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Ha Ha: An experiment in self-organised social impact

Last Thursday I took part in an experiment. The idea was this: What is the greatest social impact that a group of relative strangers on the internet can commit to creating over the next week, with only 1 hour together and $10 each in the pot?

Harvest chard

Harvest chard

I have my friend David Pinto to thank for inviting me to take part in his latest brainchild. I was one of about a dozen who attended the 2nd ‘Ha-Ha’ (Happening Hangout), with little idea what to expect, beyond the slight chaos integral to getting something previously unimagined off the ground.

This was a hack version of what the process could be with proper technical development: a live-streamed Google Hangout of the hosts of the event, alongside a Quora question that everyone involved could post one answer to, but edit freely and comment on the answers posted by others, voting for the answers they liked best.

While messy due to most of the participants’ technological teething period at the start of the hour, the process worked. Not in a ‘my mind has been completely blown’ kinda way, but it worked, in that we reached agreement and had a clear sense of what was needed to take the idea forward.

After an hour, a bunch of people who (mostly) didn’t know each other before the process began, had agreed to donate the full sum of money contributed to Harvest Brighton-Hove, a community food project that helps people grow and source food that is local to the area. Someone (Lesley) volunteered to deliver the funds in person, and to use our combined social networks to promote the work Harvest does in Brighton & Hove (thus, one of the reasons for this blog).

During that hour, there was considerable debate about whether donation of money actually qualified as ‘action,’ about the advantages and disadvantages of being an international group, with a (very) limited budget, about what actually constituted social impact…

None of these questions, however, prevented the group finding enough common ground to do something. Which is inspiring, but also definitely left me with further questions.

My inclination, while a cool experiment, was that this would be a far more effective process of enabling self-organising, if the group began from a higher level of agreement; i.e. – not total strangers without an agreement about even a slightly more specific goal.

I often advocate the opposite – less unity, more autonomy – but this process highlights the importance of *a bit* of agreement. It’s certainly a balancing act, but as much as unity can be oppressive, a minimal baseline helps to unleash our creative potential together.

I’d like to see David’s Ha-Has put to use in an office, but open to those beyond the paid staff group, such as supporters/ members/ activists, who broadly believe in the organisation’s aims, but are not as restricted to voice radical ideas, as staff often can be.

Harvest 'The Big Dig' eventI’m also interested in seeing what could happen if the financial element was de-emphasised, encouraging a range of non-economic transactions to take place and forcing a more creative approach out of necessity.

While Occupy camps and countless indigenous communities have demonstrated that consensus can work in far larger groups than many had previously believed, there is more opportunity to build trust and empathy with those you are deciding with, when you have a) a chance to meet in person, and b) something that already provides a broad basis of unity.

The 3rd of 4 initial Ha-Has will be happening on Thursday (September 19th), 8pm BST, should you be interested in chucking in ten bucks and taking part. I definitely think it is an experiment worth pursuing. Whether it grows into something bigger each week, or whether it splinters off into a range of self-organised groups, there is learning to be had there, in terms of what groups of people can achieve together without the top-down coercion of management structures.

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Let’s not ‘make the most’ of Payment by Results

There’s a lot of talk in the UK voluntary sector about Payment by Results funding and what it means for our work. While there is a certain amount of criticism of this approach to allocating government money, there seems to be a strong view that we should still ‘make the most of it.’  But doing so would be a failure to our organisations, staff and critically, those we support. This is why I’m saying “No” to PbR.

Dia del Nino happy boy

Not a happy blog. But this boy sure is. I thought you’d like him better than a  generic PbR-themed image.

Payment by Results is not just an imperfect system, with flaws like any other. As a way of distributing public money, it really falls afoul of every indicator of accountable spending and quality public service:

