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Autumn Chill

Long before the last warmth from our spectacular summer had past, local government Chief Executives were bracing themselves for the cold wind of financial constraint and impenetrable spending decisions.  This year’s Autumn Statement merely reiterates the formidable challenges that lie ahead for providers of local services.

The Chancellor’s statement points to a flat lining economy. A shrinking of 0.8% in GDP this year, and a small predicted increase next means its impact will be felt over the long term. Public expenditure continues to be squeezed with 1% spending cuts in 2013/14 and 2% the year after. While a further £10 billion needs to be found in a spending review next year.

The underlying weakness of the UK economy means that the spending restraint many felt would now be nearing its end, will now continue until 2017 and probably beyond. For example, if the work of the Social Market Foundation and RSA is correct, the Government will be seeking an additional £22billion of extra cuts or tax increases, over and above the £26billion implied in the 2012 budget. If other Departments continue to be more successful in arguing for protection, the DCLG budget in 2017/18 could be almost half what it was in 2010/11.

Let us accept that continued reductions in public expenditure are inevitable. If we saw substantial investment in infrastructure or a different approach taken to austerity, their effect would still be less than transformative in the short term. Public spending will remain under the cosh for the foreseeable future.

Let us instead try to return to a debate about sustainability, and what’s required to protect vital services where possible, and enable public services to adapt to the fiscal environment.

Difficult decisions will have to be managed with tremendous skill and care by local government members and officers. With proper preparation and considered judgement, they will seek to minimise the inevitable impact on local services. This is why greater stability in local funding is vital. Instability and late decisions just increases risk, and with risk comes cost. The late timing of this year’s local government settlement creates uncertainty, and the capping effect of council tax referenda leaves councils working with one hand behind their backs.

The singling out of local government for disproportionate cuts does not meet any test of fairness. I suspect it may also be counter-productive. DCLG should be arguing that cuts in the preventative services of local government will simply add further pressure to welfare and health, and limit our ability to stimulate local growth. Councils have protected services to the most vulnerable but also play a vital role in promoting their local economies. If services such as highways, planning and economic development are squeezed, economic growth will prove ever more difficult.

The current financial climate should herald a dramatic increase in collaboration with the potential to lead to a very different public service landscape. Flexibility in the budgets of local public services creates opportunities to put resources to best use. Our Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, has been quick to champion the small number of community budget pilots and their potential to transform public services. If they have such potential, we need to push them further and faster.

Through cold winters many residents rely heavily on effective local services. During this recession, that demand has only increased. We need to ensure that the sector has the powers and stability to act. We also need to retain and support talented people with the commitment and imagination to deliver innovative responses. While an official’s advice may sometimes receive a frosty reception, policymakers need to recognise that good public sector managers are their greatest allies.

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Time to Act

Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, speaks about the interim findings of her Office’s nationwide inquiry into the scope, scale and prevalence of child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups in England

 I thought I was the only one.  The Only one in the worldis my Office’s report on the prevalence and patterns of child sexual exploitation in the two contexts of gangs and groups in England, published on November 21st.  100% of police forces, 88% of English Local Authorities with relevant responsibilities, and 66% of relevant and contacted health bodies, submitted evidence to the first year of a two year inquiry into this difficult and troubling subject.  Deputy Commissioner Sue Berelowitz is leading on this work for the Office, supported by a small staff team and a panel of recognised national experts in the field including eminent researchers.

For the first time we are presenting thoroughly collated and analysed data on, in headline terms, who is doing what, to whom, where.  The conclusions are a wakeup call to all in the system.  Sexual abuse in gangs (closely aligned, often young, largely male alliances based on geographical territory, criminal intent, loyalty, codes of dress and behaviour) is visited usually on girls who are gang-associated or living in gang-affected neighbourhoods.  It is closely associated with fear, intimidation, and threats of violence against the victim or her family.

Victims are used as part of the gang culture.  Sexual abuse perpetrated by groups is associated with looser associations of adults, usually male, from every ethnic, religious and cultural group and of every age.  Such abuse may or may not be associated with money changing hands between perpetrators who access and abuse the victims.  The latter may be boys but are more usually girls.  They include young people who are already very vulnerable, but these groups are not exclusively targeted.

