Common Purpose: the perils of being closed

Some years back I went on a course run by Common Purpose, during which over a year a group of us made visits to schools, prisons, newspaper offices and the like, and took part in discussions all in the pursuit of civil leadership.
It was pleasant enough, and a chance to meet people from different sectors and professions, but I was never clear quite how we became “leaders” (or that I wanted to).
The Common Purpose founder Julia Middleton evidently had strong views on how things should be done, so it definitely wasn’t in my experience a very bottom-up sort of organisation. There was an online system which Common Purpose “graduates” were occasionally exhorted to use, but it was (and is) very Web 1.0 and behind a login.
Back in 2004 I did have some discussion with staff about how blogging might be useful as part of their communications and work with groups … but the open style didn’t appeal. I said I couldn’t see how you could develop innovative projects for public benefit unless you were prepared to engage publicly, and wrote Effective civil leadership won’t develop behind a login.
Last year the then manager of the online network contacted me and others to say the organisation was being targeted by critical bloggers, and accused of being a secret society promoting a whole range of evils. What should they do? My advice was simple – open up, start blogging back. Encourage your staff and graduates to do so. Still didn’t appeal. (see correction at the end of his post)
I’ve just received a note from Common Purpose alerting me to a programme tonight on Radio 5 live (podcast here), with an accompanying article on the BBC site, quoting former naval officer Brian Gerrish, who leads a campaign against Common Purpose:

It’s a secret society for careerists. The key point is that the networking is done out of sight of the general public.
If you actually look at the documented evidence as to what Common Purpose is doing, they are clearly not just a training provider. They are operating a highly political agenda, which is to create new chosen leaders in society.

The conspiracy theorists, says the article, think Common Purpose is trying take over the world. They believe it is shaping people to work to its hidden agenda of promoting a European super-state, forcing diversity on British society, and imposing political correctness.
Others say that is nonsense, and Common Purpose is balanced and non-partisan.
The problem for Common Purpose is their current style makes them vulnerable. On the BBC site, Ruth Alexander writes:

But there is a bigger question.
Should publically-funded institutions like the police, local authorities and the BBC pay money to a charity to host training courses which are essentially networking opportunities for staff?
Some of the courses cost as much as £5,750.
A Freedom of Information request by Conservative MP Philip Davies uncovered the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions had spent £238,000 sending its people on Common Purpose courses between 2002 and 2007.
And while there is no evidence that Common Purpose has anything to hide, it is not the most open organisation.
Its meetings are held under the Chatham House Rule, which means everything that is said in them is unattributable.
And although anyone can apply to go on a Common Purpose course, attendees are mainly graduate professionals – and those who are not assessed as having future leader potential will not be accepted.
One critic claims to have uncovered a memo which dismissed the idea of having a particular individual on a local advisory group in Suffolk because he was “too Ipswich”.
There is no credible reason to think Common Purpose is about to take over the world.
But as the organisation’s aim is to identify and train the next generation of leaders, the charges of elitism seem difficult to refute.

I can’t say I sensed anything suspicious about Common Purpose back in 2001, or in occasional contact since. But nor can I think of any better demonstration of the perils of running closed organisations which say they are promoting civil leadership and civic innovation.
It’s one reason why a group of us back in 2007 set up OpenRSA to urge the RSA, under its new leader Matthew Taylor, to open up. I’ve tracked developments here and here, and recently have been really heartened by the way things are developing (though not necessarily due to anything I’ve done:-). More on the later.
Meanwhile, I’ll be delighted to offer some advice to Common Purpose on how to combat charges of secrecy. Well, no need. Pretty obvious really. Just needs some opening up, blogging and leadership 2.0. Easy to say …

Update: you can get the flavour of attacks on Common Purpose here, and the style of the organisation’s response here – scroll to bottom of the page – which I found via here. I’m assuming it is a valid Common Purpose page … amid the conspiracy theories one begins to wonder**. I’ll invite Common Purpose to join in.

Correction: the perils of writing blog posts without enough research. Common Purpose do have a blog, which is here, and there is a post from Jude Kelly, chair of trustees:

A programme on the The Investigators with Jonathan Maitland on BBC Radio 5Live has been broadcast on Sunday March 8th. We are appalled and disappointed that the serious allegations made against Common Purpose were given a platform by the BBC, many of whom have been on our programmes.

Common Purpose is an independent registered educational charity which works with every part of British society to help develop leaders in the communities they serve. More than 25,000 people from the business, government and voluntary sectors have been through our programmes. Some are paid for by their employers and we use the funds raised partly to find bursaries for 600 people each year who take part for nothing.

For many years a very small group of people have attacked Common Purpose. We have variously been described on the internet and elsewhere as paedophiles, ‘spies for Europe’, brainwashers, murderers and criminals. Our staff have received hundreds of anonymous phone calls threatening them and we have dealt patiently with 180 Freedom of Information requests, which all follow the same template.

Not one shred of evidence has been produced to justify any of these criticisms. We do not therefore see any point in engaging with the tiny handful of people who continue to make them either on this programme or anywhere else. Many organisations of all shapes and sizes have this type of campaign against them on the internet. It merely shows that while the internet is a wonderful tool for the majority of people, there are some people for whom it gives extremist views and silly ideas a wider platform. A few years ago this type of activity would have been reduced to a few leaflets.

