Lessons from a hospital turnaround chief executive

Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham University Hospital
Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham University Hospital

I read an inspiring interview in Health Service Journal last week with the fairly recently appointed chief executive of a large NHS Trust facing a massive turnaround challenge.  Anthony May, recruited last year to Nottingham University Hospital following many years as a successful chief executive of a large local authority spoke of the importance of providing the organisation with “hope” and of his visibility throughout the Trust.  He also commented that the problems faced by the organisation had resulted in it spending too much time looking inwards and that it now had to rebuild relationships with its stakeholders.  This resonated with my experience chairing to two NHS organisations through turnaround where I worked in support of two outstanding chief executives.  A sense of hope and what I recall describing to colleagues as “something to believe in” is part of the “Dark Matter” that makes organisations more than the sum of their parts.  And these are things that can only be created and communicated by a leadership team who are highly visible.

It has taken a few days for me to find time to blog about the interview.  Returning to the on-line interview, I discover that it is now accompanied by a dozen or so comments from May’s colleagues.  They are all anonymous (which enhances rather than diminishes their credibility) and all clearly come from within NUH.  Some are very supportive.  All confirm the scale of the task confronting May and the Trust.  Some more sceptical, although they suggest an impatience in the delivery of the turnaround – but, as another comment points out, given the toxicity of the culture that May has come into it seems unreasonable to expect a turnaround to be completed overnight.  Other comments have descended into a mudslinging between front-line and support services staff, only confirming the cultural challenge.  Others display a degree of cynicism: one expresses this in a constructive tone, remarking “Always conscious a few quotes could be taken out of context but CEO needs to be careful here he doesn’t look to subscribe to the ‘great man/heroic leader’ school of management. Always implodes in due course.”

The commentators also remark on the intrinsic challenges that NUH faces because of its size, its spread across multiple sites, and its complexity.  They also comment on the distraction provided by past M&A activity, regrettably something that has been, and continues to be in fashion in the NHS (many years ago I undertook an analysis that suggested an inverse correlation between NHS trust size and both financial performance and quality of care), and is consistent with most of the work undertaken in the private sector suggesting value destruction from M&A).

The delay in writing this blog piece is fortuitous.  My enthusiasm for Anthony May’s comments is undiminished, but the comments highlight the challenge he faces and the need for him to sustain his effort and commitment as he has a long, hard road ahead.  I wish him well.

“If you read only one business book this year, read this”

Patrick Nash, author of Creating Social Enterprise
Patrick Nash, author of Creating Social Enterprise[1]
I knew very little about Patrick Nash when he joined me in 2019 as an angel investor and advisor at Tranquiliti, a start-up providing an innovative mobile phone app mental wellbeing tool for school students and their teachers.  I didn’t know much more when we were bought out in August last year by Tes Investments[2], other than what I gleaned from our monthly video call with George and Aaron, Tranquiliti’s founders, which was essentially that Patrick knows a thing or two about social enterprises.  He proved a source of sound advice to them and had a similar appetite for risk and the level of investment as me.

A couple of weeks ago, he invited me to a book launch in November.  I explained that I would be travelling to New York but promised to buy the book and read it on the plane.  Amazon already had “Creating Social Enterprise” in stock and a train journey created the opportunity to get stuck into it right away.  It proved hard to put down and I quickly concluded that it deserves the “If you read only one business book this year, read this” accolade. Scrutiny of the spine shows the publisher to be Patrick’s own company[3], so I doubt whether it will get the push (although it would from any self-respecting business book publisher) in the direction of the shortlisting for FT Book of the Year 2024 that it deserves .

While I was studying for an MBA at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and serving my apprenticeship at McKinsey, Patrick was doing alternative stuff and getting his first taste of commercial life at Nova[4], a whole food co-operative in Bristol.  He drove the company van, turned the handle on the trail-mix mixer, learnt a range of valuable lessons about people, customers, marketing, margin management, cash-flow, risk, systems implementation – loads that you have still to learn when you graduate from Harvard, Wharton or LBS – and, importantly for his own development, undertook a crash course in double entry book-keeping (something I did learn in the first term at the GSB) from his father when the founder’s ill-health meant he had to step back from the business at short notice.

Scarred by the experience of putting Nova’s stock system onto computer (Patrick’s Learning#8 in the book is “Never Trust  ‘should’” as in “This should work” or “It should be ready by then”) and burnt out by three years without a holiday, he took a spell away from work.   A few months later, he discovered the Findhorn Community.  Most people are drawn to Findhorn in the search for a more spiritual focus to their lives but Patrick was sufficiently intrigued by a conversation with its finance director that he joined it to work in its accounting and finance department.  Rather than finding himself spiritually, he stayed on to lead the project to develop its Ecovillage (the first homes were built from giant whisky barrels), where he “learned much of the complexity of running organisations, raising funds, creating multiple corporate structures and leading teams”.  During his ten years with Findhorn, Patrick learned a lot more about running a successful business, not least about managing external and internal stakeholders.  He describes this time as a “significant phase in my social enterprise journey.  Many of the skills I have deployed as a social entrepreneur were developed there”.  But lessons and consequent skills are not just for the social entrepreneur, most of them translate into any enterprise, public or private, large or small, and independent of industrial sector.

