11th March 2014
A few years ago, when we were churning out a new post every day, we wrote a post about the collapse of the corporate centre within local authorities. In that post, which was three years ago (how time flies!), we commented that roles like ‘policy officer’ were being reduced rapidly as council’s were looking around for savings.
I had forgotten about this whole debate until, whilst at the recent, and excellent,Yes Minister; Yes Councillor event at the Cabinet Office one of the speakers mentioned that the big difference between local and central government was how well central government did policy (the implication being that local government wasn’t quite as good). Thinking that this disparity was only going to grow as the teams that do policy are reduced I tweeted it out.
We got a couple of responses from clever local government policy types and then received this tweet from Dominic Campbell - he of Futuregov fame - who said:
‘Way too much policy, mostly bad IMO’ (sic)
Ann Griffiths replied saying:
‘depends what you call policy. To me it’s as much relationships, evaluating, innovating as process and docs.’
I tend to side with Ann but wonder whether the difference between Dom’s comments and Ann’s reflect a recent change in the way that policy is being delivered in local government.
As the size of the central ‘corporate’ teams has shrunk and the need for policy directly linked to actual delivery has increased the old fashioned ‘reports and templates’ role of the central policy team has, in all but the largest local authorities, seen a massive overhaul. Thus, instead of policy work being delivered in a way similar to that of central government, local authorities have been forced to develop an entirely new model; one based more on practical application, relationships, innovation and crucially, implementation.
Indeed, if this is the case then it would fit more neatly with the type of role identified by Richard Vize in this piece where he described the role of a future local government officer as evolving to be more one of an entrepreneur.
Writing this blog over the years has put us in the very lucky position of occasionally receiving advance sight of different reports and papers, which often spark a chain reaction of ideas often ending up with our thoughts being recorded for posterity. Today is one of those days, as we have the chance to discuss a subject very dear to our hearts; local elections.
A paper released today (Friday 7 March 2014) by Democratic Audit makes for very interesting reading, highlighting a number of key points which affect voter turnout and attitudes at elections in the UK. It's not massively long nor overly complex, and is well worth a read if you have even a passing interest in the democratic process, and has indeed sparked a chain of thoughts which I'll share in no particular order.
Overall, the report addresses three key areas which it sees as fundamental to the take-up of the right to vote each and every one of us has:
- Minimum voting age
- How we vote
- How we publicise election information
I'll avoid going into too much detail as the report does this better than I could (seriously, go have a look!), but I will share my thoughts on each of these in turn.
6th March 2014
Today is World Book Day and who better to write a guest post about local government and books than Hard Change author Dawn Reeves. Here, Dawn talks about her favourite local government novel and makes a pitch,to make contact with others who write about local government to form a group which we think is pretty cool.
An edited version of this post was previously featured on the Guardian Local Leaders Network.
In celebration of World Book day I’d like to convince you to pick up a novel about local government. I realise it’s a tough ask. If you work in the public sector you may not fancy another dose of harsh reality; and if you don’t you could be among the many mistaken souls who think local government is increasingly irrelevant or even boring.
What also makes it difficult is that there aren’t many books about local government to choose from, and it’s clear many writers, and publishers, prefer the more well-trodden corridors of power in Whitehall, missing the significance and the sharp edges of what my recommended novelist called “world tragedy in embryo”.
“South Riding” by Winifred Holtby is a bold, expansive story that draws you into the life of a whole community at a time of austerity. Local government is “the first line of defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies… poverty, sickness, ignorance and isolation”. The compelling plot includes a darkly motivated public-private scheme and a scandal centred on building on flood plains. It portrays the stark choices to be made about budget cuts and offers brave alternatives such as investing in infrastructure to create jobs, all wrapped up in a tale of dreams, love and death.
And all this was written around 80 years ago, in the long shadow of the First World War. Published posthumously in 1936, the book is still totally relevant, and hasn’t been out of print since. There are great characters, especially the 70-year-old first female Alderman of the County Council (loosely based on Holtby’s mother), the idealistic early feminist teacher and the Machiavellian councillor.
But the magic of the book, and the meat of it, is in the politics. It’s brave enough to show us the complex tangle of motivations behind the public decisions and their unforeseen consequences. Ultimately it has faith in the system to make positive change and its powerful human content, small triumphs and painful tragedies, lift it above any novel about game-playing in Westminster.
The reasons I love this book are the reasons that also motivate me to write. As the first-time author of “Hard Change”, a gritty but optimistic town hall thriller, I used a murder as the driver for similar, but contemporary, dilemmas. Like Holtby, I wanted to use fiction to get underneath the surface of power and politics in its widest sense, and local government allows you to get up close and personal.
I’m also aiming to follow in the footsteps of other great authors who have written about what’s important in difficult times. In the 1940s George Orwell wrote, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics…’ All issues are political issues. The idea that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” I feel the same now. Local government is constantly being undermined and it’s important to me that we generate more stories which explore and make sense of what’s happening, particularly as the range of narratives on offer in the mainstream at the moment is depressingly limited.
I know these stories are there. Lots of people have said to me that in local government, “you don’t have to make it up,” but I think we do! There’s so much doom and gloom surrounding the future of local government, and I think we need to fashion some new endings.
Using what I’ve learned from writing “Hard Change”, I’ve developed creative workshops that use story-telling techniques to explore leadership and challenge colleagues to reflect on the endings they want to see. The sessions are about thinking imaginatively and seeing the world differently, about exploring possible directions. Participants have found the sessions highly energising, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and alternative stories are emerging.
I’m also keen to hear from other writers – anyone reading this who is interested in writing about public life. Let’s share and support each other to get more stories out there, so that when future World Book Days come around there’ll be a wealth of local government novels to choose from; books that build on the fantastic legacy of “South Riding” and that look to the future.