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The local government brain drain

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

17th June 2014

This blog’s co-author Glen has left local government and taken up a cool job working with a digital company who work alongside local authorities.

Its great opportunity for Glen and the company employing him have got themselves the perfect person to work with their new local government clients. Despite this definitely being a good thing for all involved (Glen, his new employer, local government as a whole) I can’t help but think that this is, in some ways, emblematic of a wider trend in local government where many of the best young people end up leaving.

As @paulhayes01 noted on the twitter:

‘I’m starting to see a pattern here, aren’t I? ;-(‘

He might be right. I know that I am in danger of relying on purely anecdotal evidence but it seems like a lot of the good people working in councils tend to leave. Similarly, many of the best, and most interesting, people I know, or follow, in and around local government don’t actually work for councils.

I should say that I don’t think this is a problem per se. The public sector should not be afraid of the private sector and the more good ideas we have in local government the better; wherever they come from. However, I do worry that many of the people with the best ideas are not remaining in councils and that this might be emblematic of something mildly troubling.

Is there something about local authorities that mean that the best and the brightest don’t want to work for them long term? And if there is can we do anything about it? I have four theories about this:

1)     1) Money

I actually don’t think this is the driving force some of my more cynical colleagues might. Yes, interims are well paid and consultancies the same. Indeed, often these day rates can cause serious gnashing of teeth. However, most of the people I know who have left and are still working alongside the sector have a real public service ethos and are not purely, as far as I can tell, money motivated.

However, there are areas where freelancing or the private sector might more accurately reflect their actual market worth in a way that councils can’t. I don’t think this is easily fixable in a market where local authorities are competing with other industries but local government pay scales do have a tendency to prioritise professional qualifications, line management and structure (senior accountants for example) over innovation and new ideas, many of which add far more value than we are willing to pay for.

2)      2) Freedom

Local government is still, despite some changes, a buttoned down risk averse place.

Staff are constantly restrained from coming up with new, and thus risky, ideas.

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Are our heads in the digital sand?

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

Figure 10: Embracing the digital agendaToday I came across a new report released by Price Waterhouse Cooper entitled The Local State 2014 (you can take a look at it here: http://pwc.blogs.com/files/pwc-the-local-state-2014.pdf). It presents the results of a pretty decent survey, sent to local authority chief execs and leaders and then compared to the opinions of 2000 UK adults; it’s this direct comparison which caught my attention.

There are a number of very interesting points in there, each of which is really enough to write a separate piece on. To start with though I’m going to focus on the digital element of the findings as that was the section which originally drew me in. For those of you reading along at home, turn to section six and have a skim through it before coming back.

According to their survey, “75% of council Leaders and 61% of Chief Executives agree their council is confidently embracing the opportunities new technology offers to deliver better local public services. However,” and this is where it gets really interesting, “when we asked the public the same question, only 29% agreed… Clearly, local authorities still have some way to go when it comes to meeting the digital expectations of the public.”

29%, as opposed to 61% and 75%. I’m no statistician, but that’s quite some difference. In some ways it doesn’t matter who is right or who is wrong, and whether or not the services actually exist; the fact that over 7/10 people thought they weren’t is a damning indictment of where local government is today.

According to the report, when asked “In the last month, have you interacted with your council in the following ways?” less than half (48%) of respondents said that they had indeed. It is not clear whether or not these are interactions that would have been done in other ways normally, or whether the remainder would have engaged online if given the opportunity, so a little more research here might throw up some very interesting nuances indeed.

However, the discrepancy between what is thought by council leadership at Councillor and Officer levels and what the public thinks is possibly the most worrying of the statistics. If you read this report with no wider awareness you might end up thinking that councils are adopting an “if you build it, they will come” approach, building wonderful websites but not telling anyone about them and simply expecting them to be made use of.

Even worse, you could imagine that councils were busy building what they thought were wonderful websites and systems which in fact were hated by users and actively avoided rather than being taken up. This would throw up countless questions: what success measurements were being used? Who was testing these digital systems? What is being measured and given weight when in actual fact the most important factor – user satisfaction – was actually afforded little or no importance at all?