Many victims have suffered abuse in family circumstances before they are abused by outsiders, and much abuse begins in the home, or in close associations and friendship groups.

Sexual exploitation and abuse are not the sole preserve of difficult, downtrodden or otherwise challenged areas, and they are certainly not confined to rundown parts of our towns and cities.  It is no exaggeration, from what police forces are telling us across England, to say that it is happening across the country.  It is blind to class and socio-economic circumstances.

Children and young people who are themselves abused may be used to help groom and “hook in” others to the abuse they have themselves suffered.  They find it hard to disclose what is happening, and in too many places in the country many young witnesses said it is harder still to be listened to when they do say something.

The panel visited 14 English localities as part of the evidence gathering process and were saddened to hear seasoned and specialist professionals referring to sexual exploitation and abuse victims as “prostitutes” when at under 16 years old they are of course, by law, not able to consent to sex with anybody, let alone an abuser.  The panel also heard specialists speak of abused children “liking the glamour” of a “chosen lifestyle” and “engaging in risky behaviours” as if they were, or could be, held responsible for the abuse they were suffering.  They were equally saddened to witness specialists who seemed blind to some patterns of abuse because the media has somehow decided that only some ethic and cultural groups of men abuse, and only some ethnic and cultural groups of girls are abused.

This report calls on everybody in the system to begin to see the warning signs:  children who go missing, who suddenly have a ready supply of cash, gifts, new phones and new friends, children who display over-sexualised behaviours in school, who turn up at A&E with particular injuries, or repeatedly present at sexual health clinics with STIs.

Year two’s Inquiry will go further into good practice in many English localities, and what we can all learn, in policy and practice, to do to stop the outrages we report on in year one.  It is not easy reading, but it is necessary that consciousness is raised and action follows.  These are our children, all of them, and all of us.  Time to act.

 

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“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Oscar Wilde’s famous words might well describe the world of local government today and could be the motto of some chief executives. As council budgets are cut, there is a band of people who see an opportunity to change the status quo when it comes to partnerships with the private sector in their local area.

And that local area, as the participants in the Your Local Future workstream at this year’s SOLACE Summit discovered, is not the local authority.

So, if the council is not the place – obvious to many but difficult for some to accept – how do we define what is, and who should be involved in the change process?

Economic progress, which underpins so much of what councils wish to achieve, will necessarily involve the private sector. However, this needs to be true involvement in ways businesses understand. This can become an uncomfortable situation for all sides.

Neither likes ceding control – not the private sector leaders who respond and deal with issues swiftly, nor the politicians correctly claiming democratic legitimacy. Adhering to the usual comfortable stand-off between the two is not suitable for places of the present never mind of the future. Something has to give.

There is some idea of where that movement will come from in the phrase “the council is not the place”.

The chief executives in the workstream were confident in being able to share responsibility for place-shaping with the private sector. Private sector representatives, from developers to car manufacturers, revealed their readiness to engage on this agenda – reinforced by real-world experience in the Midlands where this approach is taking hold.

The elephant in the room was, perhaps predictably, elected members. There is a real challenge in marrying democratic accountability, local representation and the needs of a place.

What are seen as bureaucratic procedures – the drawn-out scrutiny process, the inability to make snap decisions – need to change to match the expectation of a business community wanting to grasp the nettle.

Similarly, the private sector needs to marry its myriad corporate social responsibility agendas to fit in with local areas and help define the place.

Those who manage to pull off this trick will be the ones seeing their names written among the stars. Those who don’t will remain in the gutter.

James Noakes, sustainability and climate change manager, Wigan MBC; Anisa Patel, policy projects officer, Blackburn with Darwen BC; Participants in the Solace Springboard Future Leaders Programme

This article first feature in the Local Government Chronicle on 15 November 2012

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A provocation for local government

Simon Fanshawe, consultant, broadcaster, non-exec director and co-founder of the ground-breaking consultancy astar-fanshawe, addressed local authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers at this year’s SOLACE Summit. Below Simon highlights his key challenges to the sector; you can read his speech in full here.

At the recent SOLACE summit I was asked to listen to the discussions, reflect on them and then draw out some provocative themes.

