Implementing Happy Principles in a Public Sector Mutual

In: BlogDate: Aug 04, 2021By: Billy Burgess

Brendan O’Keefe was inspired by the Happy Manifesto and sought to implement its ideas at Epic CiC—an education support public mutual, which was founded in response to the changing landscape of public sector funding.

Brendan knew the organisation's existing systems were hampering performance and inhibiting staff success. Speaking at the 2017 Creating Happy Workplaces in the Public Sector Conference, Brendan explains how, as managing director, he took a more active role in stimulating great results and growing a happy workplace.

Read the transcript and watch Brendan's full talk below.

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Implementing Happy Principles in a Public Sector Mutual

BRENDAN: I came across Henry’s work through a training course that we were doing and I read the book and bought into it straight away. I thought, “This is it, this is the way to go."

I started talking to colleagues in Epic about this and a number were interested right from the start but there was a lot of cynicism. And that cynicism was born of the zeitgeist; of cuts; of the public sector being held up as being wasteful, featherbedded; big pensions. And it was the private sector who were bearing the brunt of austerity and the crash in the public sector which is carrying on. It felt like a bad place to be, to be a public servant at that time. And so, I got a lot of pushback from some staff: “you’re going on about all this Happy stuff and we’re so bloody miserable! We’re miserable for good reasons!” and they’d list the reasons why they were miserable. So how can you talk about Happy? And also we’re having to make people redundant! “Are they Happy?!” So it got a lot of pushback. The answer, and I hope you came to the same conclusion is more than ever… and I have to take responsibility particularly in the early stages for not explaining well enough what this was about because I did get pushback from staff saying “So what you’re saying is that it’s your job to make me happy?” Well it’s not quite like that. And there was a very particular conversation with a colleague who was finding it very difficult in the role - in fact he was somebody in the end we agreed would leave the organisation - and in his feedback to me was “you said you’d make me happy; you didn’t, you sacked me.” It’s about not getting the message about what this is about, because what it is about, I believe, is getting the best out of your staff at a time when the public sector is under such constraint and I am absolutely convinced that there is a wealth of talent in the public sector that is actually suppressed by the systems that I was talking about a few slides ago, that is not allowed to flourish and that we as leaders in the public sector, it is incumbent upon us to create the conditions to allow our best talent to flourish and to be able to give the best to the people that we serve. The systems and culture and processes of the public sector, I don’t think, do that well enough. I’m not saying it can’t be done - we’ve had some great examples of how it’s been done in the previous speaker. So it can be done, but sometimes I think it’s done exceptionally, rather than routinely, and it’s often dependant on gifted leaders, rather than processes. I do think therefore, the answer to the question - and I deliberately put it like that just to throw Henry! - it’s the answer is yes, it must be and it has to be.

So, EPIC CIC, just a bit more about what we’re about and what we’re trying to do. We’re not just trying to create a new business model for youth support services, we’re actually trying to combine that with a culture of innovation and an enterprise dynamic. We saw the Happy principles and also Henry had a slide up earlier - Dan Pig, Autonomy, Mastering Freedom and Purpose.


Actually, you said something, Henry, and here I am going off on one of my tangents! You said something earlier, Henry,  that purpose is automatically in a social sector organisation. I’m going to put a challenge out there and say that that isn’t necessarily true. It should be, but it has been my experience to work with people over my 25 years in the public sector who are there because they’re there, not because they have a purpose. So it shouldn’t be absolutely accepted as a given that because someone works in the social sector, they believe in the purpose of what you’re trying to do. So ensuring that purpose is embedded in both that organisation and in them as an individual should never be taken for granted, in my experience.


Bringing these three dynamics together is how we hope to create a top-class social enterprise delivering great services to young people. It’s not just about changing your company structure; we changed to a CIC; we changed our business model around bringing in different forms of income. You also have to bring in the cultural shift; I don’t think that local authority culture fits in a social enterprise dynamic. So you have to tackle all three equally at the same time, and give the same level of importance to all of them. You can’t do one after the other or one without the other.

In terms of what we’ve done under Happy, some of you will have read the Happy manifesto. The manifesto - I bought so many copies of the manifesto and distributed so many to colleagues and to friends, Henry was able to buy a new house! He’s so grateful! But you can actually download it for free on the website; you don’t have to pay anymore. I didn’t realise that until I’d bought the 10,000th copy! I’m a real fan.

So we’ve tried to introduce and incorporate… I think this slide would have been better entitled ‘What’s worked well-ish”, because it hasn’t been consistent, right across the organisation. The pre-approval concept we’re really keen on, and we’ve used it quite extensively. It’s basically where you get a group of staff together. So you have a task or a purpose to complete and you have parameters, a budget, a timeline, whatever… but whatever you come up with is what we’re going with, and we’ve used that quite a few times. Just to give some examples of that: the name EPIC CIC. A group of staff and young people were given the responsibility to come up with the name of the organisation, and I said “whatever you come up with, we’re going with.” So naturally they came up with a name that I do not like! And they present it, here’s the name - we’ve gone through all this process and a great deal of work on branding and naming and how we’ve taken advice from top branding experts for free, which was great, and we’ve decided on Epic CIC. So there I am hoisted on my own petard: Happy manifesto, pre-approval, and they came up with a name I don’t like. Anyway, it grew on me, and I didn’t resort to the temptation - because my previous guise as a local authority senior manager - “no, think again!” So we stuck with it, and now I like the name!

