Friday, 11 December 2015

The SROI of Santa Claus

This blog has changed. I had planned a spoof Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis of Santa Claus. As well as happy children, this was to include outcomes such as elf employment, reindeer fitness and income for sleigh suppliers (not to mention the inevitable “elf and safety”). But influenced in part by Dr Adam Richards’ excellent blog on The Value of Christmas*, a slightly more serious question occurred to me: why do we keep the myth of Santa Claus alive?

Here I must apologise to anyone who still believes in Santa Claus (there may be children reading!). But if we accept that the fantasy version of Santa Claus − as opposed to the historical St Nicholas − actually doesn’t exist, what is the value in perpetuating the myth? Why do we bother?

True to SROI, we first have to define scope: I’m referring to the annual activities of the jolly gentleman in red who delivers presents to all of the good children in the world in a single night. Stakeholders for this illusion will of course be the children themselves, their families, and yes, there is a commercial aspect to it as well – many businesses profit from the season.

SROI demands consultation – we shouldn’t just assume. But it’s a pretty safe bet that for children Santa Claus forms part of the fantasy and magic of Christmas, something that helps to bring joy at a special time of year. And the presents themselves certainly help. We hope too that it helps to bring families together, sharing time and strengthening relationships.

The main investment for this return is the cost (to parents) of the presents themselves – plus a modest outlay for Christmas stockings and perhaps some doorstep refreshments for Santa and his reindeer. Not forgetting the time involved in buying, wrapping, hiding the presents and so forth. Which brings us to negative outcomes – again something that SROI insists we consider.

Arguably the greatest negative is the financial burden that Christmas imposes on those who cannot afford it, combined with the disappointment of those children who have a poor Christmas as a result. Some will also argue that the true spirit of Christmas has been lost in a tide of commercialism. And unfortunately Christmas is not a time of joy for everyone: it’s well known for example that post-Christmas is a peak time for marital and family break-ups, as stress takes its toll.

Of course, Santa Claus isn’t personally responsible for all of this. He makes a contribution to it, and this is what SROI considers under the heading of Attribution: how much of these changes (positive and negative) can we attribute to the fun figure himself as opposed to the many other elements that make up Christmas? A small but still significant part, I suggest.

I haven’t attempted a valuation of these various pros and cons or a full calculation of the SROI ratio, although in theory this could be done. On balance I believe the ratio would be positive, supporting the continued Santa Claus myth, though with the proviso of “could do better still”. Like all SROI analyses, the real value lies in the learning rather than the SROI ratio itself. So what could we do better still?

This is where the ‘numbers game’ of SROI meets reality. We could surely boost the SROI of Santa Claus by bringing the positive outcomes to more people, and reducing the negatives associated with poverty and hardship. That’s why I support charities that bring something of Christmas (irrespective of religious context) to disadvantaged children and their families here and abroad. Even in difficult times, there’s a message there that someone cares.

And by the way, please don’t tell me that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

* Please also watch the wonderful video within this blog.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015


“Stakeholders” is a word I’ve always used with caution. Some people still regard it as consultants’ jargon – although perhaps less so now than in the past. I’m sticking to it though, partly because it’s shorter than saying “any individual or group who is affected by what your organisation does, or has an influence on it”. More important however is the concept behind it, because it promotes the kind of thinking I describe as outside-in.

The Scots poet Robert Burns certainly wasn’t thinking stakeholders when he wrote his famous lines “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!”*. But the idea of understanding what you, or your organisation, looks like to someone from outside is absolutely relevant and vitally important.

It works for organisations of all kinds, but I encourage the public and third sectors in particular to adopt this outside-in thinking, for several reasons:
•    It’s essential to understanding outcomes – the real difference you make to service users and others
•    It promotes a fresh and objective way of looking at your organisation, which can generate valuable ideas for the future
•    It supports planning, by asking the question “What do we want to achieve?” (and how will we do this?) rather than simply “What do we want to do?”

An example of the last point: several years ago I worked with a Local Authority whose strategic objectives included “Preserving our Natural Heritage”. Sounds good, but I then asked them which stakeholder(s) this aimed to benefit. Were they protecting the environment for future generations, or looking for ways to boost the local economy through tourism? What actions they took to support this objective could vary significantly depending on the answer. (They took this away to think about!)

For community and voluntary sector organisations it may support funding too; not just by showing the value you achieve for current funders, but also by suggesting where future opportunities might lie. Who else benefits from your services, and what does this suggest about working with new partners?

There’s a mind-set thing about stepping outside your own entity and imagining yourself looking in. It isn’t easy and may even lead to asking people questions where you’ve previously relied on assumptions. But the best organisations in the world do it, and the diagram shows how the four Results Criteria of the EFQM Excellence Model link directly to stakeholder perspectives.

I could even extend the concept to global politics – but won’t! Suffice to say that “thinking outside the box” applies just as much to your organisation’s box as it does to other aspects of innovation. Give it a try!

*This is the Gaelic dialect. In standard English: “Oh would some power give us the gift to see ourselves as other see us”

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Happy Days?

