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Reflections on leaving local government and why it's broken.

I've just finished working in a two tier, or more accurately a three tier local authority (if you count the parish councils) after twenty seven years. The last six of them gave me a chance to see the strategic leadership up close and an opportunity to look into the engine room of local government. I'm now reflecting on what I saw and why I think it's broken. A brand new County Councillor came into my office and brought with her a copy of a book entitled ' the Jubilee of County Councils 1889-1939' for me to have a look at. I was drawn to page that contained photographs of the City I was the Partnership Officer for, illustrating the congestion at a certain bridge crossing the river that runs through the City. Nothing had changed in the seventy years since the book was written. Further on, a paragraph explained that there would always be tension between a county and a district council because of money, different self interests and jealously. What caused me pause is the idea that I was in a post that was trying to address this twelve decade old problem. As it happened the project of improving relationships was abandoned in favour for service level agreements, local commissioning and the old fashioned 'the districts will do what they are told because we're bigger' approach, dressed up in joint leaders meetings and joined up rhetoric . Reductions in the government grant settlement presented an opportunity to press forward a 'partnership on our terms' agenda and a private sector partnership that shifted democracy further away from the groaning tax payer and has built waste into the system for at least ten years. David Cameron seems to like the rhetoric of 'broken Britain', Tony Blair loved the phrase 'social exclusion'. Both of these sound-bites don't paint the real picture. Paulo Friere says in his book 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' "The truth is , however, that the oppressed are not 'marginals' living 'outside' society. They have always been 'inside'inside the structure that made them 'beings for others'. The solution is not to 'integrate' them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so they can become 'beings for themselves." People are not excluded from society but from the institutions within society. If anything is broken it is them. The very language used to describe under served geographical areas is revealing; we call them 'deprived areas'. This begs the question "who is doing the depriving?" The hope of integrated working between the monoliths of health, social care and education heralded by initiatives like Every Child Matters and Total Place are hidden behind Potemkin village facades whilst silo's are dug even deeper to avoid the economic winter. The silo's are stuffed full of frontline workers who see the solutions that are just out of reach. They are the ones with the real wisdom about the future of public service. To hear a manager say that the "supply of social workers is good at the moment, which is just as well because we burn them out in a year" indicates a system that is broken. When the money duly collected from the people is spent on maintaining the system and not returned to the people in an effective new form; the system is broken. When the tax payer consistently says, with a tedious repetitiveness, that they want something for young people, sort out the dog fouling and litter, in the

myriad of consultation exercises dressed up as 'listening to communities' year after year with no hope of it happening, the system is broken. when it takes nearly 70 years to get a road built, the system is broken. When Children's Trusts achieve interagency governance that effectively govern nothing, change little and facilitate the status quo, instead of changing cultures, stripping away professional boundaries, giving frontline workers high levels of discretion and resource; the system is broken. I would argue that local government is crammed full of idealists who are wrestling through treacle to do good things with their lives and that there is something about the accretion of short term policy, funding, political and career self interest is conspiring in an unintended soup of inefficiency and self serving bureaucracy. Something is keeping it in a stasis that has been around for at least 120 years and is no longer acceptable yet somehow inevitably unlikely to change. Democracy has been hijacked and turned into a cross between a dining club and an oligarchy. Backbenchers sit, impotently, looking at the cabinet member surgeons like a scene from the Anatomy theatre of Fabricius ab Acquapendente in Padua, observing the carving up of budgets and wondering what it would be like to have a go. The best they can do is shout their influence or hope to button hole the key players as they scurry to their next appointment. If elected members representing the people are disenfranchised in some local authorities then what does that mean for our democracy and how on earth are they held accountable for their actions and not the vagaries of the national scene. If we believe in democracy and fight wars for it ; why are we so scared of it? As Thomas Jefferson said " I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion." Is the organisational fear of 'letting go' due to having bought into the whole myth of being in control, trying to impose order on a universe that is predicated upon unpredictable complexity? Enlightenment, Cartesian, linear thinking runs throughout local government like the words through Blackpool rock. Exemplified by a pseudo scientific approach that forces Teachers to test four year old as if it will help their learning. The amount of resource that will be going into the educational equivalent of asking 'how long is a piece of string', and thinking that it will improve the quality of teaching is bordering insanity. For every pound we're spending on 'fattening pigs by weighing them' we are maintaining the social conditions and cultures that are the actual cause of thin pigs. Like a 300 year old Chinese Whisper exercise we invest energy, time and money into activity that lies unchallenged by the question 'why are we still doing this like this?' School summer holidays remain at 6 weeks because it's always been that way and it's not acknowledged that children are no longer needed to work in the fields over summer. The system remains content to stop their education for a month and a half, whilst at the same time chasing parents whose child is off for a week! Traditions are nice and make us feel secure but all of them, without exception need to be re-examined if our systems are not to become slaves to ways of operating that no longer do what they were intended to do."We've always done it like this" is not a good enough answer to a critical question. The headlong rush to commission rarely starts with the evaluation of what is already in existence and instead defaults swiftly to procurement. This undermines real commissioning and reveals a missed opportunity to do things differently. Instead we have a less than transparent version of compulsory competitive tendering that didn't