Although Patrick has established twelve social enterprises, charities and values-driven businesses in all, his greatest achievement was establishing Connect Assist, a specialised 24/7, outsourced call centre supporting multiple clients from the public, private and third sectors (including Versus Arthritis where I spent 8 years as a trustee), employing over 450 people in a part of south Wales where employment has still not recovered from the demise of coal mining.  The third part of Creating Social Enterprise tells how Patrick developed a string of businesses that evolved into Connect Assist after first joining the Teachers’ Benevolent Fund, a charity operated for the teaching unions.  In this role he took the lead in some tough decisions, including closing TBF’s legacy residential homes for retired teachers (he is the first to call out the case for closing businesses that are loss making and no longer fulfil their purpose) and pivoting the organisation to become a telephone counselling service, setting him on the path towards establishing Connect Assist.

Patrick has great stories to tell, including how, along the way, he had the Dalai Llama as his boss when, for a few years in between the big projects that are the meat of Creating Social Enterprise, he was CEO of the Tibetan Relief Fund.  He tells tales of scrapes with the law as a twenty-something driving a whole-foods van around the country, when the grass roof of a house in the Ecovillage bursting into flames, and the thrill and relief at securing financing for assorted projects at the eleventh hour.  These come across with a freshness as though they only happened yesterday rather than ten, twenty, thirty or even forty years ago.

He has built the account of his career around no fewer than 44 learnings, drawn out at the end of each chapter and recapped at the end of each of the three major sections of Creating Social Enterprise.  Most, if not all, are relevant to anyone who picks up the book.  As someone who preaches the importance of purpose and values to a business (as part of the Dark Matter that makes organisations more than the sum of their parts) I turned the page corner down at Learning#3: Align values and commercial  interests.  I did the same at Learning#38: Empathy is the new superpower, as I have no doubt that being able “to understand another person’s thoughts and feeling is a situation from their point of view, rather than your own” is essential to effective leadership based on trust.  And his observance of the final sign-off learning, Learning#44: Moving on when it’s time to leave was the one that positioned Patrick for  life after Connect Assist where, from the comfort of home on the Pembrokeshire coast, he could join me in our support to the  young founders of Tranquiliti and find time to write Creating Social Enterprise.



[1] ISBN 978-1-3999-47-6  www.creatingsocialenterprise.o.uk

[2] Tes invests in fast-growing tech to transform pupil wellbeing | Tes

[3] Enterprise Values – Enterprise Values

[4] Still thriving: see Essential Trading Co-operative Ltd | Welcome (essential-trading.coop)





So, what would a fair society look like? Daniel Chandler’s “Free and Equal”

What Would Rawls Do?
What Would Rawls Do?

Daniel Chandler was introduced to John Rawls’ Theory of Justice during his history degree at Cambridge.  Although I was encouraged to write a dissertation on Les événements de mai 1968 while studying for the same degree thirty or more years earlier, Theory of Justice, only published in 1971, hadn’t made it into Quentin Skinner’s “History of Political Thought” lectures when I attended them in 1976.  Instead, my introduction came at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business a few years later.  By the time that I was involved in the Britain’s short-lived Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, Rawls’ theories, particularly his rationale for a just society being one which offers the most for the least well off in society, provided a philosophical justification those who defected to the SDP from a Labour Party wedded to “Clause 4” socialism.

Chandler and I share a huge respect for Rawls.  Chandler takes this to the extent that Rawls’ theories become his lodestone for examining public policy.  In the first half of his book, Free and Equal: what would a fair society look like?[1] Chandler performs a valuable service by providing a readable and accessible summary of John Rawls’ famously turgid and impenetrable book, along with an account and rebuttal of Rawls’ critics and of those such as Amartya Sen (a hero and, apparently, mentor to Chandler) who have built on Rawls’ foundations.  But the second half of the book, which justifies the sub-title , leaves me imagining that Chandler either wears a leather bracelet imprinted with WWRD (like members of some Christian youth groups wearing one for “What Would Jesus Do”) or lives under a banner like that raised by members of the Occupy Movement at St Pauls Cathedral in 2011.

Chandler works his way through a wide range of public policy issues, trying to apply Rawls’s view of what constitutes social justice by setting out a collection of prescriptions for addressing social and global problems, such as income and wealth distribution, the environment, and distribution of power in the workplace.  The attempt is admirable, but disappointing.  While conveying the impression that emotionally he is politically on the left, he is resolutely a centrist and not afraid to challenge traditional leftist positions, probably reflecting his academic move from history to politics and philosophy, so less a slave to dogma that some who take on this challenge.

