Today, Friday 30 May, is not only my last day in my current job, it is also my last day in the public sector. I am leaving local government’s ranks and joining a really exciting company to work on digital projects for local government (more on that in due course), but of course in doing so I become ‘them’ rather than ‘us’.
This gives me the chance to reflect on the past eight and a half years and all that has happened over that time. I’ve gone from being a youth worker through to leading community engagement and innovation at a different council, and had the chance to work with some amazing people along the way (as well as a few I’d not be unhappy never to see again).
So, in true WLLG style here are my top ten takeaways from my time in local government. There are plenty more, but of course somehow having ten seems the right thing to do...
Things take time
It’s funny how on occasions progress is lightning fast; everyone is on board, you have clear boundaries and goals and the resources to make it all happen. I say funny; what I actually mean is it's rarer than an election result from Tower Hamlets being delivered on time.
More often than not, decisions can feel glacially slow, especially those which are important. Invariably this is for good reason – it is important to get all your ducks in a row, make decisions based on evidence and ensure that all stakeholders are on board, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Many are the times I’ve just wanted to get on and do something, knowing that instead I would need to wait for approval from several layers of hierarchy and perhaps a number of boards, groups, committees and management teams.
Residents rarely grasp the complexities of things (and some would ask whether they even should have to), which often leads to a sense that the council is kicking its heels, wasting time or otherwise filibustering rather than simply getting on and doing. Yes, there are times when we need to get our fingers out quicker and yes there are processes which need to be trimmed, but hiding behind these is never an excuse for tardiness.
Digital is the future
This isn’t just me being biased here; increasingly digital is being seen less as a gimmick and something for ICT and comms to do, and more as a normal method of engaging with citizens and offering cheaper, quicker, more effective transaction opportunities. Over the past few years we’ve stopped asking whether we should go digital and started asking how we can make it happen.
Social media has been a big driver here, but it’s not the only driver. Local government has woken up to the fact that service users simply expect these solutions to be available, and that it’s no longer good enough to claim that it’s being addressed through a strategy, or point to a single example of acceptable practice and say you’re blazing any trails.
There is still a long way to go, not least in unpicking what is often over a decade of badly procured and random systems which refuse to talk to each other or even display a common interface for the user. Still, it’s the journey that’s not started that takes the longest to complete, and we are well on our way to a healthier digital future.
There is no such thing as the monolithic council
I’ve lost count of the times residents have say to me that they told something to someone else in the Council therefore I should also know it, or heard officers use the line “oh, that’s not my team that deals with that, it’s a different team altogether”. The perception in the past has always been that every council is more like a hive mind than a company, that every officer knows everything going on and is therefore open to being abused for something that some other officer did several years ago which had nothing at all to do with them.
Reality is far different. Councils are full of silos and blinkers, none of which are intentionally put into place (with great efforts going in to breaking down these walls wherever they can be) but which nevertheless do still exist. Practically speaking, there is no way that anyone can know everything going on; knowing what is happening in your team or service is sometimes challenging, let alone across the huge directorate you are part of, which is one of three, four, five or even more which in combination make up ‘the Council’.
Yes, we need to get better at communicating internally (I’m talking through tools such as Yammer rather than the circulation of a static text newsletter), but there are limits.
People have no idea what local government does
For the past few years I’ve run sessions with groups of young people, where they come into the council and I get to ask them what they think we do. Usually they are able to name potholes, rubbish collection, street lights and maybe youth clubs, but none get anywhere near the breadth of work the average council is responsible for.
I’ve heard it quoted that a council can have around 600 different and distinct functions to deliver, from adult social care to gritting to health inspections to community safety to far more besides. All of this is worked on day in, day out, but because few know about it they feel within their rights to have a go should their bins be missed, or when they hear that the chief exec, who takes responsibility for leading an organisation of thousands of individuals delivering key, sensitive support to communities and spending hundreds of millions of pounds, gets paid almost as much in a year as Wayne Rooney does in three days.
We need to get better at telling the local government story and demonstrating just how much positive impact we have on local life (often more than any other branch of the public sector), if only to bring the public with us as the relationship between the two groups evolves over time.
There’s no money
Five years ago there was nothing in the news but discussions about cuts to spending, cuts to services and impending economic doom. These days it seems that because we survived for a bit and a lot of people didn’t notice too much, that we’re through the worst of it and things will return to ‘normal’.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The cuts to local government to date have decimated services, and resulted in just about every discretionary service ceasing or reducing significantly. Councils have seen significant cuts to their funding, and have trimmed every ounce of fat they possibly can in order to deliver a balanced budget and try to keep services running smoothly. It’s not been easy.