  • It emphasises action over impact
    Even Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently admitted this, after a GP told him, “Payment by results doesn’t separate results from activity,” highlighting a fundamental flaw of a system that pretends it can measure impact, by measuring ‘the actions that we think lead to the impact.’ The result, as with target-based funding before it, is that in order to maintain funding, funded organisations have to make sure that ‘they do enough stuff,’ rather than making sure they do it well.
  • It encourages manipulation and ‘gaming’ of its own criteria
    When salaries and costs become directly linked to being able to demonstrate particular numeric achievements, it shouldn’t be surprising that people start finding ways – with varying degrees of honesty – to demonstrate those numbers. This is an example of the kind of system that breeds the very behaviours that it claims to avoid, bringing out dishonest and manipulative tendencies in those who didn’t previously show them.
  • It undermines frontline workers’ ability to respond flexibly to complex situations
    The same doctor who called out Jeremy Hunt over PbR’s emphasis on producing activity rather than results, also said “We don’t have the flexibility to bring about the change we need.” This highlights that if, receiving money you have already done the work for (and effectively spent), is contingent upon certain pre-defined criteria, you simply don’t have the choice to put your efforts into something else, no matter how critical it may be. PbR takes away workers’ and organisations’ ability to make judgements about particular cases or situations that may require putting effort into something that they aren’t being measured against. It creates machines that treat every situation with the same ‘objectivism’ that ignores the differences between any two people or situations.
  • It crowds out smaller organisations, leaving only large scale providers
    By making an organisation wait until it has finished (and ‘proven’ that it has finished) its work in order to receive compensation, most organisations will be unable to compete with the large reserves of large-scale private providers. This means that contracts will continue to go to a few large-scale, for-profit, scandal-plagued businesses (SERCO, A4E, etc) and smaller community organisations will have no way of bringing their local knowledge and experience of local issues to play for the people in their area.

In brief, it makes it harder to know if good services are being delivered and if money is being spent effectively, while encouraging worse results on both fronts. This is why PbR needs to be scrapped, not ‘made the most of.’ We owe that to everyone who relies on public and voluntary sector services, and who will see those services turn into box-ticking exercises if we keep our collective mouth shut on this one.

If you agree, please add your name to the “Say No To PbR” declaration and encourage others you know to do the same!

PS – If you’re thinking, “yeah, sure, but what do you replace it with?” I’ve written a bit about an alternative approach here.

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WE DID IT! (and a weird idea for getting you your books)

What an amazing month! You crowd-funded the book! And then some! Plus, I’ve got a funny idea for ‘more like people’ distribution, that I’d like to hear your thoughts on…

Publishing, without the publishers

Anarchists in the Boadrdoom book cover by Steve Lafler

Anarchists in the Boadrdoom book cover by Steve Lafler

While you may well know my reluctance to place too much faith in numbers, here are a few from the ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom’ crowd-funding campaign that tell at least part of the story:

  • $8,340 pledged (surpassing the goal of $7,700)
  • 161 donors (73 whom I’ve never met before)
  • 1,154 shares of the campaign page (on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms)
  • 7 blogs by others about the campaign (see bottom)
  • 8 blogs by me on others’ websites promoting the campaign (see bottom)

I am so thankful to all of you who have made this happen!

It’s the first major validation that a) these ideas are important and haven’t been sufficiently explored yet, and b) the book doesn’t need an institution/publisher to be a success.

Both of these validations are really exciting to me and seem to put us in a great place to start moving towards ‘more like people’ organisations together.

Special thanks are due to Lorna Prescott and Paul Barasi – two of the firmest believers in the importance of what this book represents.

Both of them went so far above-and-beyond what I could ever have asked of either of them, spreading the word on the campaign, that I can’t begin to offer the kind of thanks they deserve. They kept me going during the slow middle weeks of the campaign. (Lorna also did a nice Storify (see below) of her involvement, as part of capturing the story of her day, when the campaign tipped past the goal).

‘more like people’ distribution

So here’s the wacky idea I thought of last night, when I was pondering the logistics of sending out a few hundred copies of the print book, to people around the world.

Shipping to, say, Wellington, New Zealand, is not cheap. Particularly when you’re sending lots of smaller packages. But at least 9  people in Wellington have ordered copies of the book.

What if I sent one big package to one of those nine people (based on someone volunteering to receive the lot) and left them to arrange details with the others for local distribution? (Please don’t tell me you’d be worried that they would steal the extra copies…)

Maybe this could be as simple as ‘Here’s my address, drop by whenever you have a chance,’ but maybe the person I’m shipping to decides to hold court in a cafe or pub for a few hours one evening and encourages everyone else who ordered the book to come along, pick-up their copy/copies and have a chat?