His cv includes Harvard and the LSE, the UK Prime Minister’s Policy Unit, the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but his prescriptions and supporting accounts lack grounding, are uniformly derivative, and feel embarrassingly like the work I was turning out as a student politician and parliamentary researcher in my late teens and early twenties.  Given his background, he can’t be blamed lacking the grounding in the real world that might have informed an approach that would be both more nuanced and insightful.  His account of ownership and power in the context of the firm is particularly disappointing and falls into the trap of believing that the shareholders generally hold the power rather than the managers, and the power of different stakeholders depending on the characteristics of the particular markets in which the firm operates, may have more or less power[2].  The consequence is a very simplistic set of prescriptions, with nothing particuarly original.

I briefly found myself bothered by the utopianism that underlies the ambition for the second half of the book, but then cames across his own apology for this and explanation of the need for ambition to make the world a better place, and the value of Rawls’ ideas about justice in thinking about what constitutes “better”.  I was then reminded of Lenin, writing in the fifth chapter of What is to be done? Where he cites 19th Russian nihilist Pisarev

 “the rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in his dream, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with his castles in the air, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievement of his fantasies. If there is some connection between dreams and life then all is well.”

before then observing

Of this kind of dreaming there is unfortunately too little in our movement.[3]

So, full marks to Chandler for his account of Rawls, and also the aspiration to frame practical solutions in light of Rawls theory, even if he falls well short in his prescriptions and how be presents them.



[1] Chandler, D. (2023). Free and Equal. Penguin UK

[2] Ironically, I read his objection (page 262) to John Lewis Partnership being viewed as a co-operative “because workers do not exercise full control over management” on the very day that the John Lewis staff chairman Dame Sharon White lost a vote of confidence in her past performance from the Partnership Council although she received support for her future leadership going forward.

[3] Wikipedia. (2023). Dmitry Pisarev. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitry_Pisarev [Accessed 10 May 2023].

The paradox of the anti-woke investor

Fundsmith founder, Terry Smith
Fundsmith founder, Terry Smith – No Nonsense?

The Escondido Framework argues that all the market interfaces of the company (with customers for their goods or services – either B2B or B2C, labour, their own suppliers of goods and services, and providers of capital) are essentially similar.

Customers for goods and services make their decisions to purchases on the basis of a variety of characteristics of the offering: quality, product features, after-sales support, credit terms, price and more, and in relation to all of these, the competing alternatives.  Employees consider not only the raw salary package, but the variety of employment terms, both hard and soft benefits, company culture and values, corporate reputation, risk, opportunities for career development, and that’s just the start of the list.  Suppliers of goods and services also have complex decisions in terms of how they view their customers, whom to serve and how.  It is not just a matter of price.  For example: is this customer big enough to justify the effort to sell to them compared to the other potential customers out there; can we support the service levels and stock requirements to meet their demands; would our brand be damaged in the eyes of our premium customers if we sell to downmarket segments?  And suppliers of funds to companies, whether equity, debt, or hybrid instruments, consider a wide range of trade-offs: risk (reflecting a wide variety of considerations: operational, financial structure, regulatory exposure), term, liquidity, income generation, value growth, portfolio diversification for starters.

So what should we make of the debate raging over ESG informed investment and rise of the vocal “anti-woke” investor?

The Escondido Framework is not a normative model, arguing over rights and wrongs of ESG investment.  The model describes the world as it is, and highlights the shortcomings and incompleteness of other models of the organisation.  Investors, alongside with consumers, suppliers and especially employees include ESG type considerations in the mix when deciding who to do business with and on what terms.  Do I want to be complicit in the destruction of the planet, oppression of minorities, exploitation of disadvantaged populations – whether on a third world plantation or facing an early death through a predisposition to consume addictive toxins (alcohol, tobacco or opiates).  ESG is a fact of life in all markets, the only question is the weight and precise form in which it plays into the consideration of all the parties (aka stakeholders) with whom companies interact.

There are conflicting accounts as to whether ESG focussed companies and investment funds deliver superior returns.  Part of the problem is one of definition and the nature of the measures employed: movements in share price are a poor metric because any starting point in a share price measure has future performance expectations priced in.  However, to the extent that robust taking ESG issues into considerations reflect long term strategic thinking and the combination of transparency to investors and quality in decision-making processes, it is hard to see why and how ESG would not offer great value creation over an “anti-woke” alternative.

The Financial Times has once again (Helen Thomas on 11 January, following an article by Harriet Agnew on 12 January last year) focussed on a spat between “anti-woke” investor Terry Smith of Fundsmith and the leadership of Unilever.  Smith has mocked Unilever’s leadership in his annual letter to investors for highlighting its sustainability credentials and for “virtue-signalling ‘purpose’”.  He takes issue with Unilever for “purposeful” brands. For example, he comments about soap that “when I last checked it was for washing” dismissing Unilever for talking about “inspiring women to rise above everyday sexist judgements and express their beauty and femininity”.  But, as Thomas points out, “the huge success of Dove – one of Unilever’s biggest brands, held up as a marketing case study – suggests a bit of female empowerment and body positivity isn’t a stupid way to sell soap.  Rather like efforts to make mayonnaise appealing to health-conscious millennials [Smith laid into Unilever’s account of the “purpose” of Hellman’s last year], Smith just isn’t the target market”.

