I work in the happy business, and the happy business is going through a tough time at the moment. Austerity and cuts are headlines and nowhere is this more critically being felt than on the frontline of local government and the voluntary sector. In the 30 years, I have worked with Local Government and voluntary sectors I can honestly say the changes currently taking place will ensure Local Government will never be the same again. We are not dealing with cuts, but in some cases, Local Government services will stop. While the UK government’s austerity programme is, without a doubt, the most significant force causing these changes. It is not the only force at play and to think in this way is akin to the ostrich putting its head in the sand.
We are living much more flexible lifestyles now. We access information much more quickly. We expect choice and services to meet our wants and not just our needs. Controversial maybe, but I’m going to set aside the austerity pressures for this particular blog because with or without austerity Local Government needs to change. It needs to become more relevant to people both regarding service and democratic hub.
Nowhere is this transformation more critical in my view than with those employed in Local Government. The slow painful change taking place will rapidly require Local Government to move away from silo service departments hosting specific resources and a specialist knowledge base to one increasingly grounded in behaviours, networking and facilitation skills. The rebuilding of the ‘public servant’ is taking place and is long overdue.
The new public servant will increasingly have the experience and behaviours to navigate complex political landscapes of organisations and relationships. They will increasingly reflect the diversity of communities they seek to serve. They will be able to facilitate applied solutions. They will lead, but not impose. They will instinctively know when to step back and let go.
I was recently asked a question by a young person seeking a career in Local Government concerning the importance of qualifications. I replied, “yes qualifications will remain an essential foundation, but foundations are there to be built upon. You know another day has gone by, and it is yet another day in which I have not applied algebra.”
If you are seeking a job in Local Government, or even trying to prolong a career in Local Government I advise you to consider the following:
It’s not what you do – its the way that you do it that will often get results: This is the most important issue I try to promote with young professionals joining any team I manage. Our behaviours define us, be them in a workplace, social or family setting. Think about it. If somebody is acting obnoxiously, we often feel angry and offended. People respond when you listen and demonstrate empathy and not your initial professional opinion – that can wait until you understand the person and their circumstances.
Don’t think – look!: When you find yourself in a pickle at a public meeting and if you have the luxury – shut up. Stop thinking and watch. Look at what is going on around you. Check the faces, the body language, feel the vibes, look at the interplay between people. Thinking without reflecting will often backfire. Unlike most professional careers you are working in an environment that can be emotionally charged rather than logic or indeed rational. You have an obligation to stand above the storm rather than be a part of it, add to it, or indeed be its cause.
Humility: Humility to me this s about having a clear perspective, and therefore respect, for your place in context. Your job title and professional status mean absolute jack to most people. If these things make you get out of bed in the morning, then sleep in because you need time to reflect if you are in the right job.
Treat people the way you would like to be treated: Never forget those you consider subordinates might one day end up being your boss. Revenge can be sweet and rather humiliating. Needless to say, if you treat members of the public poorly regardless of their rights and wrongs, then you are on a slippery slope. This does not mean you have to tolerate bullying from anybody – far from it. Try not to respond in the same way; it will simply escalate the situation further and beyond your control.
Resilience: To be resilient requires you to be positive, focused, flexible, organised and proactive. You need to be seen as the solution and not the problem. To achieve this takes practice and it it is not for the light-hearted. There is no problem in getting it wrong. There is a problem if you keep on repeating your mistakes regardless.
Never separate the words that you speak from the life that you lead: The immortal phase of American politician Paul Wellstone is challenging to live up to, but one that you should endeavour to do if you are seeking to work in public office.
Be prepared to learn: Sometimes learning is not easy. I often find myself confronted at public meetings by people who maybe angry for the right or wrong reason. I am always learning how first to deal with these types of situations and secondly learning new coping strategies like meditation, observation and reflection. I always set aside 30 minutes at the end of the day to reflect what went well, what did not and what would I do differently next time.
Humour: I would advise the avoidance of humour unless you are confident and understand the environment. But develop a few self-reflecting and humorous observations where you are the centre. One of my favourites is, “I’m use to handling awkward meetings and being shouted at – it is why I look 55 when I’m 35.”
Facilitate and Enable: Be able to think and see beyond the crisis rather than simply being caught in it. You will receive little thanks for seeking to guide people away from the eye of the storm initially. That will come later. Remember you won’t be around forever. Make sure when you leave the stage there is a cast of actors able to pick things up and lead. This should be in the forefront of your mind from day 1. Your legacy is what you will be ultimately be judged upon.
Finally – I paraphrase Bill Hicks by saying……local government is like a roller-coaster ride. It twists, it turns, it frightens, it excites and you never quite know what is coming after the next climb. Enjoy the ride.