I’m occasionally asked, by the sort of person who is interested in such things, “What was it like, working for a local council?” – or, in my case, three. As a public servant, I always tried to take my responsibilities seriously and be balanced in my work. I’d never give political opinions, and I’d limit how vocal I was on my political opinions outside of the hothouse environment that is the local authority.
I’ve spent a substantial period of my career so far – 10 years, in fact – in local government, during a period of concerted change. I worked for Kent County Council for three and a half years, went away for a few years, and then came back to Thanet District Council, and then – through a reorganisation – worked for three local authorities.
Working for three councils simultaneously was interesting. There were dynamic people in each organisation. It just depended on whether there was a critical enough mass to actually make a difference. Were there enough decision-makers who actually valued change and were willing to take risks? That’s the same in any industry, of course, but it’s easy to pick on the public sector – it’s where taxpayers money goes, after all.
Being in local government was very rewarding when you get a chance to do something right, and very frustrating when something went wrong – or when something is perceived as going wrong. People often forget that local councils are manned by people, and so there isn’t any particularly consistent way of dealing with one situation over another. It really does depend on the people; what influences them, what influence do the officers have over the councillors, and vice versa – and how do people cope with change?
No council looks the same today as it was back in 2010 when austerity was introduced. They’re being convinced / forced (depends on the council) to collaborate and share services. They simply can’t afford to go it alone in the same way as they did before; if they want to continue as a solitary district, borough, city, or county council, then know that the services you currently get will be reduced massively. They won’t be able to afford anything without running up a massive deficit.
I was drafted into the new shared service in east Kent by the sheer fact that I worked for Thanet beforehand, saw my job deleted, and got a new one in the updated structure. It was nerve-wracking at the time, but a lot easier than I had expected to be. A few people went in the process, but I felt like I’d been treated fairly.
I got to work, as a result, with three very different local authorities, and learnt how to deal with so many different interpretations of a single idea. Negotiation skills suddenly became a lot more key, and an acceptance that you might have to deliver something in two or three different ways occasionally be de rigeur. Such was life.
I learnt a lot, however. I got the opportunity to develop my public speaking skills, being tasked to deliver talks on partnership engagement and welfare reform, and develop relationships with voluntary and community groups that previously may have not felt too engaged with some local decisions and activities. I hope I played a part in demystifying the councils a tiny bit, in my own way, and perhaps even raised awareness of a sector that wasn’t always appreciated within the councils.
I’ve always been very passionate about partnerships and bringing people together. If there was an issue with a group of people accessing our services, then what could I do about it? Could I work with them to raise awareness of our services, to ask for help in delivering said service? Could I be part of a team that examined how we communicated with the general public, and made improvements? Perhaps I could participate in a disability forum that enabled me to understand where we were failing or connecting with disabled people, and help influence change in a small way. I hope I did all three of those things, and it was incredibly positive to be involved in that.
It was also incredibly frustrating sometimes. Things didn’t always move at the speed I thought they should. I had to make sure I thought politically, to try and understand how politicians would react to a particular scenario, and sometimes having to negotiate between various teams to make sure everyone was committed to a particular thing being introduced. I was a comparatively small fish in a very large pond, so only saw this occasionally, but could respect those who struggled with the frustrations daily.
But, for me, the positives outweighed the negatives. I’ve spent a total of 10 years in local government at a time when massive changes are happening in the sector. Funding is being cut, councils are looking to change how they deliver services, and they’re realising that collaborating with other sectors and local communities, rather than dictating to them, is far more effective in getting things done. Are councils in general always getting it right? No. Are many of them struggling with change? Yes. Are some teams in some councils making a difference? Abso-bloody-lutely.
I’ve had the opportunity to do so much in local government; I’ve travelled to Telford to see our shared service get silver in an awards ceremony (we deserved gold, but that’s another story), I’ve seen the delights of Sidmouth, and I’ve also delivered training in Wolverhampton, which was an experience once I learnt how to escape the confines of the ring road. I’ve worked at local arts festivals, I’ve learnt MINDSPACE techniques, and delivered effective presentations. I’ve felt like part of a team, and believed that I was contributing.
But, of course, all things must come to an end, and ten years was the end of that particular road for me. I’m proud of my time in local government; there was so much that was out of my control, that I couldn’t participate in, but when I was able to contribute, I was part of a team that made a difference. The people I leave behind – because it’s all about the people – will continue to make a difference. That much I can say with confidence … and a certain degree of pride that, once upon a time, I worked with them.