He is on stronger ground in his criticism of Unilever, which has been subject to a raid by activist Norman Peltz who now has a seat on the board. He complains that Unilever has failed to engage with his fund which had been a long-term holder of Unilever stock and twelfth largest shareholder.  Marketing to investors, involving both taking strategic marketing decisions about the proposition provided to the investor (ie the profile of the investment including characteristics such as those listed provide above) as well as communicating with the shareholders, is one of the core responsibilities of the chief executive.

Reading the Fundsmith shareholder letter, I take away the impression that Smith’s criticism of “virtue-signalling” reflects a politically informed discomfort with a company that responds to trends in society and to the new consensus about threats to the environment.  However, his language elsewhere and his stated strategy to invest in good companies, hold onto shares for the long term, suggest that he doesn’t recognise that his fund should invest in companies that adopt the underling strategic approach of Unilever (even if not its failure to communicate adequately with large shareholders or its apparently inept approach to large transactions).  Given the stated approach (effectively to emulate Warren Buffett), Smith ought to be able to leave his personal politics and any “anti-woke” tendencies outside in the carpark when he comes to work and to recognise the value of purpose and ESG when investing on behalf of his clients.

A charity’s purpose should inform its investment decisions

Sarah Butler-Sloss wins case for purpose informed financial investment by charities
Sarah Butler-Sloss wins case for purpose informed financial investment by charities

Of course, a charity’s purpose should inform its investment decisions.  But that was not the position that the Charity Commission argued in the High Court recently when Sarah Butler-Sloss, who chairs a Sainsbury Family Trust that addresses environmental causes, sought to exclude investments in companies who policies were not aligned to the Paris Agreement targets for limiting carbon emissions.[1]

The Charity Commission took the position that the purpose of a charity’s financial investment is “to yield the best financial return within the level of risk considered to be acceptable – this return can then be spent on the charity’s aims” and further provided guidance that ethical investing by charity’s should not result in “significant financial detriment” to the charity.  But what if the activities of the company in which your charity is investing directly undermine the purpose of the charity itself? It is not just a matter of a financial return that reflects “dirty money” (either income or capital gain) but that the investments held by the charity increase the size of the mountain that the charity is seeking to climb in its charitable work.  In this case in question, the Charity Commission’s position was that the Ashden Trust board had not properly balanced the potential financial detriment from its investment decision against the risk of conflict with its charitable purposes.

I recall just such discussions when chairing the finance committee, charged with managing the £200 million portfolio of Versus Arthritis (at that point called Arthritis Research UK).  I argued that it was nonsensical for us not to direct our fund managers to avoid investing (as far as it was possible) in companies whose businesses contributed the problems that we were trying to solve.  Fortuitously, the investment strategy of the Baillie Gifford funds in which we invested didn’t raise any difficult ethical issues for us, as well as allowing us to benefit from a bull market in the tech stocks that featured in it

Mr Justice Michael Green took the right decision when he decided that a charity’s trustees can exercise their discretion when managing their financial investments to reflect the charity’s purposes and not solely to maximise financial returns.  In doing so, he set out useful principles that address not only the nonsense that investments that directly conflict with a charity’s purposes but also reflect in their turn the decisions that personal investors make in decisions that they make about their savings (witness the growth in the number of ethical or socially responsible investment funds available) but also consideration of the impact on donors to charities, many of whom are concerned that the charities they support invest their financial assets ethically or, at the very least not inconsistently with charities stated purposes.

[1] Sarah Butler-Sloss & Others v Charity Commission [2022] EWHC 974


Echoes of the eighteenth century – the Spac bubble

Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme - William Hogarth
Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme – William Hogarth

At the height of the South Sea Bubble, an investment prospectus seeking to exploit the febrile market of 1720 is supposed to have described “A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.”

This story is generally described as apocryphal.  It would indeed be unbelievable but for the appetite last year for investors to pour money into Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, or Spacs, shell companies that raise money from investors through a listing on a promise of merging with an unidentified private company[1].  Apparently, nearly half of the $230 billion raised globally in new listings have gone to Spacs.  In the words attributed to PT Barnum “there’s a sucker born every minute.”[2]

There is no reliable record of whether the “company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage” ever existed, let alone what became of the funds committed by investors if there ever were any. But the fortunes of the Spacs and their investors is better documented, and an analysis has been published by the FT today. 425 of these “blank cheque companies” have listed since the beginning of 2020.  The shares in two thirds are trading at below the $10 listing price, implying that they are worth less than the cash that was invested.  Only 41 of these companies have completed transactions, and on average their shares are 39% below their peak valuation, despite a rally in the US stock market overall.  Only 3 are within 5% of their peak, 18 are more than 50% below their peak, and 8 are below the $10 valuation when they first raised cash.

Perhaps “purpose” and a credible plan is worth something after all?  It is moot whether a speculative investment not underpinned by a credible plan and purpose is better than a pig in a poke but, if so, it is not by very much.