‘COMMUNITY’ & ‘PLACE’

My first question is about the words “community” and “place”. I have heard them used in the last few days as if they coherently summed whole populations or towns. Yet we all know they don’t. Communities are conflicted, diverse, undecided, self-interested. You can’t meaningfully “consult with the community”. You need to have a more complicated conversation with the populations you serve.

INTELLIGENT CONVERSATIONS

You need accuracy in your analysis of who they are. In a report I co-wrote for the ippr two years ago, called You Can’t Put Me in A Box, I suggested that we might start with a three-part analysis of equalities and diversity which would help us understand (i) when  ‘group identity’ has a coherence (when it is about either persistent bias or genuinely shared cultural characteristics), (ii) when it is the aspirations of the individual that the council is trying to meet or harness and, in some ways the most tricky, (iii) when we need to understand who is the most disadvantaged in any population.

So, accuracy of analysis by your staff of who they are talking to and why – understanding the focus and purpose of consultation – will make it meaningful and helpful.

Also it’s worth remembering that, with many issues on which you consult you can either be right or popular. Particularly with transport. So be clear about only asking people questions that you can answer. Don’t ask them if they want a residents parking scheme, rather ask them how to design it. Consultation has to lead towards an understanding of a common interest in the name of which you can reasonably and effectively act.

SERVICE DELIVERY?

The second question that I wanted to raise was about the notion of “service delivery”. Discussions often focus on the service rather than on the challenge it is designed to meet.

But Local Authorities are not there just to deliver services. Services are a result of their purpose not the purpose itself. The core mission of Councils is to harness energies and assets to create a better quality of life.

If the conversation is about the service, we will remain stuck in the paradigm of more money equals better services. And that cuts are always bad.

We are doing some work in Lewisham, where we brought together the Cabinet and the Senior Management to discuss the fundamental purpose of what Lewisham Council was for, in order to guide a budget setting process that didn’t use their last budget as the baseline. This approach, according to the Chief Exec, is helping Lewisham to recognize that in order to “start to consider our budget afresh we first needed to reconsider our priorities anew….. Governing and managing change of this budget scale requires deep engagement on local priorities and not shallow consultation on specific budget cuts proposals.”

This raises important questions about how you develop your staff. You don’t have to be Eileen Munro to have a severe critique of how reliance on process doesn’t do the job. But we don’t need to blame social workers and other local authority staff, we need to empower them. We need to give them the confidence to make judgments. We need to develop our staff differently.

THE NEW MODELS

My final observation is that there seems to be a distinctly different attitude amongst you all in relation to services than there is about economic growth. There is far more inventiveness and ingenious thinking about the latter. It may be that, with statutory requirements and the habit of service delivery, it’s just not as easy to get into a new framework, perhaps the new model is just far harder to create.

In the discussion about economic growth you are playing a hand that has both visible assets and income streams. With services that focus on the most disadvantaged, there appear to be less assets.

TERRENCE HIGGINS TRUST

However I think the Terrence Higgins Trust, gives us an interesting three-cornered model, from which we can learn.

When gay men started to die of AIDS, no one really cared. We had to do something ourselves. So we started to look after those affected – we started buddying. But that wasn’t enough. We needed treatment, or even a cure. So we made an alliance with NHS medics and other researchers. And we funded that with a combination of state and private sector investment together with private philanthropy.

That model tells us that the human interaction of buddying (of caring) was crucial in meeting the challenge, not with procedure but with kindness and humanity. Secondly, beyond that, we do need expertise. The Big Society is a dangerous myth if it thinks that volunteering can replace entirely experience and skill. And thirdly it teaches us to learn how to deploy our assets – here, volunteering, private gifts, and public and private investment.

THE NEED FOR JUDGMENT

Can we apply this to perhaps the most poignant, urgent and highest priority we have: looked after kids? Well we can re-introduce humanity into how we look after those kids – not be frightened by all the noise around abuse – and release our staff (and volunteers) to feel able to give them love. Secondly we have much expertise in Councils. So we mustn’t drown it in process. We need to value their expertise and free staff to use their knowledge and skill to exercise judgment.

And the assets are surely the kids themselves and their carers. What do they want? What can they contribute, How can we meet their aspirations rather than subject them to the tyranny of low expectations? And there are investment models, which could combine private investment with a return on social goals.

This is a far higher challenge. But it is the coming challenge.