work in the 90's and is proving to be a time consuming costly mechanism for fragmentation in the twenty first century. How can we fix our broken systems? The answer is 'I don't know how it will end but I have some clues about the beginning'. My proposals are: 1. Give the operational decision making to cross discipline frontline workers and make managers implement what they say. Sammy Miller was a world champion trial and road bike rider in the 1950's and 60's and I heard him, recently, tell of a bike he built while at the Ariel Motorcycle company. It was years in advance of other bikes, it performed well and was sought after by the dealerships of the time. After being away from the factory for a while he came back to discover that the bike had been "chopped up and skipped" because the sales management didn't like it. The bike and others like it could have saved the factory, jobs and maintained a British motorcycle industry. Top down, managerialism that holds the discretion and power at the top is a bankrupt, ineffective, wasteful and demeaning system. It has to go. There has to be a profound transfer of operational decision making to communities of multi agency and multi-disciplined staff that are free to do what is right. Local government needs to learn to grip its values tightly and hold it's activity loosely, define what is right and let people do it. Some services lend themselves to 'place' and some to 'people' and admittedly they may need differing approaches but I would bet my entire redundancy package that the people doing the job can come up with more efficient ways of working if they were allowed too. There's plenty of research around what motivates people that shows if you want people to be creative, solution, focussed, idea generators then money won't work it's only by managers getting out of the way that genius flourishes. Many of our frontline workers are thwarted geniuses. Pay managers the same rate as frontline staff or remove them all together. Reward leadership and happy communities rather than obscure targets or esoteric performance indicators. Turn it all upside down. 2. Abandon control and order for the more effective and resilient order/chaos or chaordic paradigm. Dee Hock, the CEO of VISA coined the word 'chaordic' which is taken to mean the liminal space between order and chaos where adaptability, spontaneity, responsiveness and adhocracy are the key qualities of organisations. Chaordic space is best inhabited by networked organisations with minimum hierarchy focussed entirely on the environment they are operating in. These are the organisations we are short of. We have plenty of rigid, hierarchy bound, top down institutions that cannot respond quickly or often appropriately to the environment it is in. The experience working in my Local Authority was often described as "trying to turn an oil tanker in a bath". I'm not arguing for a total abandonment of the Control/order style of organisation as you really don't want to ring 999 and discover that the emergency services are having 'circle time' as they decide on if they need to bring a fire engine or not. For such occasions there is a requirement for clarity

that is lacking when it comes to debating priorities for the allocation of resource, deployment and nature of services. We need adhocracies (ToflerFuture Shock) that adapt to their environment and its requirements and not the other way round like we have now. Ford never actually said "you can have it any colour as long as it's black" but local government does every day. There are marginal attempts to 'personalise' services but overall it's take it or leave it. Waste is built into the systems and innovation resisted driven by the need to control the organisation because there must be pseudo-accountability to the public. The sands of inertia cover the hope of change as if it never surfaced. The system remains intact and change remains marginal and vulnerable. Rather than re-engineering the whole system the deeply rooted addiction to control and order tightens it's grip on councils as yet another strategy is revealed to replace the last one that was never fully implemented. What is really needed is a workforce that is adaptive, resilient family/community focussed, capable of developing emergent ideas and action to tackle the entrenched local issues.