An FT reader (pen name: Warthog Under The Bridge) who has commented on today’s FT report observes: “As a rough guide, the only way to make money with SPACs is to be a SPAC manager.  Buyer beware, the guys running the shows are doing very well at your expense.”  There may some SPAC managers making out like bandits, and there may be some advisers and professional firms raking in fees.  But there may be some whose own money is at risk or whose advisers were taking fees on a risk basis.  But Warthog Under The Bridge is probably right to claim that there is no other way to make money from a SPAC.  Nonetheless, those who have spent the past year on these ventures would have created more value for themselves and society doing something else!

The same probably applied in 1720.  But as there is no record of that the “company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage” ever existed, we also don’t know whether its promoters, their lawyers, or even the printers of the prospectus made money either.

[1] FT 2nd May 2021

[2] Also apocryphal, but none the worse for that!


Lessons from Emmanuel Faber’s departure from Danone


On 26th June 2020 99% of the shareholders in Danone voted for it to become an enterprise à mission, or purpose driven company, required not only to generate profit for its shareholders, but do so in a way that it says will benefit its customers’ health and the planet.

Less than nine months later, Emmanuel Faber, Danone’s chief executive and the architect of the new strategy, was ejected by the board in the face of pressure from activist investors.  The FT leader writer observed on 18th March that “a backlash against purpose-driven capitalism was overdue” and that the debacle was “a reminder that distractions from the core goal of making a profit can be dangerous” before concluding that it did “not …. signal that leaders should rein in their ambition to go further and reassert the role of companies in society” and that to “revert now to simplistic and damaging pursuit of crude share-price maximisation would be a mistake.”

The ejection of Faber was not an illustration of the primacy of Friedmanite shareholder value, but an example of a chief executive failure to manage the investor market interface.  We don’t know precisely what the activist investors were thinking, but they were clearly dissatisfied with the returns they were expecting and believed that their investment returns would be increased with a different chief executive.

Under Faber’s successor, the activist investors hope that the value of their investment (in terms of capital growth and dividend returns) will increase as a result of improved internal operational performance and a changed strategy towards the customers at its other market interfaces – including suppliers, employees, consumers, owners of real estate and local communities, regulators, and government (recalling the appetite of the French government to view large domestic consumer businesses as strategic national assets when threatened by acquisition by overseas multinationals).  The choices of the different types of customer will include some consideration of ESG: consumers with an eye to environmental consideration (packaging, use of sustainable resources; employees preferring to work for companies whose conduct they can take pride in; investors wanting to see good governance.  The rhetoric employed by the activist investment customers may reflect discontent with financial returns, but implicitly they are concerned with how the Danone’s mission is translated into strategy and the possibility that Faber’s rhetoric around purpose conceals a lack of grip on operational performance.

The Danone debacle generated further commentary on whether this apparent backlash represented a retreat from “purposeful capitalism”.  John Plender wrote a powerful article for the FT on 4th April reflecting both on the Danone story and on the lessons from the Covid about the impact on stakeholders (particularly suppliers) who were unable to diversify  their risk (unlike investors) when a business hit rocks as the pandemic closed down parts of the economy.  He shared the view, which we addressed during the debate in 2017 on corporate governance reform in the UK, that appointing employee directors (or by implication directors representing any other specific stakeholder group) does not address the governance gaps.  He went on to argue for changes to the incentive models for senior managers to address short-termism and that profit or share value metrics determining them should be supplemented by ESG related metrics.  In short, “stakeholder capitalism must find ways to hold management to account” and that “the prevailing commitment to short-termist shareholder value has undermined corporate resilience.”

Hakan Jankensgard, Associate Professor of Corporate Finance at Lund University responded to Plender in a letter published by the FT on 7th April with an assertion that the firms should adopt the Hippocratic oath since this “would ensure that firms act as good corporate citizens”, with focus on long term profitability and “not become do-gooders picking sides in social debates”.  It is probably a reflection of the challenge of drafting a letter of appropriate length for publication, but some steps in his logic seems to missing.  However, other parts of his letter are compelling, echo arguments within the Escondido Framework view on how firms work and pitfalls in contemporary corporate governance, and are worth producing in full:

“As far as everyone is concerned, shareholders are the root cause of all the troubles afflicting our societies.

“Well, think again.  The real problem today is managerial capitalism – that managers run firms primarily to increase their own wealth and prestige.  A few decades back, managers were busy building wasteful empires, and the shareholder model arrived as a particular remedy for this gross inefficiency.

“Another innovation that arrive about the same time prove more fateful.  It was the idea that managers, if given the right financial incentives, would rediscover their entrepreneurial spirt. It caught on, to say the least.  What it really did, however, was to shift managers’ focus from building empires to extracting wealth through compensation packages.

“As manager took n their new role, they found willing accomplices in a cabal of short-term oriented investors looking for a quick return.  This unfortunate marriage is the problem at the heart of today’s economy as it creates short-termism that adds to long-term risk.”

