23rd June 2014
Never in my life has twelve weeks gone so quickly.
As I return to work after my three month paternity leave I find myself experiencing a similar sense of trepidation as I did when I last left the civic centre in March. Nerves about work and about my son and a general sense of uncertainty about what the future will hold grip me much as they did when I last made the return journey.
Nonetheless, and despite the general sense of personal tension I feel today, I can honestly say that my experience of paternity leave was one that I genuinely enjoyed. It wasn't without its ups and downs but I look back on the weeks with not a single drop of regret. My son has changed so much in the last three months (as babies do) and it's been great to be a part of that from really close up.
In lieu of writing something a bit too soppy, and recognising that this will be very familiar territory to any parents reading this, here are a few lessons I learnt whilst on additional paternity leave.
1) Baby care really is a woman's world
With (good?) reason nearly everything in the world of baby-care is dominated by women. I think I knew this when I took my time off but the extent of it did surprise me a little. The only other men I came across on a semi-regular basis were grandfathers looking after this grandchildren (I assume as part of their retirement?) and in general there wasn't really an expectation that men would be regular attendees.
One afternoon after our swimming session I was changing my son and had a bit of a shock when a woman wondered into our changing room with her young baby (thankfully I had my pants on). My class knew there was a man attending and so left the mens for me but the other classes, it seems, had no expectation that men would attend and so just split their group between the mens and womens. It makes total sense but nonetheless did surprise me a little.
I wouldn't want this to seem as if people were unfriendly; indeed, the opposite is the case. Everyone I met was lovely and extremely tolerant of the new guy who was yet to learn how the various groups worked (most of the other parents were a good five/six months in and were fully to grip with everything; I was, especially at first, not!). I was just aware of my uniqueness.
2) Despite this there is, as you would expect, no reason why a man can't do it
At first I felt a little nervous about being my son's sole carer during the day. I don't know why but I just felt very concious that I wasn't his mother and needed to 'catch up' with my parenting. Despite this, and my own insecurities, there was nothing about looking after my son, especially once he was five months old that I couldn't do because I was a man (we'd moved him off of breast feeding in time for my leave to kick in). It may sound self-evident but there is no practical reason why a man can't do this.
3) Looking after a baby is really tiring
When asked about the most tiring thing you can do at work I always say that conducting job interviews is by far the worst. It involves constant concentration and provides little opportunity to mentally take a break. Looking after a baby is similar. Although the average baby day is not exactly intellectually taxing (although your project management skills are tested!) the constant concentration and the various needs of a baby over a 12 hour period often left me feeling more knackered by day end than a day at work.
4) And concentrating on anything else is tricky
I had thought that I would catch up on some box sets and stuff while I was off but it was absolutely impossible to concentrate on anything else whilst looking after the baby. I ended up resorting to old West Wing box sets; at least I already knew what was going to happen so it didn't matter when I missed most of it!
Likewise, getting house work, cooking, e-mails and all manner of other things done during the day was pretty tough.
5) My diet sucks
When you have a dependent you are very concious of the food you are giving them. I cooked, steamed, chopped and blended and all of the food was healthy (certainly no salt) and most of it was fairly tasty. Yet, at the same time as I was purée ing cubes of carrot I was making myself a sandwich and eating on the go (although I did occasionally steal some of his food!). The health visitor asked me if he was eating the same food as us yet and I didn't have the heart to tell her he ate far better than I did. I really need to sort that out.
6) Babies really do develop at a different pace and getting worried about it is a mugs game
My baby can crawl. He's very pleased with himself about it and seems to have mastered the skill before some of his similar aged colleagues. But he can't clap. For a while I tried to teach him to clap; so that he could join in with clapping songs. He didn't really want to learn, far more interested in exploring on his hands and knees. I worried about it a little but the more you think about it the more ridiculous it is. One day he'll be able to clap and likewise his peers will learn to crawl. The exact order of all of this stuff is really not that important. Interesting perhaps but really not that important.
7) I had no idea how stressed I was
This sounds silly but I had no idea how strung out I was when I finished work in March. I do find my job stressful at times and it has been a particularly rough few months on a large project (with some sleep deprivation at home thrown in) but I had no idea how bad it had got.
Within about two weeks I noticed that I was far more relaxed than I had been; just as tired but far less on edge. And the more I looked back on how I had been the more I realised that it had got bad. I mentioned this to my wife and she told me that she knew and had been worried about me and when I met up with a friend after a couple of months of paternity leave she said I looked five years younger.
If it is really true that a change is as good as a rest I really hope the change has reset me a little.
8) Changing tables in the Gents toilets are hard to find
A small complaint as most locations also had changing facilities within the accessible toilet but if there was any additional changing facilities they were generally in the Female toilets and not in the Gents. This was a little irking!
And now it is all over. My son is at nursery and I'm heading back to local government; wish me luck!
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.
Today 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:
- Could they access every bit of the website they needed to easily?
- What did they come to the site to do?
- Could they find it easily?
- Could they complete their transaction/find the right information easily and at the first attempt?
- 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.