Who hasn’t wished that they could be the boss and make all the big decisions at some point in their career? The Local Government Challenge is aimed at aspiring Chief Executives, so none of us contestants would turn down the opportunity to spend the day in charge of a local authority.
For the second Local Government Challenge, we had to do just that. You can see us in action here.
We arrived at the Local Government Association offices with no idea what to expect, but after a quick presentation by Breckland Training and a team re-shuffle, we found ourselves the newly appointed senior management team of Swafford Council, in the fictional county of Linfolk.
This may have been a fake Council, but with an elaborate back-story, shrinking budget, website, email account, phone number and a bank of politicians, local residents and media representatives to try and appease, it felt all too real. Swafford Council UKIP-led, and it was failing.
The previous senior management team had all been sacked. As the new senior management team, our task was to prepare a vision and economic recovery plan and a residents’ magazine, which we had to present to an overview and Scrutiny committee… in about three hours’ time.
As if that wasn’t challenging enough, we had to deal with media enquiries, general day-to-day operational issues and the odd MRSA outbreak and councillor scandal. All our staff seemed to be on holiday, or unavailable, so we had no support.
The first time our mobile phone rang, I answered it, and from then on I became the ‘go-to’ phone person. I took calls from local businesses and local residents expressing their gripes and grumbles about the Council. One particularly memorable phone call was with a business woman with a proposition. She wanted Council funding to exterminate all the pigeons in Swafford, make them into pies, and sell the pies, giving 25% of her profits back to the Council. It made some of the crazier issues I deal with at work seem completely normal.
At around midday, the media came calling, and so I went to speak to Tom – a freelance journalist – about how our new senior management team was getting on and what our priorities were likely to be.
At first I felt I was handling Tom’s questions well – I didn’t have anything to hide, I wanted to be in Swafford and felt we were doing a good job, so I answered honestly and confidently. Then things started to take a turn for the worse. Tom kept asking me whether I would be happy to implement UKIP policies and defend the leader of the Council, even if I felt it wouldn’t be in the best interests of the people of Swafford.
I’m still not sure what the right answer to this is – on the one hand I work for local government because I want to make a positive difference and improve outcomes for people, but as the Councillors are the elected representatives of those people, my job is to respect (and implement) their decisions, regardless of my own political views. I tried to explain that 1) if I thought that a political decision wasn’t going to have a positive impact on people, then I would raise my concerns and work with the councillors to come up with a solution that would work better, and that 2) just like local government officers, local councillors ultimately want to make a positive difference to the people they serve, so even if our political views are different, our ultimate aims are likely to be the same.
Tom wasn’t having any of that, and he then produced some information about the Leader of the Council having gone to South Africa (funded by tax payers) to “investigate wine production”, and asked how this could be of benefit to Swafford. I was caught off-guard as I didn’t know about the South Africa trip (and certainly couldn’t think of a way this could be justified) and Tom then started asking me whether I would aim to protect the reputation of the Councillors at expense of the Council. I was lost by this point, and it seemed like all my cool and calm responses were starting to unravel.
After the disaster / philosophical mind-warp that was the media interview, I went back to the team to work on the presentation and magazine. We identified our key priorities, worked out some detail around them and then divided up the content between us and practiced our presentation. Meanwhile, I finished up the magazine and sent it to Ami for printing (or at least… I thought I did). We also had a few more phone calls and emails to deal with, including one councillor-related scandal, and then we met with the leader to go over our final plan (and to be criticised, rightly, for not bringing the scandal to her attention).
Before we knew it, it was presentation time! We presented our plan to rescue the Council to the Scrutiny committee. We framed our presentation around the leader’s vision statement – making Swafford the best place to live, work and have fun, as well as identifying ways of improving the running of the Council. We had a few innovative ideas for different regeneration projects, focused on improving the public perception of the Council and listening to residents, and making savings to close the financial gap.
After some tough questions from some disgruntled councillors (the judges demonstrating their best acting efforts), we found we had just two more problems to deal with – an MRSA outbreak, and our residents magazine, which hadn’t come though to Ami and so hadn’t yet been printed.
After a bit of faffing about with emails and the printer, we got the magazine off (not one of my better pieces of work, it must be said), and we came up with an internal and external communications plan for the MRSA outbreak, while the judges deliberated.
Finally, we came back together and the result was announced – our team had won the challenge!
It was a fantastic result, but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed with my own performance. From the media catastrophe to the magazine administration problem, I felt more like a headless chicken than an aspiring chief executive. It had been a tough challenge and I didn’t feel I’d shown by best side. I really enjoyed the experience though, and I think I could learn a lot and do better next time. If only I could be in charge for one more day…