They’ve already got something in common to talk about, maybe something interesting could emerge?

…It also reduces the individual costs each person has to pay for shipping.

Of course some people will prefer the simplicity of a book delivered to their front doors – which I can of course also do – but thought the potential benefits of bringing together a group of people who may-or-may-not already know each other, or each other’s shared interests in new ways of organising ourselves, shouldn’t be passed up!

Maybe they never see each other again, but maybe they learn something, they meet someone of interest, they find someone to talk to next time they’re struggling away with their own bureaucracy…

What do you think? It’ll still be a few months before we’ve edited the manuscript, done the layout and had the hard copies printed, but it would be great to get your thoughts on this idea, and see if you’d be keen to meet others in your city who are also exploring this stuff, and if you’d be willing to coordinate with others in your city, to get them their books, one way or another.

Thanks again! You’ve been amazing and I look forward to all of you being a part of the emergent process that will follow!

Liam

Here’s the blogs I’ve written:

And those others have written:

And here’s Lorna’s good day (the third good thing has to do with the book)

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The way Dan Pallotta thinks about charity is dead wrong

I’ve noticed Dan Pallotta’s ‘The way we think about charity is dead wrong’ TED talk seems to be spreading around the internet quite quickly. The title grabbed me, but the content couldn’t be more off. So I thought I’d weigh in with an alternative perspective.

Firstly, where I agree with him: many of the ways our charities work, stifle innovation.

Definitely. But his approach is to turn the charitable sector into an extension of the free market. Even with an opening in which he acknowledges that human stories can’t be monitized, he goes on to prescribe market solutions for the rest of what the non-profit world should be doing. ‘Philanthropy is the market for Love,’ he tells us, hinting at the lens he views the world through early on in the talk.

But there is no ‘market for Love,’ and markets are not where the solution lies, in my opinion. Two of his specific arguments truly irk me:

1) That more talented people go into higher paying jobs, and thus are put off working in the non-profit sectors

2) That change is best achieved by massive organisations addressing massive social issues.

Mo’ money, mo’ talent?

Just look at the most highly paid jobs in a market economy and how many of them have even a minimal social value? Conversely, how many of them have a sum negative impact on the world? The financial sector (in the broadest terms), attracts those who are primarily interested in making money – to the detriment of all else.

I don’t believe that ‘the most talented people’ the world has to offer are the ones who have laid-off so many workers in the name of ‘staying competitive,’ or who have decided that wars and climate change are simply the ‘costs of doing business.’  These actions require a certain kind of deliberate ignorance, which is not a trait civil society organisations need. Quite the opposite!

As charities begin to reinforce the market logic that you should spend your time making as much money as you possibly can for yourself, it will only reinforce the many social and environmental side-effects that such an attitude has in an unchecked free market.

The motivations that often get people working in a charity or NGO, such as passion for and commitment to a cause, or a better world, more generally, are at odds with this. They see life’s goals as more pluralistic than simply ‘get as much as you can for yourself.’ That attitude is killing our species, our societies and the planet we all call home. Infinite growth, whether for an individual bank account, or a global economy, cannot be maintained on a planet of finite resources. It is the problem.

We need different ways of understanding value and success.

Further, the kinds of university programmes Pallotta describes as producing ‘the best talent’ still seem to churn out private sector MBAs who exchange everything in the world, for short-term profits, and who have been at the core of countless broader scandals and crises. Our ‘Ivy League’ institutions are indeed part of the problem. Some may come out with their moral compass reasonably intact, but the vast majority learn to run a kind of ‘efficient’ organisation that can only see budget lines, at the cost of anything that can’t be measured in money.

Dan Pink has written extensively about costs of trying to link money and motivation, and argued convincingly that intrinsic motivation (like passion for your work) is far stronger than extrinsic motivation (like a bonus, or a high salary). When our systems cater to the latter, lots of bad things start to happen, encouraging a range of ‘gaming’ tactics, in which dishonesty becomes the norm, and the true objectives are sidelined for the short-term targets with personal self-interest attached. Basically, these kinds of motivations (Pink calls them ‘if-then’ motivators) pit self-interest against collective interest, encouraging people to act selfishly, rather than trying to align ‘what is best for me’ and ‘what is best for us.’

