These things I’ve learnt

It’s the last working day before a week off for Xmas, so a good moment to jot down some reflections on 2017. It’s been my first proper year in local government, at an extraordinary time for the sector and a critical moment for my 33rd of London.

You all know the story by now: think tanker who’s never had a proper job jacks it in to help put the forgotten borough back on the map. Imagine Doc Hollywood except set in Ilford and starring Mr Bean.

Here are some thoughts about S01e01:

  1. I never realised local government would be quite so exhausting. We’ve spent this year trying to get our budget to a sustainable place, which has meant taking out tens of millions in a single year. We’ve had to improvise a gigantic change agenda across the whole council and deliver projects at incredible pace. Not everything has gone right (warning: understatement alert) but considering where we started from the progress is incredible. Now the whole organisation needs a break.
  2. Local government wants you to behave like an idiot. The whole system is set up to encourage silo working, secrecy and hierarchy. This is obvious to anyone who’s worked in a council before, but I hadn’t. I keep catching myself behaving in localgov default and have to consciously correct what I’m doing. The good news is that it’s really easy to resist the idiocy. I’ve spent a lot of this year working on our culture, and hundreds of our staff are up for being far more open and collaborative. As leaders, we just need to give them permission and tools, model the behaviour we want to see and call out the stuff we don’t. We also need to accept that if we really want open, innovative behaviour, it’s going to push us outside our comfort zone sometimes.
  3. We need to talk about security. Everyone in Redbridge knew that the ancien regime was unsustainable and needed to change, but now it’s arrived the scale and pace of that change has been a huge shock to the system. In psychological terms, we’ve removed a lot of the things that gave people a sense of position, status and certainty, right down to the pot plants they can no longer have on their desks due to agile working. We can’t bring the old certainties back, but our staff do deserve a sense of some kind of secure base. This question goes much farther than local government, of course. You could argue that the events of the past two years all come down to the lack of psychological security provided by contemporary capitalism. But we need an answer locally.
  4. There are days when I feel like I’m living in the early days of a better nation. Anyone who’s read my blogs this year will know how optimistic I feel about the opportunity to reshape the whole concept of strategy, turning it into something that gives real power to our communities. I’m a long way from realising that vision, but I can see things starting to move, in my directorate and across the council. Even today, writing through year-end exhaustion, I can see the outlines of a better world just beginning to emerge through the haze.
  5. There are also days when I honestly feel like I don’t have a clue. And they usually come directly after the better nation days. The gap between my high falutin’ optimism and the reality of trying to hold a council together at a time of profound stress is sometimes quite difficult to handle. I’m fortunate to have great colleagues and we’re going to get this sorted.
  6. The Redbridge borough boundaries are basically the same at the Wu Tang Clan logo. Who knew? As we’ve been around since the 60s, I can only assume that ODB has some sort of Ilford connection.
  7. You should all read Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway because it’s amazing and has totally captured my imagination.

Here’s to an awful lot of sleep, some quality family time, a couple of mince pies and a few sneaky disaronnos (for some reason it’s the only drink in the house at the moment). Thanks to everyone who’s been part of the story in 2017. See you all on the other side.

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