Rock n Roll local democracy needs council staff superstars

Most of my weekends are spent playing with my young son, meeting friends for a few beers (in moderation of course, I work in Public Health) and occasionally shattering any sense of emotional tranquility by going to watch Arsenal. This weekend I went to Huddersfield to meet clever people and discuss how we can make local public services more empathetic and personable.

Notwestminster is a fantastic event, now in its second year and joining a growing network of open space conferences and meetups that are working to improve public service in the UK. I’ve attended a few in the past (most recently UKHealthcamp), but have always been happy to sit back and contribute to other people’s discussions.

But there’s an issue that’s been nagging me for a while, that this event offered an opportunity to explore and unpack. Whilst lots of sectors are realising the benefits of a workforce who share a bit of themselves to build trust and engagement with clients (design, campaigning, and charities in particular), for the most part local government does not. There’s a risk aversion to allowing staff to be more personable in their work, and a preference to the shield of ‘high standards of professional customer services’. I think we lose out because of it.

I first became aware of ‘public narrative’ as an idea during a training course that covered the work of Marshall Ganz, who has spent many years helping communities get organised and be heard. In many examples here councils would be on the receiving end of these communities’ stories, but would rarely feel able to share their own opinions or experiences, which is how conversations are supposed to work. I’m interested in what public service narrative could look like.

Talking about talking

So on Friday night I tried to fit a broad range of thoughts about the potential benefits and barriers of council staff being more human into the restrictive-yet-empowering format of a PechaKucha presentation (which was terrifying and rewarding). On Saturday I hosted a workshop that gave us a bit more space to delve into the topic.

The discussion was brilliant. I’ve tried to summarise it (typed at speed whilst facilitating the session), and there seemed to be general agreement that (a) staff in lots of service areas often didn’t feel it was appropriate to share their experiences with residents and (b) this just might improve the way these services run.

The 3 main points I took from the others in the workshop were:

Some services are better suited to conversational staff- clearly relational services like social care require a level of empathy (co-producing services also needs a balanced platform for people to engage effectively). So is there scope for this in transactional services? Someone said he didn’t expect to become friends with his binman, and I see the point, but as a really visible face of the authority perhaps they could have conversations when the job allows.

How much authority does the local authority have?- Up til the workshop I’d been thinking of the main benefits as making residents’ interactions with their council a bit more pleasant and personable, then hopefully persuading them to get involved in the way their community is managed. But a health visitor attending made the point that “we’ve got nothing left tactically to sit on residents”. With budgets restricted and staff stretched in the contact they can have with residents, we often don’t have a choice but to engage more empathetically.

Humans vs robots- Nick Booth explains on his blog of the event that even for government “in a decade or two it will be much easier to have software perform processes and robots perform actions. The work that can’t be done this way is the work that requires empathy. So the future of public servants is about their humanity”. This is really clearly demonstrated in the new roles that we need to keep meeting residents’ needs, as outlined in the brilliant 21st Century Public Servant project. GPG Grey has a great summary of the growth of automation- the robots are coming so we need to specialise in our human qualities.

Does it matter?

I’m still not sure. Clearly what matters most is that people get high quality public services, designed with users in mind, preferably contacted in the format they choose. But if we can make that contact more affinitive I think that can help all three.

I realise that there’s loads of examples of this happening across the country in all the teams I’ve mentioned here and others like housing, youth services and highways. But there seems to be agreement that in lots of areas it’s frowned upon to share too much, and the expectation of professional customer services often makes staff think twice.

Rock n roll democracy

The topic for this year’s Notwestminster theme was rock n roll democracy, recognising that at the moment local politics is uncool and more like obscure jazz or Gregorian chanting. I think that for local residents to want to engage, people now expect to deal with staff they can relate to- more like Paul McCartney, less like Louis Balfour.

Thanks for the chats: Catherine Needham, Dave McKenna, Nick Booth, Chris Bolton, Fan Sissoko, Helen Spires, and my awesome team at work.

Photo credit: LDBytes, Anthony Mckeown and the 21st century public servant project

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