Bigger is better?

There’s another idea that ‘bigger organisations are more efficient, and thus more equipped to address big social ills, than smaller ones.’

But this doesn’t hold much water, either.

Big organisations seem far better at producing quantitative results, at the cost of qualitative ones. And to the point where the ‘quality’ can actually be a sum negative impact (rather than just ‘not as good as it could be’ one). Stories abound of big NGOs that have ended up doing more harm than good, as their disconnect from the on-the-ground realities of so many of their own projects, means that for all their ‘efficiency savings,’ they were actually doing the wrong thing in the first place!

Billions and billions in governmental and philanthropic funds are channelled into the sphere of aid and international development each year, but many of the problems keep getting worse. We mean well, but for all our best intents, most of those costly, large scale efforts aren’t achieving what they are meant to.

When it comes to complex social change, context and relationships really are everything. Just because something worked well in one time and place, doesn’t mean it will easily be carried over to another. ‘Scaling up’ – a notion at the core of so many large programmes – is a doomed idea, as tantalising as it can be. Organisations which try to replicate one solution, in another place, often miss the critical non-replicable factors of individual relationships and nuanced context that were at the core of any initial successes.

Alternatively, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have advocated ‘scaling across’ – a more grassroots process, in which smaller, local projects can share ideas directly with one another, spreading value where it is needed, without imposing it as a blueprint to be followed to the letter.

‘Scaling up’ comes from the kind of managerialism still taught in many of the institutions Pallotta advocates non-profits get their execs from. It is the notion that distant, well-paid ‘experts’ know better than people who are experiencing an issue themselves, how best to address that issue.

The hubris of this long-standing belief is staggering, and is at the core of why many smaller, local efforts, often do better work than larger organisations – even when appearing ‘inefficient’: people understand their own situations better than anyone else.

If you knock down those two pillars of Pallotta’s talk, I think the rest crumbles with it. What he advocates is more of the same ‘NGOs should be more like the private sector’ approach that has been advocated – and often applied, at considerable cost – to the world of social change organisations for decades.

I say no. ‘More like people’ isn’t afraid to learn things from a range of places, but the lessons Pallotta advocates specifically undermine the sense of humanity that we need more of. If we want to make more of a difference through our organisations, let’s not rely on MBAs, devoid of any ethical grounding, or large scale development projects that have no way of really knowing what’s going on at street level. We don’t have to be puritanical, as Pallotta suggests, to avoid adopting the greed that creates so many of the social ills our organisations work against. We just need to stay in touch with the values that motivate us to create change in the world.

Like what you’ve read? Help publish my book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ and pre-order it now!

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Off to a flying start! (And ‘The Art of Asking’)

So in 4 days you did something I wouldn’t have imagined possible: you brought us more than ½ way to the total budget needed to get ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom’ published!

more like people

By arranging these 3 words like this on the spine of the book, we can pretend we’re a real publisher!

As I write this, there is $4,285 pledged (by 70 different people), of a total goal of $7,700. And we’ve got 27 days to go in the campaign still!

This is amazing and is testament to the messages this book is trying to emphasise; we don’t need institutions to make great things happen. A little bit of technology, and the self-aligning efforts and support of lots of those who care, is all we need to turn important ideas into realities!

But I have to be honest as well – about 75% of the pledges have come from those of you who are already pretty close to me and whom I’ve been engaging with around these ideas over the last few years.

This is a great endorsement of all of your ability to put your money where your mouth is (literally), but also means that the success thus far is the result of the existing ‘more like people’ networks… which may struggle to get us all the way to the total budget on their own.

Which means we need to spread the word!

Special thanks to Lorna Prescott, Lloyd Davis and David Robbins for their massively kind blogs about the book, and to Deborah Frieze, David Pinto, Arié Moyal, Maddie Grant, Casper Ter Kuile, Derek Oakley, Damon Van Der Linde, Billy Moose, Peter Wanless, Aerin Dunford, John Sargent, Adam Sargant, Ian Hicks, Maurice McLeod, Thomas Wragg,  Ben Powrie, Nishma Doshi, Paul Barasi, Juliette Daigre, Steve Lawson, Daryl Green, Doug Shaw, Naomi Klein, Philippa de Boissiere, Pamela MacLean and Tim Gee (and several others I’m sorry to have forgotten in the rush to post this), for so actively spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter.