There are literally thousands of different things and measurements you could track for a typical council website, but all too often we get caught up with the basic headline numbers; how many people hit the site and is this more or less than this time last year. No thought is given as to why they visited, and the only tracking of satisfaction is the few people who click on the little smiley faces at the bottom of the screen.

User satisfaction with the online journey is arguably the only thing we should be worried about. Taking a simple process could really test how effective a website actually is:

  1. Could they access every bit of the website they needed to easily?
  2. What did they come to the site to do?
  3. Could they find it easily?
  4. Could they complete their transaction/find the right information easily and at the first attempt?
  5. Would they come back or recommend it to their friends and family?

Knowing the answers to these will form the root of good web evolution, rather than asking whether or not every page has an A-Z of services on it, or whether a page loaded in 0.003 seconds or 0.0029 seconds.

As the report mentions throughout, we are living in tough times and will need to see a significant change in relationships, behaviours and attitudes if we are going to see councils being able to afford to deliver key services to those residents with the most need. Digital services are an absolutely key element of these changes, and need to be not only seen as the cheapest way of delivering as many services as possible but also the best way. If the average, web enabled citizen is not using digital options wherever they are available because they have a perception that they are no good then local government is failing digitally, and we will never be able to start helping those less digitally enabled to get online let alone start saving real money and – more importantly – delivering better services.

And perhaps we need to get some of our council leadership out of the town hall and speaking with the 79% who don’t think they’re doing a good job digitally, despite what their own impressions to the contrary may be. Not as a sales pitch for their good work, not as an educational opportunity for that 79% but as a conversation to help councils understand why they are not hitting the mark online, despite their best efforts.

If we don’t, we might get caught in an awful cycle of loads of excellent digital effort and tonnes of digital work being mistaken for digital progress.

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World Cup Sweepstake: Local Government Version

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

With the 2014 World Cup set to start later today even the most refusenik of local government employees will have already entered their team’s World Cup sweep stake. But just in case you are yet to choose your team we thought we’d lay out a few recommendations for prominent local government figures:

Eric Pickles MP: Italy

You may not like their style of football but there is no mistaking the fact that they are effective operators. <Insert Andrea Pirlo is slow joke here>

Hilary Benn MP: Croatia

Very quiet prior to the tournament with most commentators, when not ignoring them, placing them right in the middle of the pack. Perhaps this is their time to shine?

Mayor Lutfur Rahman: Portugal

A one man team where that one man receives an absurd amount of attention.

Sir Merrick Cockell: Russia

Recently unseated as the top dog in his respective organisation the manager is looking for a second act on the big stage.

Cllr Jim McMahon: Belgium

Young with a lot of good ideas based on a local blueprint; tipped for future good things whilst stepping up to the big stage.

UKIP Councillors: Chile

Still haven’t won anything but have the potential to really mess it up for one of the other ‘bigger’ teams.

Andy Sawford MP: England

Worked brilliantly in the local league (which is obviously far superior) but who knows what will be achieved for the newbie in the national game.

Ben Page: Brazil

Apparently Nate Silver is backing Brazil and it is impossible to imagine Ben doing anything that isn’t backed by the numbers.

Merton council (where I work): Spain

Having recently won a major title people are questioning whether they can live up to their previous success; perhaps unlikely but that’s still a pretty damn good team (oops; that was a bit sycophantic; I’m obviously getting ready to be a myopic supporter for the next two weeks)

Me: Argentina

 

Because I think they have a really really good team!

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First day at my new school

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

"Are you nervous, Daddy?" That was the question I got asked over breakfast this morning by my nine year old daughter, as her brothers and sister loudly chomped their way through bowls of weetabix and plates of toast. "I remember when I started at my new school I was really scared, are you scared?"

She asked this today, as 10 June is the day I begin my new job with The Stationery Office after eight years in local government, and another eight in the voluntary and community sector before that. Over all that time I've always worked in some way, shape or form in the world of community engagement, be that with young people specifically or with the wider public more generally, so this new role is a bit of a carer change. Not one totally out of left field, but not one where the only difference between it and my last role is where the kitchen is and which report template to use.

Starting anything new can feel daunting as it is a step into the unknown. Today will entail me meeting dozens of people who's names I'll struggle to remember at first go, reading reams of paper without always understanding what's relevant or how it all fits together, and getting set up on ICT systems great and small. It'll be tiring.