What We Owe Each Other, by Minouche Shafik

Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics
Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics

There is much to celebrate in Minouche Shafik’s argument that we need a new social contract[1], not least a title that uses the language of obligation and duty rather than employing the language of rights.  This is even if she falls back, in her closing remarks, on answering her question of what it is that we owe to each, that it is “to muster the courage and sense of unity” that the Beveridge Report said was necessary for the “winning” of “freedom and want”.  I was looking for more, and shouldn’t be too critical her effort at a rallying cry to round off the book when she has addressed a variety of policy measures, without being unduly prescriptive about their precise form, that would address “our interdependencies, provide minimum protections to all, share some risks collectively and ask everyone to contribute as much as they can for as long as they can….investing in people and building a new system of risk sharing to increase our overall well-being”.

Shafik’s underlying argument is that we need a new social contract to meet the needs and opportunities facing both individual society and global society in the 21st century, including those of an environment threatened by global warming and the degradation from human activity, of an ageing population, of an inequity between generations, and of the alienation of communities left as others have prospered that as consequence poses a threat the liberal democracy.  She is qualified for this task by her  personal history which includes an affluent childhood in Egypt that exposed her to third world poverty around her before her family emigrated to the USA, a career largely “in the trenches of policymaking” spanning international institutions and in the central government and central banking in the UK, and finally her current appointment as Director of the London School of Economics in 2017 where she launched a programme of research, ‘Beveridge 2.00’, to rethink the welfare state.

Having spent many years in healthcare and the application of health economics, I felt initially that her chapter on health was skated over too much.  But this was before I reflected that the chapters outside my own area of knowledge were throwing me snippets of valuable information and new insights that left me with respect for the ambition within her 189 very readable pages (Thomas Piketty could learn a thing or two from Minouche Shafik!).  Plenty of the examples in this book are familiar, such as the marshmallow test, but others cited, such as the evidence of the value of quite modest investment in early years intervention, such as weekly hour-long visits by Jamaican community health workers for 2 years to encourage mothers to interact and play with their children to develop cognitive and personality skills that 20 years later yielded 42% higher earnings than the control group.

Shafik sensibly avoids too many narrowly defined prescriptions, reflecting on data presented in the book that different countries have successful applied different policy solutions (for example in how they fund and organise healthcare) to achieve broadly similar outcomes (even if the one nation in the case of healthcare that doesn’t do this in a coherent way – the United States – ends up spending far more in aggregate, and in terms of public money, than everywhere else only to realise worse outcomes).  However, the general thrust of her argument in each area of policy is clear.

Shafik poses interesting questions around the intergenerational social contract.  On one hand, younger generations are blessed with material well-being that the old generations could not have dreamt off.  On the other hand, as David Willetts documented in the The Pinch[2]the millennials and generation Z have good reason to be aggrieved as they pay for the higher education and the home ownership enjoyed by their parents appears out of reach.  Shafik recognises, in the emphasis that she places on investment in education in new social contract and various mechanisms for achieving this that she suggests.  There is also the issue of the price that they and future generations will pay in terms of the environmental degradation resulting from the previous generations’ approach to achieving their wellbeing and economic growth.  I am surprised at the complexity that she builds in to potential solutions to this when the solution should lie in regulation, a national income calculus that better reflects the value of the natural world that currently calculated GDP or national income, and environmentally based taxes that capture the externalities of industrial and agricultural activity that damages the environment.

The book also gives rise to a set of interesting questions about what this means for businesses.  Where do they sit within this narrative?  There are important lessons for the people who sit at the heart of businesses, the “controlling minds” in terms what they can do, both in relation to their own workforces, customers and suppliers, in terms of contribution to a new social contract.  For the business to thrive, and sustain itself in the long term, the core lesson is that it should be a player, alongside the individual citizen, in such a new social contract.  Otherwise, its profitability and in due course its survival will be undermined by the very same pressures the Shafik describes threatening both individuals and liberal democracy.

I have a fear about one element in the approach Shafik takes to the need for a new social contract.  This relates to what goes into the “increase in our overall well-being”.   Some of the steam that is driving populism is increasing material inequality and the sense that communities are being “left behind”.  Some of this populism is a function of identity politics, which may be whipped up by the perception that communities with other identities (often, but not exclusively, framed by other ethnicities or immigrant groups) are posing an economic threat or gain an advantage.  But the perception may nothing to do with actual material wellbeing.  Indeed, in the case of some of the 52% of the British population voting for Brexit, or the potential majority in Scotland for independence from the UK, this may be a desire to escape from or avoid the “other” despite the prospect that of material disadvantage.  Some may be seduced by arguments that “getting back control” will leave them better off materially, but many others take the view that independence from Europe or the UK is more important than the economic benefit of remaining part of the whole.  There is, at least at an abstract level, a link between the communitarian spirit in Shafik’s argument for a social contract “that addresses our interdependencies” and the desire to be part of a union, whether of states sharing a continent or Kingdoms sharing a small archipelago at the continent’s north western edge.  Those same people who resist the membership of the country they occupy in a union of countries are also likely to be those most resistant to her arguments for a renewed social contract.

[1] Shafik, Minouche (2021). What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract. ISBN 978-1847926272.

[2] Willetts, David (2010). The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back. ISBN 978-1848872318.