We are of course happy to answer any questions about Common Purpose and to open our accounts to anyone.

Fair enough … though the blog is pretty much in broadcast mode, and from that and the comment in the post from Jude one senses a slight reluctance to engage widely online. The Twitterverse is picking up …

** Common Purpose confirm that the site here
is one of theirs. Comment in prospect.


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  • March 9, 2009 - 9:25 am | Permalink

    You can find out more about Common Purpose here:

  • March 9, 2009 - 10:28 am | Permalink

    I obviously don’t move in the right circles as I’d never heard of this charity or the furore.

    Still, yet another reason to be suspicious of any organisation claiming to ‘grow leaders’.

  • March 9, 2009 - 10:31 am | Permalink

    “There was an online system which Common Purpose “graduates” were occasionally exhorted to use, but it was (and is) very Web 1.0 and behind a login.
    Back in 2004 I did have some discussion with staff about how blogging might be useful as part of their communications and work with groups … but the open style didn’t appeal.”

    From my experience, that sums up pretty-well every established organisation that either sells intellectual property or provides membership benefits.

    It’s all very well to exhort everyone to be totally transparent and give everything away for nothing, but these are often faith-based arguments that need a bigger broader strategy.

  • March 9, 2009 - 11:15 am | Permalink

    My late stepmother used to listen to American preachers explaining how there was an international conspiracy run by the Illuminati to turn the UN into a world super-state.

    I take the view that cock-ups have created far more damage than conspiracies, and will continue to do so – it’s the Ignorati who tend to rule.

    You’re right that openness is the best defence. Although if you spend more than five minutes on the Guardian’s commentisfree, you may begin to despair of the quality of discussion.

    By the way, I’ve never been Common Purposed.

  • March 9, 2009 - 11:38 am | Permalink

    Paul – maybe it is more about engaging externally than giving stuff away … and being clear about purpose? Otherwise people are suspicious of “faith-based arguments that need a bigger broader strategy” if they are publicly funded and/or about civil leadership.
    My big question while on the CP course back in 2001 was “what’s it for?” There was a lot of emphasis on you are a civil society leader or some such … but no suggestion of how one should use the hopefully new-found capacity. Because people were from diverse backgrounds the training (if that’s what it was) couldn’t be very specific, and there was then no effort to help people develop new projects or help existing ones. It may all be different now.
    Perhaps this a general problem for diverse membership organisations … they want to realise the benefits of cross-interest learning, but have difficulty finding of helping people find a focus. I think the RSA has the same problem. It doesn’t mean either organisation is part of some great secret conspiracy, of course.
    Julian – I agree on cock-ups most rule. And I agree that actually doing open is difficult. But is there much choice for a body that is involved in social change?

  • March 10, 2009 - 11:26 am | Permalink

    Hi David,

    I think you make a fair point about the need for us to be more open. Our efforts in social media haven’t been great, although as you recognise we have started.

    You mention the need to embrace web 2.0 and we clearly aren’t ahead of the game here, but what is interesting is that is exactly what our leadership is about. A much more open collaborative style. Anyone who has taken part in one of our programmes will talk about how we encourage people to be curious of each other, to share what they are doing and try to find ways of working together. As you’ve got it in one of your pieces on leadership it’s about leadership unheroes. This of course means it’s harder to describe the end goal. Leading beyond authority has been our best attempt so far to describe the kind of leadership we mean (I’ve blogged about it more here

    We are changing slowly and understanding how to interact and we have to find a way to repackage what we offer to be more open. For anyone interested in engaging I’m the curriculum director for Common Purpose – responsible for the design and delivery of our programmes.


  • March 12, 2009 - 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi David,
    Thanks for the heads up on this story.
    I remember you mentioned Common Purpose when we chatted about “leadership 2.0” a while back. Interesting that they now seem to be suffering for their secrecy, but that’s a sign of the times!
    Sounds like opening up will be an uphill struggle – I wish them luck!

  • cindy
    April 2, 2009 - 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Oliver, so it’s all been lack of foresight etc? Not a very ‘beyond leadership’ quality.
    Marxism any one?

  • Eamonn Monaghan
    June 12, 2009 - 12:11 am | Permalink

    Hello Oliver,
    I think it is surprising that Common Purpose is supposed to be progressive and forward thinking cultivating ‘Leadership Beyond Authority’, yet have totally cocked up their public relations to the point where conspiracy theories proliferate.

    I watched Julia Middleton’s youtube presentation and found her diatribe vacuous and non-job psychobabble in content. I was listening intently but began to wonder by half way through whether she could change a lightbulb. There was nothing practical and she appeared rather like a charlatan pontificating.

    I do not intend my post to sound nasty, but that was my honest impression.

  • Paul
    August 5, 2010 - 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Playing the devils advocate it begs the question why an organisation claiming to inspire & educate people to lead beyond authority, can give so many the opinion that there is something subversive about them. Having watched some of their presentational videos many could be forgiven for wondering if a course on marketing their own image may be a wise investment.

    Julia Middleton’s video presentation does not in my opinion strike me as being the most inspirational of leaders. Couple that with the way she & her subordinates appear to have tackled the criticism of conspiracy & behind the scenes networking for a common cause, smacks of naivety.

    Maybe if graduates of Common Purpose publicly highlighted the fact that they have attended the charities courses, Common Purpose may face less criticism from the conspiracy sector.

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