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Ten things I know about Local Government

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

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.

 

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Nesta Launch Civic Exchange

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

If there are two things we love here at WLLG Towers they are biscuits and a well formatted spreadsheet. And if there are two other things we like as well, these are a good guest blog post and a good idea. So you can only imagine our delight when these last two points were combined into one glorious instance when this gem popped into our inbox from our good friends over at Nesta. We're going to be putting our own thinking caps on to see how we can contribute to this, so be sure to do that too.

Introducing Civic Exchange

Here at Nesta, we’ve launched Civic Exchange to help improve public services by showcasing civic apps and digital services, and we need your help to find the most impactful software out there.

 

As Apple’s trademarked saying goes, ‘there’s an app for that’ - and this rings true for government and civic sectors too. From the StreetBump app that identifies potholes, to the Patchwork service enabling care professionals to communicate better, technology is helping improve local public services.

Hundreds of apps and digital solutions, solving many civic challenges, are being deployed across the globe and here at Nesta we want to draw from the experience of successful services to enable impactful solutions to scale.

That’s why last autumn we launched Civic Exchange, a platform for improving public services by showcasing and promoting the reuse of civic software. There are more similarities than differences in the challenges faced by local governments but we still see lots of reinventing of the wheel when it comes to digital services, rather than scaling and improving on great ideas. Therefore, with Civic Exchange we want build a useful tool for local authority users that focuses on the sharing and exchange of digital software with a proven track record.

This is where we now need your help.We’re already featuring a whole range of apps and digital services, but we’re on the hunt for suggestions for more entries. We’re hoping to find examples across any sector – from health to tourism to employment – that fit the following criteria:

  • Have a civic focus, are aimed at improving the lives of citizens.

  • Are relatively mature. They should be deployed or used in at least one location.

  • Provide some form of evidence of use and effectiveness to make the case to others why they should consider adopting them.

 

These could run by local government itself, or created by third party organisations. If you have any suggestions, we’d love to hear from you. You can send us an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or tweet us via @CivExchange. You can also add your own civic apps and digital services to Civic Exchange – you just need to register for an account.

 

Over the next few months we’ll be adding more entries to the site and creating a selection of evidence-based case studies to showcase the most impactful civic software we find. Our aim is that Civic Exchange can then be used as an accurate, reliable and evidence-driven resource for anybody wanting to improve public services using proven digital tools.

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Sort-of-goodbye

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

Have you ever sat down with a pencil, a piece of paper and no distractions to draw out a Venn diagram of what would make your perfect job, a job perfectly suited to your skills, interest and ambitions? Well I have; my first draft involved space travel, excitement, adventure, riches beyond my wildest dreams and a short commute from home.

My second draft at a (slightly) more realistic list was more down to earth, but no less interesting for me. It involved the chance to make use of my history in local government, delivery of exciting digital solutions to real problems and the chance to work with an exciting group of people who don’t accept mediocrity regardless of who they are being measured against. Oh, and that short commute from home option made it through to this draft too.

Brilliantly enough, right at the centre of this Venn diagram of awesomeness is where my brand new job sits, which I will be beginning shortly. I’m moving to become the account manager for a digital publishing company who are expanding to deliver services to local government and needed someone with a working knowledge of digital along with the same for local government. Voila!

Technically speaking, it means I will for the first time in over eight years be outside of the public sector, though I will be working very closely with Councils to look at their digital needs and then to bring some top technical minds to the table to meet those needs. I’m tremendously excited by it and believe it will give me the chance to make even more of a difference to the wider world of local government than I could ever have done before.

So, why am I sharing this through this blog? What relevance can it have to this wider world?

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‘First past the post' - National Planning Practice Guidance

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

1st April 2014

Over the years there has been one area of local government where we have struggled to adequately cover the topic; that of planning. Planning is probably the single most controversial part of local government and as an interested observer also one of the most complex.

Thankfully, we have been fortunate enough to receive a series of high quality guest posts to discuss elements of ever-changing Government policy. Today we continue that tradition with a guest post from a Regional Planning and Development agency, RCA Regeneration.

This post discusses the recently published ‘National Planning Practice Guidance’ highlighting a couple of elements that will be of interest to our readers; not least the hot topic of guard-railing! We hope you enjoy it as much as we did:

The long-awaited release of the ‘National Planning Practice Guidance’ on the 6th March 2014 marks a somewhat low key end to the Coalition crusade against bureaucracy in the planning system. Before we get to the issue of duty to cooperate and the NPPG approach to unmet need, let us just get something important out of way - guard railing. Yep that’s right, guard railing.

Presumably this item of street furniture weighs heavily upon the minds of civil servants in London, so much so that PPG sets out to eradicate this item of street safety wear once and for all: 

Barriers between the road and pedestrians are usually visually unattractive to the street scene, can form a hazard for cyclists who can be squeezed against them, and create the impression that the roads are for cars only; they should only be used when there is an overriding safety issue.

