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Editor's blog Friday 10 June 2011: The wonderful humility of self-effacing Sir Stephen Bubb

I had heard of ACEVO before the NHS Future Forum was convened as part of the Pinteresque Pause, but alas its chief executive Sir Stephen Bubb was unknown to me.


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Since then, I saw him live at the Kings Fund competition event. He spoke (sadly briefly, although by invitation) from the floor, during which time he emphasised that although this was a listening process, he was going to be doing a fair bit of talking.

(Rudely, some members of the audience began to talk among themselves almost instantly.)

This led me to his blog, which is ... how shall I put this?

Quite something.

He is "a third sector leader influencing in Whitehall, championing professionalism and causing a stir". Which is nice.

Know your place, Prime Minister!
So, what do we learn here?

This self-effacing knight (who has reportedly been a model of inclusivity of the views of his fellow voluntary sector CEs) writes, "Just as I was signing off our Panel's report on 'Delivering real choice' I get sent a copy of the PM speech announcing he is accepting many of our key recommendations ( although we haven't actually given him the report yet! ) His comments on the role of competition which can drive choice and better quality is spot on. As also are the comments on the need for integration of services in health and social care and on the role of Monitor.

"I am unclear why he thought it was a good idea to pre announce acceptance of much of our Report, but it is welcome.

"But what I can promise is that we have more radical proposals that will take this debate forward further. I trust they will all be accepted too. As you can imagine I get many press calls following this and I try to suppress irritation about it all. But then as he commissioned the report I guess it's fair game? Though that does mean there is less to announce next week".

Well, that's the Prime Minister told.

But Sir Stephen is not done yet: "My impression is that there is now much greater consensus around the issue of competition and where it should be used and how it can promote greater choice for citizens. And it now looks like the changes we will propose will enable the Bill to go ahead with much clearer support. So the process, rough and ready though it is, has achieved change in a way that the more formal consultation processes do not. Maybe we will be seeing more of this 'pause stuff' in the future".

He has an unerring eye for politics. More post-legislative pauses are clearly going to be the way forwards.

(Note to self - bookmark this blog for daily checking.)

The rest of that blogpost is a thoughtful and balanced discussion of the views of Lord Glasman, which repays reading in spades.

Endearing self-doubt and vulnerability
In a previous post, we see a delightful glimpse of Bubb's self-doubt and vulnerability when he writes, "I read them the magnificent final paragraph of my report introduction about which I'm inordinately proud".

He also riffs on the competition consensus here: "frankly I think there is more consensus on this issue than might appear on the surface or in the media and politicians' speeches".

With the humility of a saint, Bubb ends this piece with news of his family at his Alma Mater: "The Bubb tribe at Oxford. As it should be. Surely time for my honorary doctorate? That's if I can't be a Dean..". It is surely just a matter of months.

Bubb is a subversive: here, he tells us, "I'm told that we have stopped listening. We are now writing. But heroically I'm carrying on listening and , as I multi task third sector like, I write and listen! I've lost count of the revises I've now done on our upcoming Report 'Delivering real choice'. We have a small round table discussion in our attic on media etc handling. DH are threatening to lock me in a cupboard in case I leak. Though they should know by now I don't leak. I tell it brazen like". Clearly, he is a hero for our time.

He adds, "I like to think an anti establishment gene runs deep in the Bubb DNA". Indeed.

Bubb considers whether more non-public provision should come, telling us, "I still hold to the view that what matters is what is delivered , not who delivers it as Tony Blair said to us when the ACEVO board went to see him about increasing the role of the third sector in service delivery ... The pollsters said to us 'Don't worry about the public - they mostly "get it" to a surprising extent. It's the political classes who don't'. Strangely the Tories seem to have gone very limp on this recently! Did I hear they once said they wanted to redraw the boundaries of the state and citizen?"

This segues neatly into a section on private equity casualty Southern Cross and Castlebeck's Winterborne View.

Bubb also imparts the insider news that the spare ribs for the Obama-Cameron Number 10 barbecue "came direct from my local butcher up Charlbury way, Slaters, purveyors of the Bubb christmas turkey".

Shining wit
Sir Stephen's shining wit is shown in this chortle-inducing post, where he originally opines, "I'm deep in CIOF and QUIP and trying hard not to be submerged. I think there is a machine in the basement of the Department of Health where they insert policy papers and out comes an acronym".

Bubb also lets us in behind the scenes of his inclusive and open-minded approach: "This is a fascinating process. I meet some incredible people. Have been to some great meetings (and some not so great; the one with Unite was not perhaps a highlight)".

As before, he shows that top politicians are attuning themselves psychically (albeit out of turn) to his magnum opus: "And so interesting to hear the Clegg speech. Seems he may have some idea about what we are proposing. But be nice if the politicians could perhaps pause before jumping the gun on what I shall be saying. I'm optimistic the report will make a real contribution to better reform. It’s worth the sleepless nights and hassle".

Sleepless nights. Hassle. A grateful nation thanks its lucky starts for such a man.

Bubb occasionally hides his light a tad too far under a bushel, writing here that"We agree that we will be able to produce Reports that move this debate forward and will make recommendations for change that will both improve th Health Bill and point the future direction for health and social care".

Sir Stephen's prescience weeks before the end of the listening pause is opulent, as he continues, "I can see the key points emerging. We will say competition is important. But we will also say the perception of privatisation has to be tackled by changes to the Bill. And we will argue strong for commissioning that promotes diversity of providers, like our third sector , cooperation across providers wherever they are , and integrated care packages. And all this focused on choice and citizen empowerment".

This is echoed in his remarks that"My Report ( and I have made clear to the civil servants supporting us that I am mainly writing it myself: I'm keeping control of the commanding heights of the vocabulary; I've seen all those Yes Minister episodes!) will need to be ready by penultimate week of May for delivery to PM by end of the month.

"There has been a little too much emphasis on 'Listen' as though it were a consultation or that we have blank sheets of paper or blank minds ; and not enough on 'reflect and improve'. That means the sooner we start debating what changes are needed in the Bill the better".

Imagine people thinking the listening exercise was a consultation! They lack the Bubb DNA of wisdom, of course.

Listener and team player
We get a deeper sense of Bubb the listener and team player when he writes, "yesterday we had a full day of the Future Forum. To say this was testing would be an understatement. I had produced what I had thought was a helpful paper with a framework and ideas for the Report. This did not prove an obstacle to my Panel discussing what they wanted to discuss, aided by those who hadn't actually read it anyway. And then we had helpful facilitation which frankly did not enhance the process as far as I could tell. Still , I left with lots of ideas. Quite whether I can pull this together I muse over in a hot soak later that evening , having ditched further meetings in the interests of sanity.

"But I can hardly complain". Some argue that stoicism is a lost virtue, but Sir Stephen proves them wrong.

He is a man for all seasons.

More information is available here on the splendid Sir Stephen's sophomore story, with thanks to a Health Policy Insight reader.

My attention has also been drawn to the following website, which is scandalously disrespectful to the sublime Sir Stephen, and should in no way be visited by anyone, ever - http://boggsblub.blogspot.com/.