SOME CONCLUSIONS

So in conclusion, I am suggesting that:

we develop our capacity to have intelligent conversations with our populations that speak to them where and how they live and we recognize their diversity;

we ask realistic questions;

we consult with a purpose, not for the sake of it;

we go back to first principles and see Local Authorities as organisations that harness assets and energy to improve quality of life rather than “delivering services”;

we sever the link between money spent and the quality of what we do;

we develop our staff to empower them to use judgment above process;

we develop models, which engage our assets, human and physical, that are as imaginative on the service side of the ledger as they are on the growth side.

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A seasonal message – help yourself!

The political party conference season has confirmed what we all knew already. The economy is not recovering as was hoped, private sector growth is the government’s route to future prosperity and the public sector will shrink further over the next few years.  Whatever the rhetoric of the political parties, the message is strangely consistent – there are no easy answers and the current public spending plans will not get better.

It is little use to look at how we came to this position and even less use for us to focus on whose fault it was. We now need to identify and work on solutions to the position we face. While this is a national problem, it is equally one for each and every local authority as they have to deliver services to the public, knowing that they will have rising cost pressures and fewer resources. Stopping doing things altogether may be an option but where it is not, a systematic review of performance is required.

The process for cost reduction is simple:

1.       Know how your services are performing – not just against last year but against others.
2.       Re-engineer your services to match the “best of breed,” getting help if it is needed to boost short run skills gaps.
3.       If you have done all you can, benchmark again.

And then if more is needed:

4.       Look at other offers and other providers – balancing certainty, cost and speed.

Many will look at the option of increasing income too. Increases in fees and charges are part of but not the total answer and new forms of income are hard to find. Trading with others can offer those authorities that perform well a boost in income to mop up excess labour capacity with the added benefit of avoiding redundancy costs. But not everyone can be a supplier. Trading requires some to offer work and others to provide it.  It requires a simple and cheap way to an internal market.  It means inevitably that the sector’s overall costs and labour force will shrink.

The Audit Commission has gone and few lament its passing but as a former Chief Executive, it did provide me with information on performance and best practice. Benchmarking data with peer authorities was, and still is, a vital tool as efficiency is taken to new levels. CIPFA statistics are a substitute but are not truly trusted as a tool.

CapacityGRID has emerged as a self-help product in the sector for those that are facing these issues and are looking for a new solution with guaranteed results in a very short timescale. The concept is simple. Work is organised to improve productivity and enable trading. The resulting capacity release is banked or sold. Like-for-like operational data is available to everyone so authorities can truly compare their own performance with others. It can deliver information on where the big prizes lie for performance improvement or alternative provision. Internal transformation can be complemented by using the GRID as a risk mitigation tool.  Too often performance problems arise in major change programmes, creating temporary peaks in workload. Those on the GRID can trade at defined costs and performance levels to alleviate those issues. It offers a simple spot purchase opportunity compared with a long and costly procurement exercise.

What is more is the fact that authorities are not restricted to a single supplier with locked in price rises but can operate in a real time dynamic environment, limited only by those that are active in trading on the GRID. As numbers increase, choice of provider and service will become even better.  It can also be an answer on a longer term basis as a permanent way of doing business. Further efficiencies will inevitably accrue as contingency staffing capacity in each individual authority is replaced by a virtual contingency across the GRID, and further resilience is underpinned by a provider network from the private sector platform.

Local authorities can help themselves but they must now help each other.  If not, then they should look to others. Outsourcing still has a place but it is no longer the only game in town and big deals are very thin on the ground. For too long we have talked of the sector being its own solution and now is the time to make it happen.

Sir Peter Rogers
Chair of CapacityGRID and former Advisor to Boris Johnson for Regeneration, Growth and Enterprise at the Greater London Authority.

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Prosperous Places: Leadership for a sustainable future

SUMMIT SCENESETTER

RICHARD VIZE

Yet again local government’s role is being reshaped by political and economic forces. As councils cut budgets and prepare to sink the knife still deeper, they are increasingly sharing and leveraging power rather than exerting control.

While direct power is flowing to organisations such as free schools, academies, clinical commissioning groups and police and crime commissioners, local government is at the centre of a network of influence. Local Enterprise Partnerships are the latest vehicle for collaboration with the private sector, City Deals bring together a wide range of local players and health and wellbeing boards tentatively extend local democratic oversight to the NHS.