Our branding as well, all came through pre-approval. Our constitution was written by a group of staff who did a fantastic amount of research about what a good constitution for an employee-led organisation should look like. They got free advice from John Lewis, from other social enterprises, from Greenwich Leisure Limited, and others, and did a tremendous job of writing our constitution. Again, I said “whatever you come up with, we’re going with” and that went really well.

In our organisation as well, staff set their own targets and for those who really buy into what we’re trying to do, that is great. Where that hasn’t worked so well is that some staff have found it very difficult to think that they can write their own targets, and almost plead sometimes with their managers - “will you do it for me?” Because they just don’t get the idea, I haven’t shifted my thinking enough that I have permission to write my own targets. But when this works, it works really well. And I remember saying to a colleague who works in a private sector organisation - we let our staff set their own targets. “Are you mad, are you bonkers? Their target will be “I’ll come in one day per week!”” But that’s not what happens. In fact, what happens more often in my experience more directly of this is that staff write targets they cannot possibly achieve. And your job then, as the manager, is to bring them to something that is more realistic. Or they have too many, and they try to extend themselves too much, so your job is the opposite; having to get them to be more realistic.

And then giving staff a say in the organisation and how we work. Again that’s worked well in some ways, but I’ll come onto how it hasn’t worked in others and we’re looking to improve it. And finally, one I should have put on here, is about how we recruit staff: in the past, in our local authority we had a recruitment process which was so long and extensive and constructed in such a way which seemed designed to put candidates off. I’m surprised we got any candidates for any of the jobs we were advertising; it’s amazing that we did. Now we changed that: one thing we changed for example is that we no longer insist on qualifications just because we think it’s a good idea to insist upon them, irrespective of whether they’re required for the job. Very many times in the past we have put ‘must be educated to degree level’ in a job advert, just because we always do: the job doesn’t necessarily require degree-level education, we just want smart people, so we say you’ve got to have a degree. So we’ve taken that out unless there is an absolute statutory requirement that a job requires a particular qualification, or it’s hugely specialist, like a finance director job where you would obviously put in a qualification bar. We don’t do that anymore, and what that has meant is that we’re getting a very interesting crop of candidates who would previously not have made the first cut. We’ve recruited some tremendously bright and capable people who would not have got through to interview stage in our local authority environment.

So that’s things that have worked reasonably well; however, for some staff look like when we talk about the Happy manifesto… Some staff have thrived in the environment and really get it, and really like the idea of autonomy and freedom; others are very very scared of it and this is one of the things that I got badly wrong. I bought into the whole idea of Happy manifesto and freedom and autonomy so much, and it seemed so inherently obvious that this was the way to go - what is there not to like? Everyone will love this! They will applaud to the rafters when I announce it at a conference that this is the way we’re going. In fact, our very first conference where we talked about this in depth - in fact Henry, you came along as one of our speakers - and at the end of the conference, one of our staff members came out and he said “do you know what we’re doing with all this freedom stuff? You’re creating a piss-taker’s charter.” That was the feedback - a piss-taker’s charter. That should be the subtitle of your book, Henry!!

I have to say that particular person who said that on that day, she is one of the top stars of this process. She has come through being given autonomy and freedom to do her job the way she wants to do it and is now one of the most indispensable people in the organisation. I barely noticed her before that, and the piss-taker’s charter didn’t go down well with me either! And now she’s absolutely fantastic, and gets it.

You have to work at it, and people will come round to it but there are some for whom it will be always problematic, and the assumption I made which was the wrong one, was that everybody would like it from Day One, and that they would enjoy the thought that they were being trusted and given the freedom to do their job. Whilst they don’t always say these words, and some staff who fed back to me, what they’re actually saying is “Thanks for the freedom. Now tell me what to do with it.” I hadn’t explained it well enough, or you’re just not getting it.

So very many mistakes made along the way. Another mistake, it’s my day of mistakes to admit - have I got to speed up a bit? - I assumed that just taking all my senior management team away and getting all them trained, they would automatically deliver Happy manifesto, but they often have been the group that have found it most difficult, because they are giving up the most in terms of control and the way that they have been trained and a lifetime of work in terms of how they’ve operated. So again, too many assumptions, because the senior managers have to live it every day because if you say to your organisation this is the way we’re going to work and your senior managers do something different, your staff will say “your managers don’t get it, do they? You’re saying one thing, they’re doing another.” So you have to get them on board, and I didn’t do that well enough from the outset.

