Category Archives: Just Saying

Stories and advice from my professional journey so far

A time to listen

29th April 2017 I was asked to facilitate a community session for the Mayor of Bristol (Marvin Rees) and Kerry McCarthy MP. The localised issues raised at community engagement sessions can often be listed beforehand housing, transport, education, fly-tipping, but nesting amongst these issues was the ongoing ramifications of Brexit. The audience while not large certainly reflected the diverse nature of opinion concerning the Brexit debate. What became clear during the session was that when politicians listen and engage with the fears and concerns of ordinary people a more considered debate takes place, which in turn helps forge a more objective understanding of the complex issues that are often presented in simplistic headlines. My lesson from facilitating this session is that we need to develop ways of breaking down the often perceived barriers between elected representatives and the general public.

It will not be easy, but social media has its limitations. There is no real substitute for eye to eye contact and exchange of opinions, which often energises and secures the principle of accountability. We have allowed the vilification of our elected representatives to cloud our wider engagement in our democracy. That is not to say some of our MPs and elected representatives have not been the cause of their own vilification. But there is a space, a void and dare I say a responsibility we need to claim back to make our democracy and accountability work.

If we are to recapture hearts and minds then it will need to be done community by community, neighbourhood by neighbourhood reconstructing the relationship and replacing it with politics that works for people.

People, Places, and Spaces Conference Bristol

Enjoyed speaking to so many energised people at the ‘People, Places and Spaces conference’ in Bristol, which was organised by Locality. Sharing mistakes, successes and applying knowledge to new challenges is always refreshing. Good feedback too my assessment that we need a rethink of the role, powers and functions of local government now. We need to stop tinkering around the edges and stop continuously managing the crisis as this only leads to managing decline. We should never forget that regardless of the cuts local government will remain an important resource holder and when at its best it can be a great agent for change in local communities, but sadly for many, the behaviours sitting behind their experiences when engaging with local government leaves a lot to be desired.

How to change a lightbulb

I know. You feel like a lone voice in the organisation championing a closer and more creative relationship with the local voluntary and community sector, but your colleagues have had a bad experience and your politicians are not convinced. It’s a challenging position you find yourself in, but don’t worry you are not alone. A good start is to develop a compelling narrative. Once you have this in place you then have the platform to press on, but your task will not be easy and potential pitfalls and tripwires await you. Whilst your resilience needs to be strong remember to listen, reflect and adapt because you will not achieve much by yourself – building alliances both internally and externally of the organisations will be crucial. Also remember not to become part of the problem by bad mouthing the organisation you work for – be the change you want to see in others. Be positive, be a leader and be focused because you know local authorities need the voluntary and community sector and the voluntary and community sector need local authorities.

It’s an interdependent relationship given 70% of business between the voluntary and community sectors and the state takes place in the locality and not with Central Government. So why is the relationship so difficult at times and practically what can you do to improve the situation? The answers are often complex and very much localised requiring a change of lightbulb to enable a better view. Firstly, it’s not all is bad. I’ve worked in most regions of England. My first decade of employment was with a local voluntary sector group. In my younger idealistic days, I spent time as an elected councillor. I’m not embarrassed to admit I’ve made my fair number of mistakes along the way, learnt a good few lessons and feel i’ve achieved many successes. In time so will you.

I’ve come across great examples of the voluntary and community sectors collaborating brilliantly with local authorities, sharing expertise, knowledge and resources to obtain a common goal. These situations do not happen by accident, chance, or indeed luck, equally, I’ve come across some pretty awful situations where the sectors are barely acknowledging one another. Acting as if in some type of phycological convert warfare with each another. When it gets this bad it takes a lot of energy, time and resource to put the relationship right before improvements are able to deliver benefits for local residents. How can you help to mend it?

The first stage is to understand the context.

Let’s start from a political perspective because local authorities are political organisations. The Centre Right tend to view the voluntary and community sector via a lens of non-state charitable benefit whilst the Centre Left tend to view the sector through the lens of participatory democracy and the effusion of power. The observation I give is very simplistic and overlapping grey areas between both perspectives exist in abundance, but this simplistic starting point is critical when left right compounded by the style of local government in the locality. Regardless if a political administration is left, right and centre they can all be equally centralistic in nature and style.Needless to say, you will have read about the tension between the political class and voter, which give the impression politicians understand themselves more than they understand the wider population. This impression may, or may not warrant some justification, but we still live in a centralised state where politics and government seem distant from everyday life and a disproportion of politicians come from middle and upper-class professions. A good all round politician will immerse themselves in their community, its diversity, its conflicting aspirations, tensions and its social networks. This is where the ward councillor can come into their own because one of the bridges into this diverse world is the voluntary and community sectors and you have an important role to play in helping the ward councillor navigate this world.

