A school for local government radicals?

Pete Jackson has a long track record in local government.  He currently works at  IEWM – Improvement and Efficiency West Midlands.  He first wrote this on his own blog – and said it was ok for us to share it here.

I have recently signed up to take part in the ‘School for health and care radicals’ an online course facilitated by Helen Bevan from NHSIQ. It is brilliant! For this week’s homework I have written a blog on what I have learnt so far. I would be interested in comments and feedback from other participants and from anyone else who is interested in change

When I was 18 I was active in my local community, took a strong interest in national and international politics and had a great sense of being capable of changing the world.

When I was 28 I worked as a community worker for the local council and thought I has was able to access  resources and an organisation that could improve the lives of local people

When I was 38 I thought I could manage local authority services through the staff I was responsible for and could influence the way resources were allocated and defend the organisation from those in the community that would try to disrupt those services

When I was 48 I realized that the system that I was part of sapped the energy of the most creative, ostracized those who were different and sought control over the communities that it purported to empower.

At 53 I am striving to reconnect with my 18 year old self that was fearless of authority, that built campaigns based on ideas and energy and that wouldn’t accept the phrase ‘it can’t be done’ or ‘we have always done it this way’.

Local government was founded to address the basic needs of local communities; lighting, sewage and the destitute. In recent times it has become associated with cuts, privatisation and bureaucracy. Attempting to use the language of its private sector counterparts in talking about commercialism, efficiency and downsizing as opposed to the social movements of our time who champion people, ideas for change and challenge inequality where it arises.

Britain has become the home of the most centralised government in the western world. The distance between Westminster and local councils is getting greater, whilst the reduced spending powers of local government make it even as remote to the people it purports to serve.

At the same time increasing numbers of activists are filling gaps previously filled by political parties and their elected members. Welfare rights, homelessness, environment, carers, disability and employment matters are no longer the remit for the retreating state but increasingly voluntary sector ‘partners’ or community activists who are not co-ordinated, tied by political allegiance or funded. They are active because they can be, aren’t restricted by hierarchy or aligned to a political line.

As economic resources; money, materials and technology diminish when used, natural resources; relationships, commitment and community grow with use. These natural resources are free at the point of delivery but local government finds them the hardest resources to engage with as the economic pressures continue to weigh down on them unremittingly.

How might local government re-frame itself to stimulate these natural resources and become less dependent on diminishing economic resources? 

There are 6 characteristics or values that local government could adapt from successful social movements to stimulate these natural resources:-

  • Developing a new sense of purpose with decisions based on collaboration, discussion and actions taken alongside local communities to grow self-confidence and develop a forward momentum
  • Being united in managing differences – debating, discussion and resolution being the watch words as opposed to knowing best, telling and relying on conflict as an excuse for inaction.
  • Sharing understanding of what is going on in local communities, of what the challenges are and explaining why what is being done is being done.
  • Growing participation so that more people and organisations are active, not just at meetings but in getting things done
  • Taking the initiative rather than reacting to whatever the latest crisis is , being proactive in acting upon their environment
  • Acting to make the things happen that need to happen

These values if adopted by local government would assist in building a social movement of a size and scale that would transform communities across the country.

 As Rebecca Solnit said “When we talk social change, we talk of movements, a word that suggests vast groups of people walking together, leaving behind one way and travelling towards another”

This approach would rely on power being reinvested in communities rather than in large institutions through connected individuals in communities of place, with shared interests or with a common sense of belonging.

 Margret Wheatly states “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about”.

But how does a community discover what it cares about? By being told what the key performance indicators are for the council and how little money there is to spend? or by leaders articulating what their vision is for building strong communities and inspiring people to get involved in creating that vision.

Council leaders increasingly talk about change in relation to doing more with less and making limited economic resources go further but rarely about making an emotional appeal to connect with the people they represent to help connect with their neighbours.

By explaining the values, the characteristics of building a social movement through the use of emotion, being more human and providing a call for action local government based on urgency, anger, hope solidarity and the idea that you can make a difference. As opposed to inertia, apathy, fear, isolation, and self-doubt.

 Rosa Beth Moss Kanter explains “Leaders must take people out of inertia; they must get people excited about something they’ve never seen before, something that does not yet exist”

Local government has tremendous people, wanting to serve the public, passionate about the services they provide whilst strangled by the diminishing economic resources and unsure of how to unleash the natural resources evident in the communities they serve.

With these reducing economic resources local government is meandering towards obsolescence. Locally, regionally and nationally councils and Councillors are attempting to stop the tide and protect the most vulnerable with fewer and fewer resources. Central government is further and further disconnected from local government and local government is increasingly unable to meet the needs of the communities they are elected to serve.

The future could be very different with councils focussing on a new set of values and a renewed purpose based on uniting communities, sharing understanding, growing participation, taking the initiative and acting in the interests of the whole community.

This will require councils to shift their focus from the economic resources that they are responsible for to the natural resources available that need to be nurtured, celebrated and championed.

The scale of the challenges facing local government is not going to diminish but the economic resources available to meet them certainly will. The narrative of local government is increasingly defensive, desperate and depressing. On the other hand the social movements of our day with their emphasis on social media, social change and the importance of people are continuing to emerge, adapt and grow to provide vision of the way communities could be.

Unlike me local government faces a choice to try and reconnect with the values and principles that provided sanitation, light streets and compassion. My choice has already been made.

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