Each time you do this, you reach a heap of folks who don’t yet know about this book, some of whom (you’ll know better than I) might want to help get it published.

So here’s my next big ask (and I feel a lot more comfortable with ‘asking,’ having just watched this *amazing* TEDtalk by Amanda Palmer, embedded below):

Please ask people you know (on the internet or at the office or the pub), who are exploring any of the questions about the future of organisations and social change, if they might be able to support the campaign to get this book published.

I don’t want to belittle the support all of you have already given. It has been a truly harrowing few days, personally and for what it represents in terms of a real hunger for change in our organisations! But I also want to make sure this book is the best it can be, which will mean making sure some of the people out there who still don’t know about the little campaign we’re all in the middle of right now, can help us to bring about a range of radical new (and not so new) changes in the worlds of organisation and social change.

So bring it up at the office! Tweet a link to someone you’ve seen Tweeting about similar ideas! Talk about it at the pub, after work! Write a blog about why you think this book is important! Send an email to a few select people you know, telling why you’ve chosen to support the campaign!

Also – if you happen to know any editors or bloggers at well-read, popular blogs that touch on these themes, an introduction would also go a long way, as I’ll happily do a post for a website that wants to help spread the word (and do have a couple of good big ones coming up)!

Whatever you do from here, I’m incredibly grateful and also massively excited! We’ve come a long way, very quickly, and I’m sure we’ll get where we need to go, if we can all find our own best ways of making it happen!

Massive hug to all of you!

Liam

PS – here’s that link again 😉 http://startsomegood.com/Venture/more_like_people/Campaigns/Show/anarchists_in_the_boardroom

PPS – I hope you all know that I’m always happy to be asked to do things, too! If I can’t, I’ll tell you, but don’t hesitate to ask if there is anything I can help you with 🙂

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change how we organise. change the world. (PS – we can start crowd-funding the book now)

…The title is why I’ve written Anarchists in the Boardroom and have started the crowd-funding campaign to have it published today. In the last 12 or so years of varying combinations of activism and organisational development work, I really believe this to be true. The old ways are holding us back, limiting our collective potential to create change in the world and driving wedges between people who should be working together for something better. If we change how we do what we do, our time, effort and energy may go infinitely further than the old hierarchies could ever have imagined…

The ends do not justify the means. In the name of this slogan, many injustices have been spawned, from large scale atrocities, to out-of-touch campaigns and services, no longer serving those they began operating in the names of.

Dehumanising management systems and practices – even when they are well-intentioned – exemplify ‘ends-justify-the-means’ thinking every day, sucking the life out of the people who should be most committed to their organisations’ work.

The essence of management, as we know it, lies in the belief that ‘if we don’t tell others what to do, they’ll probably get it wrong.’ But it’s this belief that is wrong, yet most of our organisational structures are built upon it.

If we truly believe in equality, we need to organise ourselves with a clear sense of equality, ensuring that all of those involved have an equal voice in shaping what we do.

If we truly believe in human potential, we need to give it the space to reveal itself, not boxing it into a pre-set job title, or measurable outcome, but allowing it to find its own path to greatness.

If we truly believe in accountability, we need to be transparent in all that we do, making sure our work leaves nothing to be ashamed of, rather than simply trying to hide away the parts of it that might embarrass us.

There is no reason why we should have to undermine the things we believe in, in order to make the world a better place. Quite the opposite! In fact, doing so is usually a good indication that we won’t get where we think we’re going.

The adoption of industrial organising models has not brought the promise to social change organisations that it did for the manufacturing process. The kinds of social transformation most of us want to see are not made on assembly lines, but emerge through the countless autonomous actions of those who care, living their values in every stage of the change process, bringing about something new through their many individual choices to do things differently.

But I believe there is a path from the institutions of yesterday, to the unknown organising patterns of tomorrow. I’ve chosen to look to social media and new social movements for hope, but I’m sure others will find it in other unexpected sources of inspiration.

I’ve written this book as my first significant contribution to what will be a varied, messy, and unpredictable process of collective change, from professionalism to humanity; hierarchy to network; control to trust.