Not Useful but True – “the space is never static because the problem keeps changing all the time”

Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnellan
Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnellan

During lockdown, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, artistic directors of Cheek by Jowl[1] recorded a weekly podcast “Not True but Useful” about their approach to working in the theatre.  They have now released transcripts of the first series of stimulating conversations.  The following is an extract from the second of these podcasts “Space and Shakespeare”, published in April 2020[2].  I reproduce it here because I find the visualisation of the firm and the organisation as something existing in space, bounded by its interfaces (which are themselves dynamic) with outside world very helpful when thinking about the firm, what it is there for, and how people interacting with the firm or setting its strategy from inside.  Listening to Declan and Nick in conversation with interviewer Lucie Dawkins, I was struck by parallels between what happens to actors on stage and to the managers of the firm.

Lucie   So, today we’re going to focus on the way that you think about space when you stage your plays together, both in terms of what it means for the actors, and how it influences your design. And later in the episode, we’re going to use Measure for Measure as a test case, and I suspect we’ll probably talk a bit about Macbeth as we go along. But let’s start at the very beginning. Why is space so important to you?

Declan   It’s very difficult to explain what we mean by space. I can put it in this form, I can say that what happens when we die? When we die, the space gets taken away from us. So the space is an enormous thing.

Lucie   So what has space got to do with acting?

Declan   Everything. It’s got to do with our whole existence.

Nick  Human beings live in space. They’ve spent their lives dealing with the space, they are formed by the space, everything. The character (Macbeth, for example) lives in a space, a changing space from second to second. Each character has their own special space. And it’s very subjective. You look at a chair, perhaps your mother sat in that chair, that chair means something to you in your bedroom. The character deals with the space. And we as human beings spend our lives dealing with a space.

Declan  Yes, sometimes it’s a criticism, a lot of people say, oh, you know, ‘he’s at the centre of the universe. He thinks he’s the centre of the universe.’ And of course, it’s very annoying if somebody’s self-obsessed like that. But unfortunately, we are at the centre of our own universes. We invent the world that we see. There is a reality, I’m sure, but we have no access to that reality other than through our imaginations. Nick and I are looking at a microphone now but we’ll see different microphones. The microphones we see we have to invent somehow in our heads. One can’t explain these things, but we can get used to these ideas. And we can say things about the space, which is different from defining it.

Lucie  How does the space influence the behaviour of a character, for example?

Declan  Well, there would be no character if there were no space. And the thing is that, in a mysterious way, we are not independent of the space, we only exist as part of this big binary. And that’s the very hard thing to get one’s head around.

Lucie   That’s a striking statement, that there’s no character without the space around them. So, let’s unpack that a bit. How, for example, does the space define Macbeth in the scene we talked about last week, Act 1 Scene 7, when he leaves the dinner party in the next room offstage to talk to the audience about why he wants to kill Duncan.

Declan  I think that first we shouldn’t in any way have the idea that space is something that only afflicts Shakespearean characters. You know, Nick and I are sort of hunched over a microphone and we’re looking at your face, and we’ve the laptop open, and I’m trying to not make noise on the table. And I’m pinned in space.

For Macbeth, there’s a million different ways of doing it, but the space will be central to all of them. There is no world, there’s no life beyond the space. The space is what gets taken away from us when we die, and death is what happens when the space gets taken away. Macbeth gets the feeling that he has to leave that table. Yes, we can interpret the stakes: because he feels suffocated; because there’s no air in the room; because he has to get away from the man he is murdering; he needs space to think – and he comes out, and maybe doesn’t want to speak to anybody, and maybe he sees us, and there are all sorts of stories that one might evolve in order for him to do that. But whatever solutions he comes up with, these will all be absolutely dependent on the space, and on him allowing that space to come before he does. That is the important thing. So it’s not me and I spray a space around me – it’s that is a space and I’m in it. I try to control that space. And so I imagine it to be all sorts of things other than it is. But it’s going to be there before me, during me, and after me, and my perception of it will be continually changing.

If we need to break it down into steps, we can say – it’s a bit leaden – but if we run into difficulty, we can say that one of the shapes of life is that I’m in a space, I have an impulse to cross a threshold to go to another space to find something which turns out to be different from what I had expected. And that last one gives us life, the fact that it’s a continual surprise. When we look at any space, we see it’s just one long transition from one space to another. There is no state of a space, the space itself is transitioning, and we are normally trying to keep up with that space that’s changing much faster than is comfortable for us. It’s like, you know, we think that the world is spinning too slowly. Actually it’s spinning uncomfortably fast. And in all of these plays, events run out of control, and that they’re trying to slow things down. It’s rather sad to say to actors, you know, you must drive the play, because actually the space, the thresholds, the predicament, drives the action. And the characters are struggling to keep running with this thing that’s running wild and out of control.

Lucie   So, one way of looking at what’s driving this character through the space is that there’s a problem in one space, it drives them into another space, but the new space only keeps presenting him with more problems – that the character’s journey through the scene is dealing with the problems that the space is serving up to them.