Widespread public anger might have been expected about such deep cuts, but despite the occasional library occupation the reaction has generally been a sullen acceptance that things are going to be different.

Alongside cuts there is uncertainty – of the impact on councils and people of localising and cutting council tax benefit, the unpredictable gains from business rate reforms and, above all, the prospect of another severe cut in funding after the general election.

As the scale of the cuts became clear many predicted industrial scale reform of the way local government was run. So far the reality has been more prosaic. Few councillors want to risk frightening local voters with radical change, and Suffolk County Council has demonstrated the dangers of being bold.

Nonetheless, local government is gradually changing the way it works and leads.

Martin Reeves, chief executive of Coventry City Council and SOLACE senior vice president, believes the emphasis will increasingly be on working with the private sector, voluntary groups and others to meet local needs and build the conditions for economic growth, rather than the council looking to its own resources: “The leadership role is almost turning into a magnanimous letting go, because others are in a better position to deliver [than] us, and we lever that through our municipal power, which will always be there.

“In the past our leadership style has been very much about strength and power coming through wide and deep service delivery, as big employers and through our democratic mandate. Letting go means thinking that when it comes to delivering core services, when it comes to meeting the needs of our most vulnerable, it is about people doing more for themselves, about new community/social enterprise hybrids emerging, and the private sector delivering on economic prosperity.”

Jo Killian, chief executive of Essex County Council, says chief executives now have to “go beyond the language of partnership to become an expert at integrating services, and to help members understand that in some cases they may have to share power if they are to maintain services”.

This requires senior managers to develop their commercial skills and increasingly operate as collaborators, negotiators and coalition builders rather than traditional managers.

Reeves says: “We will have to ask senior officers to think about risk in a fundamentally different way. In the future officers will be paid to have different collaborative conversations with a range of people to work out different solutions, and admitting we may not always know the right thing to do. That is a big ask.”

Reeves believes SOLACE and other professional organisations need to take a lead in driving this new approach: “There are still a number of our professional colleagues who we need to ask tough questions of, who still hide behind risk profiles and will not necessarily lead but revert to managing. [They] safeguard the status quo rather than do something very different.

“We are trying to shift a whole organisational blueprint and workforce development ethos. SOLACE needs to grasp that in conversations with other professional bodies, because if we ignore it we will go backwards.”

Local government has spelt out the consequences of funding cuts and rising demand for social care. But councils cannot afford the luxury of shroud-waving; it is up to them to make the best of it.

“Saying ‘woe is me this is all terrible’ is just self-indulgent. We are merchants in optimism,” says Derek Myers, chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham councils.

“This is a huge leadership task, which means it has never been more important for us to show leadership capacity.”

He believes councillors and senior officers need to focus their staff on opportunities such as public health and promoting growth.

Terry Huggins, SOLACE president and chief executive of Breckland and South Holland councils, agrees: “Because of our role in the local economy and the cohesion and vibrancy of the area, you don’t find local government peddling doom and gloom. You focus on the possibilities.”

Skills shortages are one the of the biggest blocks to growth. Essex shows how local government works through others to make a difference, using its community budget to get government departments to allow businesses to commission the skills they need. “It cannot be right that in Basildon 500 hairdressers were trained for 10 jobs when local businesses want a thousand engineers and they are having to go to Scotland and Europe to get them,” Killian says.

A decade ago local government was on the road of centrally prescribed improvement. Best value, performance indicators and the Audit Commission saw councils converge towards norms of “best practice”, often adopting similar approaches such as outsourcing routine processes.

Now councils are becoming more diverse. Contracting out continues but services are also coming back in house while a few are being run by staff mutuals, social enterprises and the voluntary sector. Some councils are sharing operations such as council tax collection, others are sharing management teams. Some are beginning to share resources with clinical commissioning groups and other public sector partners.

Myers describes this diversity as “healthy but slightly chaotic”, and points out that, inevitably, some of these ideas will fail.

Meanwhile chief executives, both collectively and individually, have been exposed to unprecedented scrutiny. Salaries are dropping in the face of political pressure, both district and single tier councils have been sharing their chiefs and some posts have been abolished.