OK, I’ll speed up! We’re revisiting the concept. We know it’s the right way to go, but we haven’t done it as well as we should do. There are great examples we can show, and areas of our organisation where it’s barely taken off. So we’re revisiting the whole thing, and I’ve got two colleagues who are in the room who have taken on the responsibility to first of all, talk to staff about what has worked well and what they think hasn’t worked well, and to reboot the whole Happy manifesto concept within the organisation. Shaun and Alisha - put your hands up, guys! Hiya! It came about as a result of them coming to me saying basically this isn’t working as well as it should do, we’ve got some ideas about how it can work, and we want to really take this on and give it a real good go. And what I said to them is, go away, do all of that, talk to staff, reboot the thing, and whatever you come up with, we’re going with. So it’s a pre-approval project.

Now you’re going to give them a bit of free consultancy! Based on your experience of creating Happy workplaces in your environment, write down one thing on your table on a piece of paper and hand it to Shaun and Alisha, what advice you would give to them? Put your name on, and we’ll give you credits when we reboot this whole thing! Thanks for that.

One of the things I really value about coming to a conference like this is learning things from other people. Last year when was here, and also getting worried that this wasn’t taking off in the way that I wanted, there were two organisations - I heard them speak and I was inspired very much by what they had to say. And we went to see them afterwards, and again I’d recommend people doing that, catching up with people afterwards. We learnt so much just from spending half a day each with them and we’re taking a lot of their ideas and putting them into our new process. I think we can form that network as public sector staff who are interested in these principles and learn from each other and support each other.

Finally - I got carried away with the babies, just had the Google babies thing open! - we remain totally committed: we’ve had some great successes, we’ve had some pitfalls; we’ve had some things that worked well, some things that have fallen flat on their faces. But I am absolutely convinced that it is the right thing to do. I feel a kind of moral thing around it, because it really grieves me to think that there are people that come into my organisation every day and hate their jobs and are really unhappy. I really  hate that thought, and not always sure what I can do about it and I was very conscious of Isabelle’s chart with the smiley CEO at the top, and I guess that’s me: I really love my job and I guess I smile a lot, and it’s a great job. But there are people in my organisation that don’t like their jobs, and that can be because it’s them, but it can also be about the organisation that isn’t allowing them to flourish, to be trusted, their potential to be fulfilled. I feel that we need to be able to do something about that. Just as a final final thought, and something I was very comforted from at a previous Happy manifesto conference, and listening to John Lewis about how they developed their partner concept, and very impressive of course that it is, and remains so. But the thing that I took away from that was that it took them seventeen years to imbed the concept in the organisation. We’ve been at it for three - we’ve got another fourteen years guys! It was comforting to hear that that you can’t rush these things, but that the commitment and the direction that we’re going in is the right one to create a Happy workforce. Thank you.

The ideas in the Happy Manifesto unlocked new mechanisms for getting the most out of staff when things in the public sector were significantly curtailed, says Brendan. 

It’s not necessarily true that people working in the public sector are driven by a strong sense of purpose. For many, it’s a job just like any other, where people show up to get the work done; no more no less. 25 years of experience have taught Brendan not to take for granted the passion of public sector organisations and employees.

Brendan speaks of Epic CiC’s three core aims: creating a new business model for youth support services as well as building a culture of innovation and an enterprise dynamic. All three hold equal importance and should be pursued in unison, he says. Brendan drew from the Happy Manifesto to implement pre-approval, empower staff to set their own targets and give staff a say in the organisation. 

He explains the manner in which they’ve employed pre-approval: “You have a task or a purpose to complete and you have parameters, a budget, a timeline… but whatever [the designated staff members] come up with is what we’re going with.” Pre-approval has given rise to everything from Epic CiC’s constitution and branding right up to the organisation’s name. 

Setting their own targets hasn’t worked for everyone at Epic CiC, but Brendan’s noticed staff tend to be rather ambitious. Setting lofty individual targets shows investment in the organisation, although Brendan does occasionally have to point his people towards a more achievable set of goals.

Epic CiC also changed the way they recruit by loosening the formal requirements for various positions. Brendan explains the benefits:

“We no longer insist on qualifications just because we think it’s a good idea to insist upon them, irrespective of whether they’re required for the job. Very many times in the past we have put, ‘Must be educated to degree level,’ in a job advert. We’ve taken that out unless there is an absolute statutory requirement that a job requires a particular qualification, or it’s hugely specialist.

"What that has meant is that we’ve recruited some tremendously bright and capable people who would not have got through to interview stage in our local authority environment.”

What You Will Learn in This Video

  • If an organisation’s systems and processes don’t produce great results and happy workers, strong leadership is required

  • It’s a misconception that people working in the public sector are always driven by a strong sense of purpose

  • What Epic CiC changed in order to create a new business model for youth support services, build a culture of innovation, and install an enterprise dynamic

  • The benefits of changing your recruitment model by loosening the formal requirements for various positions

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About Brendan

Brendan is a Cabinet Office Mutuals Ambassador and advises local authorities throughout the country on the mutualisation of services. Brendan is driven by the notion that supporting young people to make a successful transition to responsible and fulfilling adulthood is one of the most important duties of any modern day society.

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