Overhaul local democracy by asking the question 'how can we get more good democracy" and 'why are we still doing this like this?' Tim Harford economics writer and presenter said in a TED talk "When a politician stands up campaigning for elected office and says "I want to fix our health system, I want to fix our education system; I have no idea how to do it! I've got half a dozen ideas we're going to test them out, they'll probably all fail, then we'll test some other ideas out, we'll find some that work, we'll build on those, we'll get rid of the ones that don't. When a politician campaigns on that platform and more importantly when voters like you and me are willing to vote for that kind of politician then I'll admit that trial and error works is obvious until then I'll keep banging on about trial and error and that we should abandon the god complex." Tim's thesis is that when we have, in the face of overwhelming evidence, the total conviction that we are right in our solutions then we are suffering from the God complex. It is my thesis that this affliction is manifested in political parties or individual politicians and what is needed for the health of democracy is a politician like the one Tim describes. Einstein said that if he had an hour to come up with the solution to a life threatening problem he would spend 55 minutes asking questions and five minutes on the solution. Democracy can involve more people in dialogue with a little effort, and that dialogue could inform our politicians who need to be less loyal to their party and more to the electorate. I don't know if this could work nationally but I'm convinced that local democracy needs less certainty and more dialogue. Less elitism and more prototyping of ideas and action. More representation of the electorate and not of party interests. Break it down to very small wards, have more enfranchisement not less, made up representatives of residents, or how about using techniques such as open space technology or world caf to involve everyone that wants to be involved in setting priorities. Lets try some of this out and try it out. I don't think it could be worse than what we have now.


Design our organisations as if people and the planet mattered I see the capitalist system in very simplistic terms. I can't seem to get away from the idea that captialism is predicated upon ripping stuff out of the earth, one way or another. If it's not oil, then it's coal, or potatoes, or trees. My theory falls down a bit when you look at the fishing industry but you get what I mean. If that simple view is true then it means that unless we look after the stocks of 'stuff' we will run out and capitalism will stop. Finding ways of living sustainably has to be national curriculum subject number one, political agenda number one and human debate number one. It's a really hard debate, all the more reason to get on with it. Local planning, assets, transport policy, recycling are all in the hands of local government therefore they need to wrestle with sustainability and leadership. If Local government can facilitate even small clumps of resilient communities then there may be a chance when the lights do go out that we can move forward. Also reducing energy use, insulating homes, investing in renewable micro generation saves and makes money. Lets explore collaborative consumption, encourage transition towns, involve people in food security and hold big conversations as often as possible. Local authorities really need to stop the rhetoric about people being at the heart of everything we do. It's a delusion. The system, the line management, the form, emails, the computer network have all taken over and demand to be fed on a daily basis. There are laudable, reasons for each of these things existing but they have elevated themselves to the level of system gods and demand fealty from every member of staff and tax payer. Time for a rebalance, drop the Orwellian slogans and newspeak, risk getting sued and go to work with people. Patch Adams MD is a doctor in America, a place where you get sued for having coffee too hot, and in all his years of practice, which is now well over 40, he has never been sued or never had insurance in case he was sued. He chooses not to have patients but instead he has friends and his friends won't sue him. I would sue something I was shut outside of, if I had no other recourse to resolve my grievance I would have to resort to the law. Lets open up the windows of our town halls, let the birds nest in the mayors hat and let the people take over.


Insist on fun and creativity in all our institutions (even the boring ones can have water cooler moments.) Despite the tons of research into creativity, freedom and fun being vital for mental health, profitability and solution finding the culture of the town hall remains as dusty as the first chapter of Gormenghast. Hidden behind the veneer of refurbished committee rooms with down lighters remains the status driven architecture. What is needed is more opportunities for ideas and dialogue. Some research, quoted in Sir Ken Robinsons RSA Animate talk about changing educational paradigms, shows that out of 1500 people taking part in the research 98% were divergent thinking geniuses. The other thing

they had in common was that they were all 4 years old. This percentage dropped significantly as they got older and encountered education. Local government needs to release more of the creative, divergent, fun filled people that work for them. Most people I have come across in Local government, with some notable exceptions, are clever, solution focused and intensely practical human beings whose life forced can be slowly depleted by the rigid format of meetings, culture and target riddled world of local government. Liberate these people, have fun, don't see conversation as waste, foster ideas and experimentation, prototype things, test out what works and let the people doing the actual job have the largest voice.

Even if some of these suggestions are not realistic or not doable, it remains that the current system is broken. Some bits work, but as a whole it's as roadworthy as a clowns car. Time for a conversation, not in the town hall but in a coffee shop somewhere with some big bits of paper and felt pens. World caf anyone?

Bren Cook 6/10/11