It’s not often that I struggle to find the right words to describe something. I take pride in being able to step back, look at a situation from a number of angles and work out the best way to juggle language around until I find a description or term which makes sense. Like the late, great Sid Wadell not all of my analogies make total sense other than to me, but I can pull them together anyway.
This perhaps is why I’ve found it so difficult to immediately write about the LGA conference this year, which I was lucky enough to be able to attend for the second of its three day stint. Held this year in Bournemouth, it brought together leaders, councillors, chief execs and senior staff from across the country to look at the issues facing the sector and hear from others involved what their own thoughts are. It also gave them the chance to meet a wide range of organisations and suppliers looking to work with local government in one way or another, as well as hearing from MPs about how central government is responding to the local government agenda.
Perhaps it was the sessions I attended. Perhaps it was the people I spoke with. Perhaps it was simply the slightly surreal sight of the British Sprinkler Alliance having a stand there (which Chief Exec will have seen that and immediately gone back to order new sprinkler systems?!). Whatever it was, something was different this year. It’s this “something” which I’m struggling to identify, and it’s infuriating.
Compare and contrast this year’s event with just 12 months ago, when the 2013 conference in Manchester saw the unveiling of the Rewired Public Services document which demanded a changed relationship between local and central government. The atmosphere (which we discussed on a special edition of our podcast) was bullish and proud: local government for the first time in ages was standing up and demanding better of the system and relationships which determined how it works.
Eric Pickles got a grilling from an at times hostile crowd back then, being forced to defend his stance on just about everything he discussed and verbally jousting with irate audience member after irate audience member. And whether you loved or hated him, no-one was left in any doubt as to the vision and passion he had to make things happen.
Fast forward to 2014 and, as Hannah Fearn points out, E-Pic looked a shadow of his former self. Not only was his speech not written by even a shadow of a Sam Seaborn-type figure it was delivered as if it was the first time Eric had set eyes on it. There was none of the verve and importance inherent in previous years; this was the performance of a man who simply was going through long-standing and practiced motions, like a couple who have been married thirty years longer than they should have been. Even when the script finished and he opened up to the floor for questions he still didn’t look like he was in anything other than bland broadcast mode, trotting out stats and lines which rarely if ever came close to answering questions whilst cracking jokes and verbally dominating the questioner.
I don’t want this to come across as Pickle-bashing in particular, it was merely an indication of the mood I picked up on. It’s not that local government has given up, far from it in fact, just that the air of constructive conflict and tension had disappeared, to perhaps be replaced by an air of practicality and pragmatism. I saw and spoke with people doing some really exciting things, thinking bigger than ever before and talking about how they would actually get things done rather than necessarily who they needed to ask for permission. The session on income generation was particularly busy, standing room only being in action ten minutes before it was due to kick off and with at least 30 people or more subsequently turned away as the room was simply too full. I believe they were talking about the ability to make money by generating energy, which for some reason sounds familiar…
What was discussed was important, but in many ways it all felt far more tactical rather than strategic.
NLGN ran in ‘innovation bar’ which, like their Apple Genius Bar counterparts gave people the chance to talk through their ideas and thoughts to identify innovative solutions. This was a great idea, but I’m guessing much of what was discussed with the team there was practical in nature rather than any hatching of long term shared strategic visions. That being said, if I needed support around innovative thinking they are some of the first people I’d turn to.
Competing with the Innovation Bar (with excellent innovation juice give-aways too) was the Innovation Zone, which played host to half a dozen discussions at the same time each looking at different things. Admittedly, most of the ones I saw had something of a tech focus, from a couple of open data discussions to FutureGov and Lewes Council launching a finance management app via a ‘digital tips for councillors’ session. These were all fascinating, though there were moments when it felt like preaching to the choir as those in attendance were self-selecting and therefore probably interested already. No bad thing, but I’d love to get some of those more antipathetic into those discussions too.
Perhaps it was the next natural step for discussions and emotions after all. If we are no longer waiting for permission to do things and simply getting on and doing them, why put on the hard hats and go to war with central government? Let’s not waste that oxygen and instead get on with putting plans into motion.
Whether good or bad, next year’s conference for me will be extremely telling. With national elections in 2015 we could have a whole slew of new ministers and ideas which will affect local government, whichever party is more or less successful in their campaigning. In some ways I wish this opportunity had been taken to start the influencing of national parties and forcing them to make early commitments to the local agenda. It would have been invigorating to have people proudly saying how they planned to campaign and lobby for the very things hinted at by ministers throughout the event without any firm commitments being made. By the time next year’s conference rolls around it’ll be too late to start shouting “what about us?”
Yet again, it promises to be an interesting 12 months.
(Big thanks to Laurence Meehan at LGA for the invite to attend, and Sarah Jennings and Liz Copeland at Capacity Grid for a great evening's discussion)