It'll also be fascinating. Besides a few years very early on in my working life when I worked for Army 'n' Navy, I've never spent any time in a modern workplace in the private sector. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-private sector at all (some of my best friends work in the for-profit world) but it means I've got little direct experience of the small differences which will set it all apart from the world I've been used to since leaving school. Those who have experienced both sides of the fence tell me that I'll find some things far easier to do, whilst other little things will seem a little strange. Strange I can handle, as long as there's a semblance of logic underpinning it.

As I write this I am on the train into the office for the first time, just pulling into Bromley South and trying to keep my mind clear so it'll be easier to absorb as much as possible on this first day whilst still bringing something of myself to the table. It might be a long day ahead, but in the spirit of National Work Out Loud week, highlighted to me by @austenhunter who is one of my favourite people on Twitter (and over a pint), I'll try to check in throughout the day and add some observations to this post as I notice any similarities or differences. I'd be fascinated to hear your own stories of first days too, either in local government or having recently left it. You can tweet some thoughts to us @welovelocalgov, add them to the comments below or email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Wish me luck!


Lunchtime Update

Wow. What a culture shock. After arriving I was welcomed by my new manager and shown to where I could sit today – we sort-of-hotdesk, though many people sit in the same places each day. I was then handed my equipment; a nice shiny laptop and a blackberry, which both worked out of the box (though tracking down my PIN number for my phone took a bit of working out).

After that I was handed some documents to read which would get me up to speed on my key projects as well as spending some time being introduced to some work colleagues before sitting down with my manager to get to know each other a bit better.

Actually, when I say culture shock, I mean to say a total lack of a culture shock.

So far everything has been great; yes, it’s very early days, but there have been no surprises, no unexpected challenges and nothing which screams out I’ve made a mistake or that things aren’t as they were advertised. I’ve a nice big pile of reading already and a growing list of names I’d like to sit down with and pick their brains, but so far nothing at all out of the ordinary in a bad way.

One thing I am liking the sound of however is the degree of autonomy discussed. I’ll be able to have direct contact with everyone I need to, and will be expected to manage all of my accounts and projects the way I see fit. Yes, of course it will need to be to acceptable standards and I’ll need to report to various boards and groups with progress, but I should have far more freedom to make decisions myself. In no way am I even implying criticism of anyone I’ve worked with in the past, but local government is filled with processes, structures and sign-off routes, so being able to simply make a decision and make it happen will be an interesting change of pace.

So far, so good…

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Local Government Strategic Leaders Forum – A WLLG field trip

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

Field Trip10th June 2014

As readers of this blog will know we are the sort of people who will try anything once and so when we were asked to be the official media partners for the upcoming ‘Local Government Strategic Leaders Forum’ we agreed to give it a go.

We’ve never done this before so we thought we should canvass a little opinion about what sort of things people would like us to do in our ‘official’ role.

The conference has some fairly big hitters as its keynote speakers including Brandon Lewis and Tony Travers and the Chief Executives of six local authorities. We reckon we have a number of options for what we do with these sessions and how we make the most of our press access for the day. For example, we came up with this list of options for what we could do:

·         Try and get interviews with the key players and try to ask some slightly different questions

·         Focus on the key notes addresses and try to summarise them

·         Focus instead on the questions asked from the floor and try to use that as a means of testing the pulse of local government

·         Simply live blog / tweet the day and focus on getting information out there

·         Ignore the key notes and focus on the thoughts of the delegates

·         Try to just record sound to make into a podcast

·         Spend our time at the seminars focusing on the discussions held there

Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive and nor should this list be seen as exhaustive. We are keen to try and make sure that our time at this conference is useful and interesting for our readers and followers so any input into what we should focus on is much appreciated. Please do note them below or drop us a line at @welovelocalgov on twitter or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. on the e-mail. We’d love to hear from you.

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll try and highlight a couple of the seminars and preview the debates we’d like to see progressed and if we get any interviews lined up try to get input from our readers into the questions we could ask. Other than that we’re totally winging it; what can possibly go wrong?!

 

The forum is being organised by Capita and as an ‘official’ partner as well as letting us go and report on the day they have agreed to offer any readers of this blog who want to join us a 20% discount (using code MPLLG); you can find out more about the forum here.

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