It is tempting to see the abolitions and mergers as a profound change, but it is more realistic to note the durability of the chief executive role. The rare occasions where the post has been abolished often seem more related to local conditions and relationships than the emergence of new models of political leadership.

Myers – who along with Graham Farrant at Thurrock and Barking and Dagenham is one of the two people running two single tier councils – says: “It is worth experimenting but I don’t think it is true to say [these developments are] epoch changing. It turns on a particular set of circumstances, and I see it in the spirit of finding local solutions.”

Huggins foresees more radical changes: “I see the possibility of some chief executives managing more than two local authorities and it is not beyond belief that some will take themselves out of the public sector and do an outsourced management arrangement – if I was a slightly younger man I would be tempted to take my team and say ‘how about forming ourselves into a company and floating ourselves off?’ Someone will do that.”

Huggins sees continuing belief among politicians in the benefits of chief executive leadership: “You have a breed of politicians with an understanding for what [the chief executive] brings to the party. They realise that if they have large policy aspirations you need a breed of senior manager to help them deliver that.”

Killian highlights the threat to effective governance from abolishing the chief executive post: “It is an irony to me that in the banking and financial sector the focus on corporate governance is incredibly strong and the delineation of role between chairman and chief executive – proper governance – is seen as imperative now. It seems curious to me that the same logic is not being applied into places where big decisions are being made, lives changed.”

Huggins – expressing what he accepts is a minority view – believes it is time to examine whether to scrap the dual role of the chief executive as the senior policy adviser to the leader while working for the interests of the entire council: “It would be worth experimenting with running chief executive appointments concurrent with leader appointments.”

He is comfortable with a more American model, where there is greater churn of chief executives as the political winds change; the monitoring officer would take on the governance functions.

He detects a change in the way chief executives are managing their relationship with the leader, adopting a lower public profile. This amounts to “not arguing over that ground and releasing it to the political leaders”.

There is anecdotal evidence of an increasing number of directors not wanting to go for the top job, seeing the declining rewards as poor recompense for the pressures and risk of public attack.

“But there is not a crisis,” says Huggins. “There are still people who are masochists like me and will take the downsides because it is such a fantastic job.”

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Creating your Local Future – Burnley has a success story to tell

Whilst the economic climate remains challenging there is an onus on every place to ensure that it is doing the best it can to compete, attract attention and stimulate growth locally.  Government policy and direction is orientated towards ‘localism’ and a decentralisation of resources and effort.  However, at a time of austerity is it possible to take up this challenge and if so how?

Burnley was once one of the pre-eminent industrial towns in Great Britain but  has more recently faced harder times. Yet things are looking up in a place that has recently tasted Premiership football and wants more of that sort of success in its economy. Steve Rumbelow, Chief Executive of Burnley Borough Council takes up the story; ‘When I first came to the town I could see that whilst it had issues to address, not least growing the economy and creating quality jobs it also had huge potential given its proximity to Manchester, economic legacy  and wonderful natural environment. Unfortunately, we struggled to get a clear message out about what we had to offer and the Manchester connection was a pipe dream without re-opening a short section of railway, known locally as the ‘Todmorden Curve.’

Burnley set to work with place specialists thinkingplace to understand and develop a new narrative for the place that would set out what the place is for and how it could compete. All parts of the community were engaged but business was particularly targeted to help create a new form of place ambassadorship and provide resources to get things done.

As Steve describes the results have been remarkable. ‘Everyone got very excited about deciding what Burnley was all about, how it was special, what it should focus on and telling that story. Just going through the process brought people together and created a new energy for the place. Now we have our story the headlines are much more positive and it has allowed us to set out our case to Government with clarity and credibility resulting in a string of successful resource bids over the last couple of years, including Regional Growth Fund and European Funding, amounting to some £25m.  This funding includes the new railway line and a new station.  . Manchester is now commutable and we are part of its story. This has provided the confidence for well in excess of £100m of private sector investment  in economic development projects.’

Burnley shows that ‘growing your own’ is possible if you know your story, use it to deliver differently and excite people to own it and tell it.

John Till

Director – Thinking Places & facilitator at the SOLACE Summit 2012

*This article first appeared in the LGC magazine on 13th September 2012.

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