The power of conversations to improve public governance

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As a councillor, school governor or member of a public body, you want to feel confident that you are doing the right things in the right way. While professional advice and good practice guides are important to have, it’s your conversations that will help you most. But what is a conversation, why do they matter and what makes them so powerful?

What’s a conversation?

By conversation I mean something more than a friendly chat.

It’s a term to describe the interactions you have with people outside of your council or governing body. It might involve meeting in person, phone calls, video calls, exchanges of emails or communication through social media. A conversation might be a combination of all of these things.

Your most important conversations will be with central or local government, your regulators, your managers, your partners and crucially, the public.

A conversation is always a two way process. It’s good to explain what you are doing and share things of course. It’s even better to give account of your work. But the real value of a conversation is what you bring back in, what you learn and what you change as a result. Sometimes conversations can even create something new, something neither side expected, some new idea or inspiration. That’s why effective listening is so important.

Conversations can be formal or informal. The word conversation suggests something more informal, but of course that might not always work.

It’s good to have councillors, governors, members present when any part of a conversation is taking place — and all of them if you can. Of course this isn’t always possible but everyone should be kept in the loop even if they can’t be there in person. And a conversation should be captured in some way so it can be shared as openly as possible.

And your conversations don’t all have to take place in the town hall, board room or school hall. Particularly when talking to the public it can be better to get out of your usual, comfortable meeting place. You are likely to have a better conversation if you do.

Why have conversations?

Some of the reasons to have conversations include:

  1. Confidence: Talking to the right people can reassure you that you are doing the right things in the right way. You can also check that you haven’t missed anything important or some major change heading your way.
  2. Inspiration: Some conversations can remind you why you do what you do. Positive stories give you the energy to carry on and the emotional support you sometimes need for your work.
  3. Noticing: What you are already doing well — sometimes it takes an outside perspective to help you to do this.
  4. Tailoring: Making sure you can adapt good practice to fit your own unique circumstances.
  5. Solutions: Sharing challenges with others outside of your normal meetings can help to suggest new things you might want to try. Sometimes it’s the conversation itself that generates the new thinking.
  6. Influence: Sharing your hopes and ideas with others can also lead to changes outside of your public body. Conversations have the potential to bring about change on both sides.
  7. Values: Understanding what’s important to others, sharing what matters to you.
  8. Describing: What good looks like — co-creating the future you want to see for your governing body with people who have a stake in that future.
  9. Relationships: Can be sources of mutual help and support. Conversations help to build these ties and can lead to new relationships.
  10. Creative tension: Sometimes different conversations might tell you different things, but these tensions can be a source of creativity and innovation, of challenge and development.

By paying attention to why you are having a conversation and what you want to get out of it, you can more easily decide what questions you want ask. You can give structure and purpose to your annual meeting with your regulator, your quarterly update from your operations manager or your visit to the community association.

The power of conversations

Conversations are much more than simply an exchange of information.

As many psychologists and social scientists will tell you, our social reality and our knowledge about the world is constructed by our interactions with others. This means that the way councillors, school governors and members of public bodies go about their business is also constructed by their interactions.

In other words, how you think and act as a member of a public body has a lot to do with the conversations that you have.

It should also be liberating to know that you can create your own version of good governance through your conversations — a version that fits your needs and circumstances. A version that is easier to understand and achieve because you made it.

Getting your governance arrangements off the shelf maybe easier in the short term but will be less satisfying later on.

So, whether you are thinking about one aspect of your governance arrangements, or reviewing all of them, it really is worth making sure that your conversations are the right ones and that they are good ones.

First posted on Practical Public Governance

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