Place matters to public servants

Catherine Needham


The 9th theme emerging from our research is that the 21st Century Public Servant is rooted in a locality which frames a sense of loyalty and identity

The role of place in public service needs to be recognised: public service workers often have a strong loyalty to the neighbourhoods and towns/cities in which they work as well as an organisational loyalty. Several respondents talked about the importance of place in public service; one interviewee suggested that the building of a grand Town Hall had once been a physical statement of commitment to public place and questioned whether we now have such a sense of why public service exists. With the move towards more commissioning rather than delivery, this sense of serving a place will become even more important. An interviewee suggested that this service to place should be the fundamental role of councils: ‘God knows what services [the council] will deliver in future but there will be someone thinking I have a responsibility to this place – I’m the leader of this place. That’s the long term mission – all else is ephemeral’.

Interviewees suggested that it was essential for public servants to ‘know and walk their patch’. One interviewee argued: ‘Above a certain grade you should be required to live in [the council area], because you are making huge decisions on how people will live, work and spend their recreational time’. Living outside of the community, removed from the daily life of the area means that public servants may struggle to understand their residents, according to this view. Interviewees also suggested that although public servants need to have a vision of place this is challenging if they are trained to view the world through the perspective of services rather than the place: ‘We need to get people to look after the place rather than just meet their professional responsibilities. People need to get out of their professional silos and work with voluntary groups, people in the area, do their best for the neighbourhood regardless of their professional role.’

Some interviewees felt that this commitment to place was special to the public sector: ‘You don’t have that working for a private sector company. You are like a GP or priest, who wants to do the best for the people in their area.’   Another respondent agreed that GPs are community workers who are based in their communities and have pride and commitment to the City and their area’. However, he noted that the loss of the requirement to provide out-of-hours service has weakened this link to place, as many GPs no longer live in the community where their practice is based. There is potential for similar impact on the sense of commitment to place with more services being outsourced; ‘The frontline…there a bunch of things happening over which they have no control whatsoever and the chances are that you are going to be part of an organisation that won’t be the council. Whether that’s an arms length or mutual body or straight off to Capita.’ Becoming part of a national organisation could have an impact on that sense of commitment to place currently felt by many of our interviewees.

Several interviewees suggested that those working on the front line and in neighbourhood roles have the deepest sense of place, and need to relay this to others higher up the organisation. One suggested that a local government officer ‘should get out of bed thinking about the city not services’.   Public sector organisations also need to recognise that many of their residents are also staff, and create opportunities for staff to respond and contribute to consultations and strategies as residents: ‘Staff are beginning to challenge decisions being made – reflecting service user views but also their own views as residents.’

The concept and importance of pride in the place in which they work was raised by several interviewees. One interview said: ‘There’s a sense that we are there to make a difference and we’re proud to be part of that. Pride in place is part of that, people feel proud of their city or neighbourhood. Just because you live in the city doesn’t mean that you are of the city. It’s not the living in it, it’s about having a genuine commitment to and being proud of the work we are doing in the city’.   There was also a view that leaders have a clear political task to bind people round a place and create a shared identity; in order to create civic pride. One interviewee suggested that the role of champions of a place is a key task because civic pride comes out of identity and this assertion of pride creates things which then pull other people into it.


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