Regular readers will no doubt have read a piece by a co-blogger last week, which made the point that local government is dominated by old people and that younger, more energetic and less fearful staff find it too difficult to get in on the action. Of particular note were graduates, those shining stars who are destined for greatness and deserve every bit of help they can get in order to get there sooner rather than later.
Now, football and politics aside, the two of us very rarely disagree too much (although their positive take on their team’s young players will forever be a bone of contention). However, the subject of the need for youth to triumph over experience is one on which we agree to disagree.
I feel I need to make my own position clear here, to give a little context to my comments. I left school at 16 with some GCSEs and a few contacts, and then spent the next decade and a half slowly climbing my way up the greasy pole. Not because I feel the burning need for power or authority, just that I’ve been in the right place at the right time on a few occasions. I’m not at the top (far from it), but am keeping my annual salary above my age which is all I ever hope to do.
During that time I’ve worked with colleagues old and young, competent and, well, less so. On one score I do agree that some of the brightest and best of these have been those taking part in the various graduate schemes in place (and there are a few). However, these have not been universally great; in fact, along with some of the best, I’ve also encountered some of the worst, most over-paid, over-trained and under-skilled individuals in local government.
My major gripe is the opinion that these individuals have had, that by the sheer fact that they went to university that they are better than their peers and are owed position, power, authority and respect. The fact that they know how to pass a course and have letters after their name has given them a degree of arrogance I’ve not seen since Cristiano Ronaldo made his way overseas.
Before I provoke cries of outrage and righteous indignation, I want to be very clear; these are in the minority. As I said, most of these graduate have been good to excellent, although in my opinion a fair number of them are no better or worse than other colleagues who have spent the same amount of time they were studying for in a local authority. In place of theory is practical knowledge, in place of process and best practice is experience and the knowledge of how to get things done.
In an ideal world, these graduates and other youngsters would be able to come into teams and make all of the changes necessary to turn an average service into an exceptional one. We do not, however, inhabit such a world. Newcomers to a team – whether they are fresh out of university or simply joining the sector for the first time – have very little practical history to draw upon, and have ideas and plans which simply will not survive the day to day grind.
Those who have been at the coal face for an extensive period of time do have such experience to draw upon, and do so on a constant basis. These are the people who are risk averse, which is not the negative word many people describe it as; whilst little real progress is made neither are serious mistakes. Local government is not the private sector, where the worst that happens is that a company goes bust; vulnerable people’s lives and wellbeing is at stake. If a company doesn’t deliver its services then customers up sticks and go somewhere else to get what they want; if the public sector doesn’t deliver good enough services people have nowhere else to go and the service itself will still have to struggle through.
I’m not saying new people with fresh ideas and impetuous aren’t more than useful and more than needed. The downside of having a bunch of people who always do things the same way is that you’ll always get the same results, and there is certainly a high degree of cynicism and negativity that can build up. However, I think youth and vibrancy needs to be tempered and guided by those who have been there and seen all of the things being suggested tried and fail before. The lessons learnt by doing rather than by reading about doing are invaluable, and need to be retained and valued lest we all make the same mistakes time and again.
There is also the question of appropriate positions for these graduates, who thanks to the knowledge they have worked hard to amass usually feel they should enter the workplace proper in the lower to middle management jobs. As someone who had to work for years to get to where I am I can honestly say that there is nothing more frustrating than seeing jobs at your own and higher levels going to those with practically no experience under their belts but as many letters after their name as a man with a delayed stutter. If they are really that much better than me then fine; experience has shown me though that sometimes this isn’t the case. I’m not saying I’m that good, but neither are they.
In my service area the average age is around 35, with a disproportionate number of graduates balancing out a few individuals who got their first contracts counter-signed by Churchill. In my mind I want to see that balance maintained at all costs. I want to see new, young, fresh graduates wanting to be part of local government and wanting to make it better, but not at the cost of those who have been doing just that for decades.
I’ll finish with a few words that might explain where I’m coming from far better than the previous few paragraphs:
I hear and I forget, I see and I remember; I do and I understand