There’s no reason the same principles that can change our organisations can’t also change our world. Think of your organisation as one-of-many test grounds for something much bigger.

When we let go of our obsessive attempts to control complex groups of people (whether organisations, or societies), we open up new possibilities and human potentials in every realm.

But like the transition I describe, this book will not be published just because I want it to be. Others will have to want it to, if it is going to get beyond my laptop.

…Which is why today is the start of the crowd-funding campaign on StartSomeGood.com to publish ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom.’ You can visit the campaign page here to pledge, or read a snippet from the book if you’re still looking to be convinced.

Pledge for a book, pledge for a bit of my time, pledge for a few copies for the office and use them to spark discussions amongst colleagues as to how you can all start living your values in the ways you work to bring about a bit of good in the world each day…

And if you’re not in a position to pledge right now, feel free to share it with anyone else you think would be interested in reading the book.

I am deeply appreciative for whatever you can do to help make this happen and wherever we take the conversations from here!

Hugs,

Liam

Pledge now!

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You’re the only way this book will see the light of day!

No shit. You really are. I’ve opted to self-publish Anarchists in the Boardroom, after some demoralising realisations about the publishing industry, and some inspiring realisations about the potential to live the values of this book through the publishing process. But now that the book is written, it’s up to all of us who want to see it in print to get it published.

Anarchists in the Boardroom cover, by Steve Lafler

Anarchists in the Boardroom cover, by Steve Lafler

Here’s the deal:

In less than two weeks, I’ll be launching a crowd-funding page on StartSomeGood.com. This is like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, but specifically for projects with some kind of social benefit.

We need to raise about $7,600 (£4,700 GBP) over the following month. This will cover the 1st 500 copies of the print book, as well as editing, building a website, designing the cover and a few nifty bits of on-and-offline promo materials. (You can see the budget here, if GoogleDoc spreadsheets are your bag).

The main things will be (initially):

  • A critical mass of keen supporters making immediate pledges when things kick-off, and
  • Those supporters getting the word out to their personal and work networks right away.

This is why this book needs you!

The campaign will need a number of things from those who are interested enough to support it. A few key ones include:

  • Early contributors and early sharers: If you have some cash you can throw into the process, great! If you don’t, but want to spread the word to those you think might, greatl! A well-targeted or well-timed Tweet, Facebook link, or email, can be far more valuable than a cash contribution, so don’t let being broke stop you from getting involved.
  • Bloggers who want to make their own cases for funding the book: I can talk about this stuff all day, but it’s a lot more powerful if you tell the world why you want this book to be published. Drop me a line if there’s anything I can do to help you write a blog to post just after the campaign gets started.
  • Organisational backing: If you work in a non-profit, voluntary sector, social enterprise or campaigning organisation, do you think you could leverage a bit of cash from a ‘professional development’ or ‘continuing staff education’ budget, to commit to 5 or 10 copies of the book for your office? Or to bring me in for a talk, a workshop, or some consultancy, once the book has been circulating amongst staff? A few organisational contributions and endorsements will go a long way towards making this book happen.

But don’t stop at this list! If there’s anything you can think of to support the crowd-funding process, I’m keen to see where you take it! I hope this campaign can be living proof of some of the ideas in the book, showing what can be done when lots of people have the space to support a cause in the ways they feel inspired to, not relying on a traditional institution make it happen.

Let’s do this together!

Liam (liam @ morelikepeople.org / @hackofalltrades / ‘the guy who moderates the comments below’)

PS – what kinds of rewards would you like to see for different levels of contributions?

PPS – Feel free to ‘Like’ the new Facebook page, or join the email list to stay in the loop!

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Don’t bank on Payment by Results

…Still frustrated by ‘payment by results’ funding. Even more so when someone from Barclays bank decides to explain to charities how to make it work. Because it won’t, and we need to make that clear. Its costs will be significant, if we let it become the standard for public funding.

Diego Rivera w/ a monkey: better than payment by results

Diego Rivera w/ a monkey: better than payment by results

I’m going to offer David McHattie the benefit of the doubt and assume his recent piece on how charities should prepare for payment by results (PBR) funding was based on a naive pragmatism, rather than a more cynical attempt to make public services run more like the disgraced bank he works for.