The trouble is, we still face several years of sustained cuts to funding, only this time there’s no more fat to trim. Next up is muscle, before we start having to decide which of the bones need to go. Councils are innovating frantically, changing the way things have been done for decades in the space of just a few years, yet it’s still not enough and more needs to be done. We’re definitely not out of this yet.
People move about a lot
In the old days it was accepted that once you got a job in the council you would stay there until you picked up your carriage clock and cashed in your final salary pension forty years later. How times have changed.
I wouldn’t say I was the exception to the rule, but over my time in local government I sat at ten different desks, had seven different job titles and was part of five different teams. People came and went from all of these teams as if they were taking a leaf out of a premiership manager’s book, with many only being in post for a year or so before finding a new job either internally or externally. Rarely was this for acrimonious reasons; usually it was due to the pace of change and the fact that local government is changing so fast that good people are presented with opportunities to help shape that change.
This has had many benefits, with good practice spread over many local authorities and superb peer support networks developing over traditional boundaries, but has also resulted in the loss of huge amounts of continuity and organisational knowledge and history. It’s always frustrating to hear people struggling through the same challenges their predecessors grappled with but without the benefit of firsthand experience and hindsight.
We spend too long comparing ourselves against each other
We all love a good benchmark, but too often we are happy comparing ourselves to our neighbours. It’s not about always being the best possible option, it’s too often enough merely not to worse than your neighbouring authorities.
Residents don’t care whether your satisfaction rate is the best in the region, or whether you deliver services to more people than the council down the road; they want you to be the best you can be regardless. They also don’t compare like with like; when they visit your website they aren’t comparing it with a different borough, they are comparing it with Amazon, Google and Facebook.
Yes, there are benefits from looking at how others in the sector are dealing with things and addressing challenges, but local government also needs to get better at looking at best practice examples wherever they are found and learning from them.
Networks are growing
I have no knowledge of what life in local government was like before social media and e-mail; I joined in 2006, so experienced the steady seep of various platforms into the workspace as well as our personal lives as it happened. What I do know however is that these tools are enabling officers and organisations to connect and network like never before. Gone are the days when the only way of speaking to someone at the other end of the country was to bump into them at a conference; these days you can join any number of networks, from LinkedIn groups to Yammer and more besides and connect instantly.
And as people continue to move around these networks are growing faster than ever before. A mobile workforce might be challenging in many respects, but it also affords us opportunities which must be grasped.
People have no idea what the difference is between local and national politics
Okay, this might be a pet peeve, but it’s a biggie; I fume whenever I hear people mixing up local politics and national politics. All those who used the recent elections to cast a protest vote in order to make David Cameron sit up and listen have done a huge disservice to their communities and achieved nothing but confusion and disruption for the next four years.
Naming no individual parties here, let’s take immigration as an issue which has dominated the European and local elections debate for months. Across the country people voted for certain parties based on what they said about Britain’s relationship with Europe and what they would do to stop or maintain the levels of immigration into the UK. Local government has ZERO authority on this issue; it deals with local people wherever they come from, and can no more change national/international policy than I can expect to stop so many singers from competing on Britain’s Got Talent. I might rant and rave about it, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
@arobinisforlife pointed out on Twitter that during the BBCs election coverage the studios were dominated with MPs, with not a single local official in sight and barely a word as to local rather than national politics. This needs to change.
Every council is the same and different
I may have only worked directly for two local authorities, but over the years I have worked with many more, and have had many long conversations with people at all levels across the country. Every single one of them describes a situation at their own authority which has a local flavour, but the same key issues at heart. Every council is full of people trying their best to improve the lives of local residents, businesses and organisations, and every council is making progress as best they can in very trying times.
There are idiosyncrasies of course. Some councils are far more comfortable allowing their officers to take the lead publically, being the face of much engagement and having a greater degree of autonomy until it comes to the decision making, whereupon councillors step in and take up their democratic duty. Other councils put their Members at the front, or are simply forced to by proactive Councillors working their socks off to get involved anywhere and everywhere they may be able to make a positive difference. Some places allow junior officers to develop key strategies and work them up suitably, while others demand dozens of re-writes and a veritable waterfall of flowcharts and sign-offs before any progress can be made.
Still, however things are done, one thing remains the same across them all. Local government is packed with people working their hardest to make a real difference to the lives of those whom they serve.
I’ll miss it, though hopefully will come back to visit all the time.
Goodbye local government; I’ll always love you.