ones, team starts, well thought through and researched.  Get survival rates into the 90%s after three years.  Not just survival, but successful.  Allow these small but significant success show the way to others.
So set up a broad enterprise ecology – lots of people with ideas and the confidence to act on them (this is not just about business but about social impact, culture, festivals, campaigning and so on) and build social networks, communities, that know how to support their members.
Invest your economic development budget in supporting people, who really are committed to making things better, and building communities.  Smart, confident people in competent communities will not only give you the economic outputs that you require – but they might just give you something much more interesting as well.
I expect these ideas to be dismissed by those who have High Growth and Mass Start Up Programmes to sell, and by those running economic development teams who have for decades been buying these programmes and commissioning evaluations that say ‘much has been achieved but much remains to be done’.

But perhaps some will see that now is as good a time as any to try something new….