Ones to watch: local government leaders of the future
Who doesn’t love a good ol’ fashioned performance review? ELGL loves them so much that we’re embarking on a “360 Review of Local Government.”
We’re going to evaluate every single inch of the local government arena by talking to ourselves (a.k.a: other local government professionals), tech companies, journalists, professors, and anyone else who hasn’t blocked our email address.
In 2013, Glen Ocsko (LinkedIn and Twitter) was named as one of the Guardian’s Top 10 Local Government Leaders of the Future. Glen co-founded and co-produced content for the We Love Local Government blog since 2009. We Love Local Government is an independent local government blog, podcast and website for those who work in and around local government. The founders believe that local government has the potential to make a real difference in people’s life and that in general people who work in local government are good people doing a tough job in difficult circumstances.
What I’m Thinking: Who actually are Jon Snow’s parents?! Also, does it actually matter if people don’t know what local government does? Controversial, I know…
What I’m Afraid of: The local government brain drain, with the best and brightest being lured or scared away from the sector entirely, never to return.
What I’m Listening to: Royal Blood – a two piece rock duo who sound as big and deep as Queens of the Stone Age, can’t recommend them enough. Check them out honestly, one guy on drums, one on a guitar. How they make that level of sound is beyond me.
What I’m Watching: Game of Thrones (obviously) and Silicon Valley – best comedy on television
What I’m Doing: Researching Design Principles – I want to work out how they might help make local government websites better and more consistent.
What I’m Proud of: The blog I co-founded many years ago – We Love Local Government. It has helped shape the national local government conversation in the UK far more than I could ever have done as a single officer. (Oh, and insert obligatory comment about children too…)
What I Think About the Apple Watch: I’m sure it has a point. I just don’t get it yet.
What I’m Reading: As a hopeless football fan (proper, roundball football that is…), I’m currently reading Soccernomics – how to apply economic theory to the world of football. Brilliant stuff, makes me think there’s a niche for Localgovonomics…
What I’m Missing: Being able to attend public sector conferences, seminars and workshops. They were fun.
What I Want to Know From You: Are the issues facing local government really any different on the other side of the pond?
The best part has to be a genuine drive by people to do whatever is the right thing for local people, even if it’s not the easiest. It’s constantly inspiring. As for most frustrating, it’s a split between people doing things just because they have always been done that way and some services always moaning that they’ve not got enough money rather than trying to be a bit more creative. Money is not always an acceptable excuse.
In denial, all too often. So many people I speak with seem to think that because they’ve survived to date and that the world economy is starting to feel more stable, that they’ve survived and got through the worst of it. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’ve trimmed as much fat as we can and have five to ten years of further cuts to deal with; it will be less about cutting out more fat, more about removing entire limbs. In the words of Princess Leia, it’s not over yet. As for a grade? B+
Give us three areas in which local government is succeeding.
Firstly, pockets of innovation are springing up and creating incredibly positive outcomes for local people. There is a need for this to be better disseminated and systematically rolled out across and between organisations, but at least the raw materials are there.
Secondly, local government in the UK has also in general managed to cut expenditure significantly without hitting the majority of people too hard. As far as citizens are concerned, the bins are still being collected, potholes filled and streetlights switched on (mostly).
Thirdly, local government is really starting to grasp the digital agenda, and are slowly starting to deliver really effective digital solutions based on user needs rather than the features offered by suppliers. Again, a long way still to go, but it’s the journey which isn’t started that takes the longest to finish.
Give us three areas in which local government needs improvement.
Self-belief – in the UK, local government needs to stop asking for permission to do the things it needs to do and instead just do them. Local government is brilliant, and needs to start believing that.
It also needs to continue making massive strides digitally; too much work is done poorly and is duplicated, local government needs to start demanding only the highest of standards of itself and of suppliers.
Finally, it needs to take a good look at its own internal structures and honestly assess them. Generally speaking these are structures set up decades or more ago to meet the needs of an analogue organisation delivering a different range of services at a totally different speed. We are now all part of 21st Century organisations; while we still work in 20th Century structures and hierarchies we will never be fit for purpose.
For local government, was there any good that came from the Great Recession?
Oh yes! Without the financial crisis creating a desperate need for Occam’s Razor to be applied we would have continued to work in the same way we always did and wouldn’t have been forced into looking at ourselves with such brutal honesty. We’ve reevaluated what we do, how we do it, who we do it with and who we do it for, and created incredibly innovative solutions which, as well as being cheaper, are actually better than they ever have been.
On a more controversial note, it has also seen a huge number of people leave the sector who might not have been as lean or modern in terms of their thinking as they otherwise should have been. It’s been a real changing of the guard, resulting in a smaller, more focussed and skilled workforce which is potentially far better equipped to survive and thrive in this modern world.
Evaluate whether local government is prepared for the ongoing wave of retirements. What could we do to better prepare?
It needs to retain links to those retiring, possibly through normalising and promoting ongoing mentoring relationships between newer (not always just young) staff, so a degree of organisational memory can be retained. That being said, it doesn’t always need to be seen as a negative; it’s a brave new world we are exploring, so new thinking is perhaps a good thing…
In your opinion, does local government have a lack of diversity in its workforce?
Not necessarily across the total workforce, but definitely at the more senior positions. The standard ‘pale, male and stale’ phrase sits uncomfortably true whenever a group of chief executives gathers, though it also applies at that next tier or two down as well. Gender imbalances are starting to change, with female senior officers becoming unexceptional in terms of rarity, but the lack of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) senior staff is seriously concerning. Local government should reflect the communities it represents, but this doesn’t translate to affirmative action up the chain. What is it that is stopping BME officers being represented at every tier? And where does responsibility lie to address this? We can’t just wait around for a few decades for the market to balance itself; action needs to be taken now.
“Innovation” is a trendy word and thrown around a lot in local government. What examples would you point to as government innovation?
Far too many to count. From Sunderland Council investing in a car manufacturer plant to boost jobs and also get a financial return on investment, to Tower Hamlets allowing residents to directly allocate over £5m of funding to projects through participatory budgeting, to Sutton developing a range of community assets to go beyond finance in order to ascertain value for money and a whole host besides, local government in the UK is positively bursting with examples of innovation.
Evaluate local government’s willingness to embrace new technologies.
This is a tough one. There is a clear desire to move forward from the most senior staff, yet when it comes to the practicalities we are having to unpick a legacy of poor system procurement which severely restricts subsequent rollout of new systems and processes. Organisations are mostly willing, but rarely able to fully embrace all that tech can offer. There is also a serious legacy issue when it comes to staff skills and staff attitudes, with a sizable portion still seeing technology as something extra to do or put up with rather than an intrinsic part of how they can work more efficiently. It is no longer acceptable for local government officials to say “I don’t really understand this whole digital thing” and wear it as a perverse badge of honour; it must become an essential skillset and mindset for every local government worker, from bottom to top.
Wave a magic wand – what three wishes would you grant local government?
1. The ability and willingness to wipe the slate clean organisationally in order to rebuild internal structures to better harness modern technology and be reconfigured to allow them to deliver required services in the modern world.
2. Agreement to use electronic voting and proportional representation in local government elections.
3. Giving it the self confidence to do what it thinks is best without the need for both permission from other tiers of government and the validation of citizens. (And if I can have an extra wish; staff relaxation areas with free food, drink and pool tables.)
What question(s) should we ask the next person that completes this questionnaire?
How do you see the situation facing local government in your country as similar or different to that in other equivalent countries around the world? Do the public need to know and/or care about all that local government does? Is there light at the end of the financial tunnel, or is it just an oncoming train?