Declan   That’s exactly right. Yes, the space is never what he wants it to be. The space keeps presenting new challenges. And we all think, oh wait, if only the threshold changing would stop, if only the carousel would stop, then I can deal with it – if only it would stop! But it doesn’t. It just keeps going. And there we are. And that’s what we do. And yes, he’s continually dealing with the new things that he sees.

Lucie   So it sounds like the space is never static because the problem keeps changing all the time. I guess the longer he’s out of dinner, the more he realises that he’s going to be missed, and it looks suspicious, and the bigger his problems keep getting, and every face that he speaks to in the audience presents another source of discomfort, as if he’s trying to persuade each one that the murder is a great idea. So the space is always changing, either serving up new problems or letting the existing ones grow worse.


[1] I have been one of Cheek by Jowl’s patrons for many years, having enjoyed their shows for most of my adult life and almost certainly seen performances involving Declan and Nick in my first year at student at Cambridge University in the 1970s.

[2] Full recordings and transcript available at Not True, But Useful Podcast – Cheek by Jowl

Applying the Escdondido Framework to Dark Ages Britain

The First Kingdom cover

I often wonder about the applicability of the Escondido Framework model of the firm to organisations in other cultures and at other times to the developed world in the 21st century .  One of the claims of the Escondido Framework is the degree to which it can be applied universally.  Certainly, the model can be applied to public sector and third sector organisations, and can be applied wherever there is some sort of corporate collective structure that can be shown to create value that is greater than the sum of the efforts of the people who are working together within the structure if they were together in a set of discrete collaborations brought about by a set of separate agreements (whether explicit or implicit).

I have just completed reading Max Adams’ account of Britain in the 5th to 7th centuries, The First Kingdom[1].  This covers the period often known as the Dark Ages, following the departure of the Roman Empire and before settled control of England by Anglo-Saxon rulers in the Heptarchy.  He pieces together the considerable research undertaken in recent years to describe a fragmentation of society, depopulation of most cities and towns and replacement by what may in many respects to a pre-Roman pattern of village economies and local tribal leadership, subject to incursions by Viking and north German raiding parties, but still with some loose links to continental Europe, with the Christianity that had arrived in the Roman period hanging on in places prior to reintroduction both from Ireland with Colme Cille (St Columba) and with St Augustine from Rome, and with continuing trade.

One of the key themes of the Escondido Framework is the identity of the corporation independent of stakeholders, the “societé anonyme” whose ultimate purpose is to survive, and which outlives its “controlling mind”.  Adams marks the end of the period that he is describing by an important transition, from one in which the individual “kingdoms” were pretty fluid, some very small and sitting within and subject to other kingdoms (in a system described as Tribal Hidage), and most regimes pretty ephemeral.

“Victory on the battlefield and political success measured in tribute and booty secured the loyalty of secular élites for their king and his eligible successors; but for a life interest only.  Defeat, if not fatal, weakened a king and exposed him to internal coup of external domination…..The luck of the tribe was invested so heavily in the person of its kings that when they died any imperium that they may have exercised over rival kings was void.

“As Bede so vividly described it, the pagan supernatural experience was in some sense like the passing of a sparrow into and out of a hall whose warmth and fellowship matched their brief period of Earth while all before and after was cold darkness unknown…..

“Pagan kingship was not stupidly irrational.  Rulers were bound by conventions of honour, reciprocity and political pragmatism.  They calculated odds as coolly – and with about as much reliance on superstition – as any politician or football coach whose tenure might be equally precarious.”[2]

But this changes with a new social contract, between church and king, that reflects the new world being constructed with the arrival of Christianity and the conversion of the rulers, whose souls continue after death.  Adams cites a law of Wihtred, king of Kent 690 -725: “The Church shall enjoy immunity from taxation; and the king shall be prayed for”  before noting:

“The rapid seventh-century establishment of monastic communities across the Insular kingdoms, supported by extensive, formerly royal estates and nurture by their relations with kings, parallels the history of secular territorial lordship founder on the right to exact and collect renders from lands and communities, but with a a critical difference.  The unique brilliance of this new social contract was to convert landed assets otherwise held for a mere life interest – the so-called folcland held by the thegns and gesiths form the king, which returned to the royal portfolio on their death – into a freehold bocland of abbots and abbesses.  Bocland or bookland – what we would call freehold – was fundamental to a relationship meant to last for eternity on Earth and in heaven.  It allowed the church to invest in physical labour and material wealth in permanent settlements free from the obligation of military service and taxation; to capitalize agriculture an technology.  It laid the foundations for a literate, institutional clerical caste and formation concepts of obligations owed by kings to their people.”

Permanence is the key word – even if in due course the success of the monastic corporations became the seed of their undoing at the Reformation.  The monastery or convent was greater than the abbot or abbess.  The kingdom also secured more permanence, even if an institutional fluidity remained  until the major kingdoms of the Heptarchy progressively consolidate and became on under Athelstan in the 10th century.

[1] Adams, Max (2021). The First Kingdom: Britain in the Age of Arthur. ISBN-13 : 978-1788543477

[2] Ibid. pp 398 -399.