P3 is a national charity and social enterprise that works to improve lives and communities by delivering services for socially excluded and vulnerable people to unlock their potential and open up new possibilities. In this #MeetTheMember blog, CEO Mark Simms talks about why he moved from the private sector to the third sector, P3’s response to the Grenfell Tower Fire, and the importance of acting early in a crisis.
Tell us about your background.
I trained as a mental health nurse in the 80s, and shortly after that I went into clinical practice, before starting work in the voluntary sector in 1997. My first voluntary sector job was at Rethink Mental Illness, and then I began working at P3 in 2002. We were very small then, with only 13 members of staff.
Those days were great. A lot of our energy was spent on trying to survive, which was challenging but exciting. Now, most of my time is spent looking at strategy and the longer-term plan for the organisation. It’s been a thrilling journey. Our workforce in the summer will be 1,200 strong. In the beginning, we supported 50 people. Last year, we supported 30,000 people. We try deliver services in the same way we did eighteen years ago, which is up close and personal, rather than one-size-fits-no-one.
What drew you to working in the criminal justice/voluntary sector?
I worked for a while in the private sector and initially enjoyed it, but I realised that I wanted to do something more personally rewarding, and work for stakeholders rather than shareholders. My career in the private sector was wealthy but unhealthy. I was working long hours seven days a week. I had a young family then, and I wasn’t seeing my children grow up.
I saw a job that paid just 25 percent of my salary, but it was just around the corner, which was lucky because the pay cut meant I wouldn’t be able to afford a car. It was the best move I ever made, and it saved my sanity. I work with amazing people who are driven by a passion to see the world in a better shape.
What is your role? What does a typical working day look like?
My job as Chief Exec is to make sure we deliver on our promise to improve lives and communities by delivering services for socially excluded and vulnerable people that unlock their potential and open up new possibilities, and that our workforce is supported to do so. I also work to ensure that P3 is an organisation that sees people first; we don’t work with ‘offenders’, the ‘homeless’, or the ‘mentally ill’. We work with people.
Most of my job is either quite exciting or quite boring. Sometimes I’m dealing with finances and keeping the regulators happy. Other times, I’m working with passionate people who have great ideas, or I’m hearing about the impact they’re having. A bad day is too much dullness or too much excitement. A good day is a bit of both, some light and some shade.
Can you describe P3 in a few sentences?
P3 provides people with the skills, support and abilities to lead the life they want to lead, working across six key areas: housing, health, justice, youth and citizen services.
Within justice, we work with people recently released from prison and help them meet their aspirations for a life away from crime. We also work with people who are at risk of offending, primarily through our youth services. These services are delivered by link workers, who offer personal and bespoke packages of support.
What do you love most about working at P3?
I love that the people we support – we don’t call them service users or customers or residents – shape everything we do, from service design to policy design to recruitment. It feels like a partnership; a partnership that isn’t quite even yet, but we’re a long way down the road. In fact, a significant number of our employees have previously used our services.
What is P3’s biggest focus right now?
Apart from COVID-19, our biggest focus right is responding to the second iteration of Transforming Rehabilitation (TR). With TR1, we felt that the people most likely to reoffend were going to be left behind, so we developed an offer specifically for that group. This offer was very effective, and we worked with some great partners. However, we can’t get too comfortable with that model. With TR2, we’re concerned that the pathway from offending into the lives that people want is too fragmented, and people won’t get the support they need as a result. We’re working to develop a response to this.
It’s been a rollercoaster over the past 20 years. There was a lot of progress made from the early 2000s to 2009-10, with a visible reduction in street homelessness and people leaving prison with nowhere to go. Then austerity hit and crucified a lot of services, leaving gaps which we’re still trying to fill.
How is P3 responding to COVID-19?
We’re continuing to offer support to those who need it, face-to-face where possible, but otherwise online. Given the difficulties many are facing now, we’ve seen a huge surge in demand. We normally support 900 people with accommodation at any given time – we’re currently supporting 2,100 people. Our experience of previous crises has taught us to act early. We sent staff home with kit if they could deliver services remotely, and they were mobilised and ready to go within 72 hours.
Our services are holding up very well, with no waiting lists thanks to the extra resources we’ve allocated. We have 25 hostels staffed 24 hours a day, and those guys are really on the frontline. Remarkably, there is a very low level of staff absence – there was only one person off sick last week in a workforce of 800 people. We’re pleased with our response, but it’s a tragedy that more people need our services.
I usually write a blog for staff each week, giving an update on my activity, but I’m now doing live videos, as well as providing staff with the latest COVID-19 guidance and regulations in regular updates. Internal communication is important, and we’re doing what we can to stay connected.
What has been your proudest moment/achievement at P3?
I am most proud of our response to the Grenfell Tower Fire. One of our services is 300 yards away, and lots of people came to our building for help. We started a granting operation, helping to share public donations with the residents. We’d never had a granting operation before, but we set up a team in one day, and we were granting within four days. We mobilised 200 volunteers and stayed on the frontline for weeks, supporting those who needed it 24 hours a day.
At P3, we have a workforce that makes things possible. Every day I’m proud of what we do, every day I want us to do even better, and every day I wish we weren’t needed.
Do you have any routines/habits that help you succeed?
I’m very disciplined about disconnecting from work and not looking at my phone, so I can be present with my family. When I’m busy, and especially during COVID-19, this can be quite tricky.
Do you have any hobbies?
I like to read. I’m also a dog lover, and have three dogs – a Rottweiler, a Cocker Spaniel, and a Shih Tzu Jack Russell cross. I live in the country, so I’m often out walking. I have a large family, and a lot of my time is dedicated to them.
I have a new favourite book every month. At the moment, it’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri. I also love the Skint Estate by Cash Carraway, a book about poverty and motherhood.
Anything by Tracy Chapman.
The Usual Suspects.
Any of the Friday Night Comedy programmes on BBC Radio Four.
What advice would you give to someone else in your role?
Do it because you love it, because it will never make you rich.
What do you like most about being a member of the Criminal Justice Alliance?
Part of the beauty of being a member of the Criminal Justice Alliance is that you can learn from the good practice and successes of organisations working across the criminal justice sector. The other reason that P3 is a member is that we don’t have a policy and campaigns team, so we rely on organisations like the Criminal Justice Alliance to amplify our voice and raise key issues with policy makers on our behalf.
Our Meet the Member series shines a spotlight on the organisations and individuals working towards a fairer and more effective criminal justice system. If you’re a CJA member and you would like to be featured on our blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.