Big Issue founder John Bird fires rockets at charities and civil service


A write-up of John Bird’s recent visit to Cambridge

A few of you may know that I am a member of JCI Cambridge, the Cambridge branch of Junior Chambers International, an organisation that seeks to develop the professional skills of young professionals through series of self-organised events and community projects. Last month, our branch adopted the Cambridgeshire branch of Mind, the mental health charity, as our charity for the year. The person who brought me into JCI Cambridge was Jenny Willatt, so it’s all her fault really. In the Cambridge branch there are about 50 of us, but something tells me there is huge potential to grow that number – particularly in some of the larger public sector organisations, as anecdotally much of the membership comes from smaller private sector organisations based locally.

John Birds’ Words

It’s his Twitter-handle too @JohnBirdsWords. Or John Bird Swords, if you like. And he had a lot to say – but given what he’s been through in his 67 years on this planet, there was more than enough content to pack into the couple of hours he had with us. The big thing I took away as an interesting fact was the role Gordon and the late Anita Roddick (of The Body Shop) had on the founding of The Big Issue – the weekly magazine sold by people who are homeless and those in unstable housing. Cambridge has a separate local magazine written by and sold by people who are homeless too – FLACK Cambridge. Interestingly, The Independent pulled up this article from 1995 which covers it too.

Having moved on from some rip-roaringly funny-but-painful anecdotes of getting The Big Issue of the ground, John then turned his fire both on charities and on the state. What I found interesting was that he had come to a number of similar conclusions that I had come to – even though we both come from very different backgrounds. The other thing that was interesting was that he had similar criticisms about government grant making schemes that Cambridge entrepreneur Peter Dawe had when he did a talk for JCI Cambridge about the big mistakes he had made (and what he learnt from them) in the world of business. There was me nodding in agreement to both when they said that grant making schemes often benefit those who are better at filling in the forms rather than helping people develop a really great idea.

‘We’re here to help you, but no you cannot join our board of directors’

One of the things I asked myself following John’s paraphrased observation above, was to what extent the real ‘decision makers’ in government, the civil service and in large charities had experience of being dependent service users of the operations that they are responsible for.

Think about that for a moment.

Great school, top college, oxbridge/redbrick university, top internships, highly-sought-after graduate placement, fast-tracked to the top, running large public sector organisation. (I didn’t have Sir Jeremy Heywood in mind – but looking at his wikipedia page…). On internships, Tanya de Grunwald picked up the issue of unpaid internships with charities a couple of years ago.

Actually, it’s unfair to focus on a single individual. I alluded to the same in my earlier blogpost about Jo Johnson’s recent appointment. But what is the impact of not having people who have experience of either frontline delivery experience or receiving the public services directly, within the decision-making functions of your organisation? For a start, there is the perspective. When you start dealing with such large numbers of people and such huge financial sums, it’s all too easy to forget that these are human beings we are dealing with. It’s also all too easy to forget that you need to be careful with the small amounts of money when you look at it from the perspective of a tax-payer on the minimum wage.

John raises a reasonable point: What is the route from dependent service-user to chief executive of your organisation? How can someone who has been kicked out by their parents, fled from domestic violence and found themselves homeless, become director of housing policy in a Whitehall department? the single mother with lots of potential but who has been failed by the system and has no qualifications become permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions? This is where I hope the Civil Service Apprenticeship Scheme will be expanded, having worked with some talented apprentices on a departmental scheme in my final year in Whitehall.

John on how to restructure Whitehall

“Why can’t we bring in something that says if you cut spending on youth clubs in economically deprived areas, it is likely you will have to increase spending by this much”?

Or in management-speak, feedback mechanisms and automatic stabilisers. It’s what some politicians don’t understand about our benefits system: The automatic stabilisers kick in for a reason: eg people have lost their jobs. Therefore, in order to reduce spending, do you a) get people into jobs or b) artificially clamp down on the benefits system?

A party-political point maybe, but because of the way Whitehall is structured, individual ministers can only work with the levers that they have. Housing ministers cannot do anything about using the tax system to deal with problems in the housing market because the levers are in The Treasury. Employment ministers can only do so much in their area where levers are held by ministers in the Department for Business. The Universities Minister can only do so much on accessibility if the primary and secondary education system is not functioning in a manner where children with huge potential from economically deprived areas are not mentored and inspired to reach for the stars. Health ministers can only do so much if the minister for sports is not playing ball.

…And all of the above are barriers before we’ve even considered whether ministers as individuals get on with each other or not. Just because they are in the same party doesn’t mean they are friends. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite -as any political activist will tell you.

“That’s all very well Pooffles, but why was he telling a bunch of people not in the private sector this? Shouldn’t he be telling civil servants and politicians this?”

Chances are he already is. What pleased me was that, between the lines he was encouraging people to become interested in local and national politics. He was also telling people what things they need to learn about too. He said that people needed to learn about systems – about how things functioned: The political system, the economic system, the legal system. Once you’ve got the basics of that sussed, then you can start scrutinising things more effectively. For Cambridge-dwellers it might mean going along to and keeping tabs on your local area committee. Or for those using social media, engaging in local politics through some of the people linked in this blogpost.

Next steps?

For JCI Cambridge, one of the things worth thinking about in terms of future speakers is having a few of the younger councillors (Carina, Samantha and Ian, Puffles is looking at you) coming along to take part in a panel discussion, as well as council officials doing one explaining what they do on the inside day-to-day. After all, many JCI members pay council tax in Cambridge, so isn’t it worth finding out what the money is spent on?


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