I was out of work. I needed a job, any job, as money would soon run out. I applied for anything and everything I could find, including for a job at the local council – for a “senior customer services officer”, which sounded intriguing. I didn’t have much faith in my own abilities, so I very much doubted that I would get the job – I didn’t see myself as a senior. A friend of mine – the incomparable Lisa – convinced me that I deserved a shot, and her confidence inspired me. That boost influenced the next stage of my working life in its entirety, so I owe her a great debt.
The interview was an incredibly intense, all-day exercise, with group sessions, a one-on-one session, technical tests, and more besides. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the challenges the interviewers set, and by the time I left, I realised how much I wanted the job. The pay was good, the people seemed nice, and the work appeared to be stimulating. I found myself wanting the job, but never imagined that I’d get it.
On 1st September 2008, I started with Thanet Council as a Senior Customer Service Officer – specialising in “face-to-face operations”. I worked in the Gateway, a building which housed the council, a library, HMRC, and other services. In a previous life, I had worked there when it had been Margate Library – things really do come around in circles, don’t they?
I worked on a lot of queries; benefits, council housing, council tax, pest control, bins, and probably a hundred other things. The great British public came through our doors on a daily basis, and what experiences they gave us. There were complaints galore, often about council tax and bins, and fury couldn’t begin to explain the level of emotion people had when confronted with what they saw as wastes of the council tax they paid.
I encountered people who screamed at me because I’d said no to them – I wondered if they had ever heard that word in their entire lives – and had “sit-ins” until they got what they wanted. I always let them sit in the office for as long as they wanted (as long as they were quiet), because it was their own time that they were wasting – and sit-ins don’t achieve anything against a decision I had no part in. I occasionally had a person stay until closing time, and if they refused to leave, then I called the police – and that usually got them scurrying along. If I was feeling particularly cheery, I would also give them the complaints procedure that could be completed against me if they so wished. I never heard anything from those occasions; either they never complained, or my manager ignored them.
Sometimes, there were bigger dramas; we had a mentally-ill man try and kill himself in the building, and that was distressing for him and us. Another guy with mental health problems would sometimes come in with made-up complaints, and things came to a head when we saw him outside the building walking up the middle of the road singing loudly. The police came quickly that day as well. Another time, a man was locked in the building overnight and smeared faeces over the walls and in books. The entire building was deep-cleaned that day.
There were moments of levity; I laughed hysterically with many of the staff, and made some good friends. Diana and I became marathon walkers together, and I loved coming to work for the most part. There were blips from time to time, and occasional annoyances, but that’s unavoidable and in every job.
Our manager was fierce; she once chewed me out because we hadn’t reported an unattended bag to the police, and I took the full-throttle telling off because the other seniors had fled the scene. The buggers.
One member of staff let everyone know, just before I started, that she and I were friends. The only problem was that we had never met before. That was odd. Someone else became fascinated by flat-Earth and anti-vaxxer theories, and I struggled to keep my own – opposing – views on science and evidence to myself.
We had demonstrations outside the building when people were particularly excised about a subject; a few times, I found myself agreeing with them, but still went into work anyway.
Later on, we had a restructure and combined forces with two other councils – Dover and Canterbury. I now had a new role, the Front-of-House Coordinator, and a remit to create closer partnerships with voluntary, community, and other statutory bodies. I loved this more than you can imagine.
I worked with Job Centres to improve relationships with the council, took part in community-led initiatives to let them have a greater say in decision making, and did so many different events in the Gateway itself. When television moved from analogue to digital, we held a “switch-over” event to help people retune our TVs; we had volunteers galore, cake, and more enquiries than you could shake a stick at; we all felt like we had made a difference.
Giving a tour once to the new chief executive of Citizens Advice, he went in the lift to go up to the first floor (he was in a wheelchair). I promised to meet him on the next floor; unfortunately, the lift broke down half-way up and my heart sunk – what an impression I was making. Thankfully, Clive had a wonderful sense of humour and was laughing when I finally got him free.
Later, we were given government money to become “behaviour change” trainers; this was at the time when central government were looking for ways to change peoples’ behaviour subtly, and we were asked to go and train different local authorities. My boss at the time asked me to join the training team, and that took me around the country whilst still doing the day job; what a pleasure to be paid for things like that. In one town, our hotel was right next door to a race track; we were very excited about a day at the races. Jenny and I thought we’d won, but received pitying looks instead – the race was only half-over.
I had spent seven years in the local authority by now, and I was content – but I was also nervous. We’d had a restructure four years before, in 2011, but the local authorities were always looking at ways of saving money – and had just appointed as director of the “shared service” a man who specialised in outsourcing public services into the private sector. In the private sector, there wasn’t going to be much call for community workers like me; there wasn’t any profit in it. I couldn’t imagine surviving the inevitable restructure that would come if a private company took over (and which happened within a year or two of me leaving) – and I certainly didn’t want to go back to a desk job like I had before. I liked the freedom and diversity of my job.
Around the same time, I met a friend for coffee who had previously worked at the council, but was now working at a brand-new lottery-funded project designed to help older people. I confessed my concerns, and that I perhaps needed to consider my future. He mentioned that they were beginning to recruit staff for their project and that I should consider applying if I was interested. And so my life took a new direction.