The latest Office for National Statistics report on personal well-being in the UK appeared recently*. It again shows a slight rise in ‘average national happiness’, with life satisfaction reaching 7.6 on a 0 to 10 scale. So should we all be dancing in the streets? Well, not just yet I suggest.

There is a dark cloud behind the silver lining: the proportion of people reporting low levels of well-being has reduced, but not as much as the proportion reporting high levels has grown. In other words, within the overall increase there is increasing polarisation between the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’. Two regions – the North-East and Yorkshire & Humber – show no significant reduction in people with low levels of well-being.

I’m encouraged to see ONS increasingly exploring these and other variations. As well as geographic areas, figures are broken down by gender, age, ethnicity, health and several other factors. New analysis this year on tenure (owner-occupied, rented, etc.) shows owner-occupiers with higher life-satisfaction than those in rented accommodation, and those in social housing lowest of all. However, I’m not sure there’s a cause-effect link here, since social renters on average have poorer health and health has a huge influence on life satisfaction.

The overall rise is attributed to the economy and the gradual fall in unemployment. Several studies prove that the effects of unemployment are psychological as well as financial, and it’s interesting that the North-East and Yorkshire & Humber are also the two UK regions with the highest unemployment rate.

I’m OK with all of this, but information is useless unless you do something with it. A polarised society is potentially a dangerous one, and addressing these inequalities must therefore be a high priority. The Northern Powerhouse and regional devolution need to be more than just political rhetoric to make a difference.

That’s why – just as an example – I’m irritated by a new government digital initiative: Job Hack**. The idea is to generate creative ideas and new ways for technology to assist employment. But where’s it being hosted? London – aarrgghhh! NO!! Base this sort of thing in the North, and if people struggle to get there, then that’s exactly the problem you need to solve!

So, the data is there, but I’m not yet convinced that Westminster has the political will to really make a difference to everyone in our society.

*The full report is at
** Full details here:

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Healthier Lives – For How Long?

Yet another report has appeared on the healthcare costs of physical inactivity. This one, from the International Sports and Culture Association (ISCA), identifies costs for several different European countries including the UK*. Inactivity increases the chances of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other conditions that cost money to treat – quite apart from the patient suffering they cause.

Don’t get me wrong, I support physical exercise (and do it myself). But I do object to reports like this that, in order to prove a point, fail to present the full picture.

Firstly, increased physical activity is great provided it is safe. Cycling is the obvious case in point, with benefits to the environment (less traffic) as well as health. But – as I’ve observed in previous blogs – this only works if it can be done safely. Currently in the UK, the trend of increased cycling is being match by a trend of more cyclists killed on our roads, and this is not acceptable.

Secondly, the report falls into the common trap of referring to “deaths averted”. Congratulations – they’ve discovered the secret of immortality!! Actually no they haven’t, they should be referring to the avoidance of premature death. Despite advances in medical science, we’re all going to die sometime.

And of course, if fewer people die young, then more people will live into old age. Which means an increase in diseases of old age such as arthritis and dementia, and an increase in the healthcare costs of treating these conditions. It could be argued that we’re not saving healthcare costs so much as postponing them to a later time and different cause. Other economic factors such as social care costs and pensions also come into play as we live longer.

There may come a time when humankind will question its pursuit of ever-longer life. But that time certainly isn’t with us yet, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should stop trying to get fitter and healthier, or live longer. I am suggesting though that we should think more about the ‘big picture’ and plan accordingly.

For example – back to cycling – I fully support Leeds City Council’s ‘cycle superhighway’, currently under construction from East Leeds through the city centre to Bradford. It may not be a perfect plan but it’s a big step in the right direction. It aims to be part of a whole solution, enabling all the advantages of cycling whilst hugely reducing the risks.

The parallel for longevity would be a comprehensive health and social care strategy that supports longer, healthier lives and addresses the consequences that these bring. Currently, I see lots of activity around pensions, elderly care and the management of long-term conditions. But an overall strategy? I’m afraid that, for our current political leaders, this seems to fall into the “too difficult” category.

*The Economic Cost of Physical Inactivity in Europe, ISCA/Cebr, June 2015

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Polls Apart?

I'm not a great General Election watcher, but have been intrigued by the subsequent debate on why the opinion polls got it so wrong. Various reasons, explanations and excuses have been advanced – mostly blaming the public rather than the pollsters (it’s all our fault apparently) – for their failure to predict the Conservative’s overall majority. Apparently there's going to be an industry enquiry into this – presumably different from the enquiries into why previous General Election surveys also got it wrong. 

Some reasons for inaccuracy are fairly obvious, although not necessarily well-publicised. For instance, we know about "don't-knows", but what about those who do know but won't say? Those you might call the "****-off"s, to put it bluntly. If you discount them, that immediately means you have a non-random sample – I’m not aware of any basis for assuming that this group divides its support in the same way as those who will answer.

Secondly, there's the issue of "segmentation" – in other words, how the overall results breaks down amongst different voting groups and areas. A survey may be statistically sound at national level, but much less so broken down by 650 constituencies where the voting actually occurs. And whilst SNP gains and LibDem losses were largely predicted, the question of how former LibDem voters might switch their allegiance is a much tougher one, and certainly varied between constituencies.