At its best the voluntary and community sector is dynamic, championing causes, influencing social policy, and tailoring activity to meet the needs of residents and communities. A vibrant, strong, positive and challenging sector should be embraced and nurtured in every neighbourhood, community, borough and city. The voice of the sector is just as equally important as the services it provides. As a commissioner, this voice helps me shape my approach, design service and facilitate good decisions. The key is to listen and to amass date and information then cross reference what you are hearing with the information you are reading.

Sadly, as will most sectors of the economy, I have witnessed some quite appalling service delivery and fraudulent activities perpetrated by some voluntary and community groups and organisations. I’ve come across deliberate conspiring to exclude people, faced violent because my work has threatened the self-interest of a few people who claim to be the voice of a community. I’ve also participated in workshops after workshop hearing representatives of the sector consistently in a state of negativity and blaming their predicament on everybody else, but themselves. It can be relentless. This is often intensified when an organisation holds a local authority contract and believes this will not ultimately impact on their independence, or they are may be facing the prospect of losing the contract for whatever reason. Yet, as imperfect as the sector is I believe it remains one of the best modes available for meeting need, providing value for money and enabling innovation.

Decommissioning is a part of the service life-cycle full stop and funding should never be provided on a never-ending cycle of demand. As soon as a voluntary and community organisation accepts money from the state then there is a financial and legal interdependency. By providing money to voluntary and community sector organisations for the purpose of delivering a particular service a local authority is effectively discharging itself from the responsibility to deliver that service and handing its responsibility to the voluntary and community sector group, although local authorities cannot discharge themselves of their accountabilities. For example,a council can commissions a private company to be responsible for collecting rubbish, but the same council remains legally accountable for ensuring the rubbish is collected. There is an interdependency, so the money comes with strings attached. If groups don’t like the strings then advise them not to take the money!

wpid-risk-managementAs a local authority officer you are employed to manage and oversee the implementation of services and policies. Its a risky business, seriously. You are navigating and balancing a minefield of political expectations, limited resources, management frameworks, unmet needs and demands, complaints and legal requirements. The whole process encourages a culture of risk aversiveness rather than risk awareness. The consequences are plain to see and result in organisational systems, processes and policies that stiffly opportunities for voluntary and community sector engagement. You are caught in the middle of this world and finding a way will to be easy, so here are some ideas to help you. They are not exhaustive, but simply provided to help and offer encouragement.

1. The Compact: I have mixed views on the joint Compact between voluntary and community sector and Local Government, but if your local authority does not have one why not see if there is an appetite to develop one. But make sure the continues are right. Ensure the Compact has a means to an end rather than being viewed as a strict contractual document. Nobody needs to play Neville Chamberlin waving a peace treaty in the air and no it should not require a compact officer to police it. Remember a compact is not essential if it does not exist and there is no appetite for one life goes on, so move on, it’s not worth the battle.

2. Asset Transfer Policy: A good community asset transfer policy will encourage innovative approaches and creates access to affordable spaces. The policy should provide options and not be consigned to getting rid of them problem buildings, which the local authority now finds itself lumbered with.

3. Volunteering policy: a council policy that provides all employees with an opportunity to volunteer with a local group. This helps build alliances and break down misconceptions.

4. Staff secondments: When I became a senior manager for the first time I was able to arrange for members of my team to go on short term work based secondments with a local voluntary and community sector group. This was built into annual appraisals and personal development plans. This is very different from a volunteer policy (as above).

5. Behaviours: A staff behaviours and skills framework that promotes how staff should work collaboratively with voluntary and community sector groups.

6. Capacity Building: Invest in the sector to manage assets and services. This can be achieved in two ways. Firstly, commissioning technical support through a specialist organisation. Secondly, by using 3 and 4 above.

7. Collaborate: Establish demonstration projects with individual voluntary and community sector organisations that will achieve common goals, or address a long-running problem in the locality. This will build confidence across both sectors.

8. Take some risks: If you manage a budget (regardless how small) try and set aside a small budget to explore something new and innovative with the sector.

9. Capital Challenge Fund: Establish a challenge that requires match funding from the voluntary and community sector.

10. Take decisive action: If something is going wrong do not let it fester. The vast majority of voluntary and community sector groups will not tolerate misbehaviour or fraud within the sector and nor should you. If a group or organisation is ripping the tax payer off take action quickly – it will enhance your credibility. Just make sure the action is proportionate, justified and you understand all the impacts, so you are able to inject mitigations, if required.

Finally, you are not a lone wolf in the chicken pen. If your approach reflects this then you face a up hill battle and may face the consequence of being burnt out and frustrated pretty quickly. Take small practical steps. Changing attitudes is about both hearts and minds. You can only achieve this by demonstration – think about it?

Enjoy Yourself

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.