The above statement highlights everything that is warped about NPPG. Part ‘ladybird’ guide to planning, part NPPF gap filler and occasionally just downright odd, it takes a hardened soul to wade through the NPPG.

It is difficult to say how long this guidance would be if printed, but our best guess is somewhere near to 600 pages – for those of literary persuasion about the length of Great Expectations. The vast majority of text is devoted to non-technical explanations, though how successful this is when the text references the whole of the Town and Country Planning Act is debatable and just as your eyelids begin to droop you stumble across items that are actually quite important; such as the Duty to Cooperate.

This is a hot topic for those of us operating in the West Midlands largely as a result of the ticking time bomb situated at the heart of the Shires – namely Birmingham and its considerable housing under supply.

The NPPG sheds new light on the duty to cooperate – specifically that the duty to cooperate is not a ‘duty to agree’ and what to do if your neighbouring authorities never return your calls or come to your dinner parties anymore.

The answer is to keep meticulous records of every dinner date they skipped and every time they avoided you by ducking into a nearby shop as you strolled past.  As the NPPG puts it:

 Local planning authorities that are unwilling to cooperate with others will eventually have to bring forward their own Local Plan for examination. If they are unable to provide robust evidence to support a strategy that does not plan for the unmet requirements of another local planning authority they may fail the test of compliance with the duty to cooperate or the plan may be found unsound.

 

Hence the title of this article; first one to get to PINS (the Planning Inspectorate to you and me - ed), wins. Eventually the sins of your neighbours will catch up with them; in the meantime, watch out for that guard railing…  

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Local – Central: Time to sum up

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

25th March 2014

When we started writing a series about relations between central and local government we did not have a firm plan; indeed, if we had one the series probably would not have taken over six months to get to where we are.

 

However, six months later we have, along with our guest contributors looked at this issue from a number of different perspectives and come up with a series of proposals which we believe would help strengthen this relationship. Before we summarise our proposals it is worth reminding ourselves why this matters.

It is no longer the case, indeed I am unconvinced that it was ever the case, that local and central government are providing different services to tackle different problems. Instead as our society becomes structurally more diffuse the ability of either central or local government to do anything on their own is constrained and limited. Only by better working together can the two parts of our democratic structure ensure that the outcomes demanded by the people who vote for them are delivered.

And yet, too often this is not the case. As we said in our first post:

‘Despite this recognition and general commitment to make these parts of our government work better together I think we can all agree that there is still massive room for improvement. The more we think about this the more we think that some of this might be cultural rather than specifically structural. After all, Governments of all stripes have made noises about greater devolution of powers to local authorities and more importantly about linking up services between the local and the central. One only need look at the graveyard of community budget projects (Total Place anyone?) to know that the commitment is real.

And yet, despite this commitment, progress is glacial.’

Our series was predicated on the idea that by understanding the barriers and then proposing some modest ideas for how these could be overcome we could contribute to a debate that needs greater prominence. Whether we have achieved that or not we will let others decide but taken together we believe that the following can contribute to a greater understanding of this topic:

Our first post proposed internet dating for bureaucrats to facilitate better understanding and relationships between the sectors; an idea we believe could have some legs. We then proposed a more substantial programme of secondments between the sectors and pitched a more focused co-design process for central government policy making.

It is not the case that no local – central work is underway and our fourth post publicised the work of the Public Sector Transformation Network. Another guest post, this one from Mark Upton, argued that we need to create ‘safe spaces’ for public servants across central and local government to get to know each other better and discussed some examples of where this was already happening. 

Our sixth post argued that part of the problem here was a lack of trust between central and local government before another guest poster, this time Claire Webb, argued that change was incumbent on each of us working in the public sector; change will only happen if each and every one of us make it happen.

Picking back up on the Learning and Development theme we then pondered the value of development days between local and central government and featured a post from the organisers of the ‘Yes Minister Yes Councillor’ event who discussed the different strengths in central and local government and what each could learn from the other. 

Finally, we pondered whether the assumption and premise of this series was correct (we still believe it is).

Collectively, this series represents a lot of writing and a range of ideas. We are not really placed to turn them into reality but would gladly work with anyone who wanted to take a shot at doing so. Indeed, if someone wanted to turn these into reality without involving us at all that would be cool too.

 

As well as developing new ideas the one thing we learnt from this process was that while the structures might not support more co-operation people really want to get involved. Whenever we spoke to people we were left with the impression that if something was in place to help build these relationships they would be keen to get involved; no-one told us they’d rather the relationship stayed as it is. That’s a real positive and whilst we imagine that relations between central and local government will always be a little strained we hope that, with these ideas or others, the next 5-10 years will see a real improvement in relationships and from that a real improvement in the services that we provide and the challenges we collectively try to address.

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