More uncertain still is the impact of "survey fatigue". Getting a sufficient response rate is a perennial problem for surveys of all types, and anecdotally we know that some people will respond to surveys in the way that gets rid of them quickest. So doorstep campaigners are told "yes, I'll vote for you" no matter which party they represent. The extent to which this will affect independent opinion polls is unclear, but the “shy Tory” theory certainly implies people will mislead these pollsters as well.

The moral of all this is that numbers and percentages alone are of limited use unless you really understand what is changing (in this case, people's minds) to produce those numbers. The complex interaction of national, local and personal issues means that this will never be easy, and no one should pretend that it is. Unless someone can produce a really convincing Theory of Change (see previous blog!), then pre-election surveys will always carry a high risk of inaccuracy.

On which basis I will make a prediction: when we next have a General Election, the pre-election opinion polls will get it wrong again. Not because they haven't studied what went wrong this time, but because the factors that affect people's voting intentions, and what they tell opinion poll surveys, will change again.

And actually that's OK. We should after all be governed by real democracy, not what the opinion polls tell us.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Cause-Effect Conundrum

We’re in a General Election campaign (in case you hadn’t noticed!). Which means it’s open season for silly statistics and dubious claims in support of one cause or another. The advice here is not to take these claims at face value. Can they be justified by cause and effect? “Correlation does not mean causality” is the often-quoted phrase.

A classic example: Accident & Emergency waiting times have increased over the last five years, since the Coalition came to power. But that in itself does prove that the present government has caused this increase. It’s possible, but a host of other factors may be responsible as well, or instead.

A wealth of spurious (and amusing) correlations can be found with a quick Internet search. For instance, the US murder rate almost exactly matches the trend line for MS Internet Explorer’s market share! Fortunately, no-one suggests the two are connected. More intriguing though is the match between national chocolate consumption and Nobel Prize-winners, illustrated below:
(Credit: New England Journal of Medicine)

Here there is a plausible – but arguable – connection. Chocolate has been shown to improve cognitive function not just in individuals but in wider groups. So the fact that Switzerland tops the table on both counts might be no coincidence.

Such theories – for that is exactly what they are – can be described through a Theory of Change (ToC). The diagram here illustrates a very basic ToC to explain how training can help unemployed people to find work. Not rocket science, but note that:
a)      It’s expressed in terms of trainees’ experience, and
b)      The job is not and end in itself, but a route to more personal outcomes

In this case the ToC is obvious; in the chocolate example, and indeed for A&E waiting times, it’s a lot more problematic. Proving a ToC – understanding what actually makes the difference – is not always easy, but getting people involved in discussion is a start. Is it plausible based on their knowledge and experience? Can it be tested? What other comparisons do we have? ToC’s feature in many evaluations, as a start point to understanding what causes the changes we see – or hope to see in future. The more we can understand and apply these cause-effect principles, the better.

PS: Sweden comes 2nd in the Nobel Prize-winners list, and Alfred Nobel was Swedish. Coincidence?

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Back on the Bike - in Leeds

There’s no shortage of reports lately on the benefits of cycling. Following the “evaluation” (I use the term loosely – see my December 2014 blog!) of last year’s TDF in Yorkshire, the latest comes from the University of Leeds*. It quantifies the economic benefits of more cycle use in terms of health, journey quality and reduced car usage.

Whilst not Leeds-specific, the report coincides with plans for a Leeds-Bradford ‘cycle superhighway’ – check if you’ve not yet seen this. I live beyond Seacroft, and I’d love to use this facility to cycle rather than drive to Leeds city centre. Provided, that is, that I can make it to Seacroft without getting wiped out on the A64.

And there lies the critical point – safety. The sad fact is that whilst most road casualties have steadily fallen over the past 10 years, despite an increase in traffic, for pedal cyclists the numbers have risen. Here’s that Office for National Statistics graph from my blog of last June that shows this trend.

Any balanced evaluation of cycling benefits must take account of the safety factor, because the huge human cost of death and injury could completely negate the positives. I’m amazed that the Leeds University report takes no account of this (sorry, I don’t buy the “insufficient information to make a reasonable estimate” line, because the report makes big assumptions elsewhere). 

For the Leeds-Bradford superhighway, the extra safety provided by segregated cycle tracks seems self-evident, but I would still like to know:

  • What is the previous safety record of the two designs proposed (assuming they are used elsewhere?), particularly where they intersect road junctions?
  • What is the expected impact on car and cycle traffic in the surrounding areas, not just on the superhighway route itself, and what safety implications does this raise?

Finally, whilst evidence indicates that most serious cycle accidents are the fault of car drivers, I don’t believe that cyclists are blame-free. Just ask the man I’ve seen cycling in the dark on unlit roads, with no lights, no helmet and wearing dark clothing – if he’s still alive! The cycle superhighway should be matched with an initiative on greater cycle safety – an ideal opportunity for public bodies to partner with the Third Sector, I suggest.

I hope that a proper evaluation can show that the superhighway will really work. If it does, you’ll see me and many others cycling more for years to come.

*University of Leeds Institute for Transport Studies, January 2015