There are so many fundamental and damaging problems with the Payment by Results model, that no one article could give them all the space they need. From crowding-out smaller organisations who can’t afford the financial risk, to encouraging exactly the types of ‘gaming’ approaches that target-driven funding has long-fostered, and ignoring the unpredictable complexity of social problems (that most funding regimes are guilty of), PBR is a powder keg for the voluntary sector and anything shy of an outright denouncement can only lend it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

What McHattie has done is offered some seemingly innocuous steps for voluntary organisations to begin adopting the same toxic metric culture that has recently put his own employer into disrepute for fixing interest rates.

…Let me explain.

To start, for all of its claims of being ‘outcome funding,’ PBR is still target funding. But with bonuses attached.

Here’s why:

  • An organisation receives funding based on achieving its outcomes
  • Those outcomes are measured by outputs – ‘x’ number of ‘y’ achieved = outcome
  • The number of outputs deemed to represent the completion of an outcome are set in advance
  • Outputs set in advance, and required to achieve funding, are targets.

With this in mind, all the arguments against target funding continue to apply to this supposedly new system. PBR is no improvement on what has come before. The addition of bonuses – much like at Barclays and the other big banks – will only worsen the effects of older target-based approaches.

The core of what’s wrong with both the old and the new target-driven funding regimes, is what former Bank of England director Charles Goodhart called ‘Goodhart’s Law’; that when numbers are used to control people (whether as bonuses, targets, or standards), they will never offer the improvements or accountability they are meant to. David Boyle of the New Economics Foundation has gone a step further, arguing that such systems create worse results than not having them in place, as a range of dishonest means are inevitably devised by those being judged on their abilities to create particular numbers, to make sure those numbers are created!

If your job is on the line over the number of people who have received work-readiness training, you will find a way to make those numbers add up to what they need to, to keep yourself in a job. The training might get shortened, 1 full-day course might become 2 half-day courses, people might be counted multiple times for what are essentially the same efforts, those who are more difficult to reach will be ignored in favour of the easiest recipients. Whatever the definitions set, you will find ways around them. And so will your organisation.

When this happens, learning opportunities are lost, accountability is destroyed, and those who are meant to be helped become numbers to be gamed.

These problems are also reinforced by a reality many of our organisations struggle to admit: that we live in a world far too complex to be able to say in advance that ‘a’ will lead to ‘b’. Even in broad-brush terms this kind of organisational fortune telling is hit-and-miss, but when it gets taken a step further (‘this many ‘a’ will lead to this many ‘b’), we are truly taking the piss. We are giving ourselves (and those who fund us) false illusions of control over situations that are the emergent results of countless interdependent factors beyond our organisational reach, whether individuals’ family lives, the economy, or the communities they are a part of, to name but a few.

And if we acknowledge that we can only play a partial role in preventing even one former inmate from reoffending (to draw on McHattie’s example), then the rest of the PBR/targets house-of-cards comes crumbling down. The only ways to keep it standing are through luck or dishonesty.

And dishonesty has been a hallmark of similar systems at Barclays and other banks. The impacts that ‘bonus culture’ has had on the financial sector were made clear by the 2008 economic collapse; from the most local level, to the most global, bonuses incentivised not ‘better performance’ but a range of quasi-legal and outright fraudulent activity designed to benefit particular individuals, rather than whole systems.

This is an inevitable result of what Dan Pink describes as if/then’ motivators (‘if you do this, then you get that’). Whether as bonuses for individual bankers reaching sales targets, or bonuses for charities hitting targets supporting former inmates to stay out of prison, the results will be the same: more dishonesty, less accountability. The paperwork might tell us that ‘more is being achieved for less,’ but the on-the-ground reality will tell us otherwise.

Taking charitable advice from a bank is like taking health advice from a fast food chain, and our sector deserves better than to quietly apply the models that have brought so many problems to the rest of the world, to the practicalities of our own critical work.

Going along with PBR might feel like a necessary evil in the interests of those we serve, but we have far too much evidence to the contrary to honestly think that might be the case. This is a system that needs to be scrapped, not ‘navigated.’ The people we exist to serve deserve nothing less.

This is the 3rd in our unexpected series on the issues of Payment by Results funding:

Give Trust, Get Accountability

Bonzo funding: Payment by Results

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