Over the last six months I’ve enjoyed the Local Government Challenge, but I’ve also enjoyed writing about it, learning from it and sharing my reflections with friends, family and colleagues. I’ve been asked a few times to write a blog on what I do when I’m not busy scaling Gloucester cathedral or developing rescue plans for fictional authorities, and what it’s like to actually work in local government.
For the last three years I have worked for Coventry City Council as a Programme Manager in the Public Health department. In Coventry, as in all local authority areas across the country, there big differences in how long you are likely to live and how healthy you are likely to be based on where you are born and where you live. If you are born and live in one of the more deprived parts of Coventry you are likely to die around nine years earlier than if you are born and live in one of the more affluent areas of the city. My job is to try and change that, so that everyone in Coventry – no matter where they are born, live or work, is able to live a meaningful and healthy life.
This isn’t easy. There are a number of factors that affect our health, many of which Public Health has very little control over. We try to reduce health inequalities by commissioning services that support the most vulnerable people (such as sexual violence and drug and alcohol recovery services). We also work with partners across the Council and across the city to implement projects and initiatives and transform ways of working to make sure that everything we do contributes to a reduction, rather than an increase, in inequalities.
Inequalities in health arise from inequalities in the society – to reduce health inequalities we have to improve the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live and age, and we have to make the biggest difference for our most deprived residents. This involves working with a broad range of partners including children’s services, education, employment services, planning, transport, licensing, healthcare and private workplaces. At the same time, commissioning specialist services requires a relatively detailed understanding of the needs of our vulnerable people, and a good idea about the evidence base for improving outcomes. I’ve had to get good at managing competing demands, multiple stakeholders, and most of all… at not being the expert.
A typical day might look something like this:
8.00 – 8.30 Emails and programme management
Arrive at the office in Coventry, respond to emails and review the Inequalities work programme and what we need to achieve.
8.30 – 10.30 Commissioning a drug and alcohol recovery service
Read through and evaluate a tender response from a potential provide who has submitted a bid to provide drug and alcohol recovery services in Coventry.
10.30 – 11.00 Catch up with a colleague about physical activity
Although physical activity doesn’t fit within my work programme, I catch up with a colleague looking for some advice and support as she contributes to a West Midlands-wide strategy to improve levels of physical activity
11.00 – 12.30 Performance update on progress to stop FGM
Write a report for the Council’s Scrutiny Co-ordination Committee about the progress we have made tackling FGM in Coventry over the last 12 months. Preventing FGM and supporting survivors is a major priority at Coventry City Council, and the Council was the first in the country to pass a motion to condemn FGM. The purpose of this report is to show how far we’re meeting the objectives we set out to achieve a year ago, and to highlight other actions we could take to stop FGM in Coventry. (Read more about Coventry’s approach to tackling FGM here).
12.30 – 13.00 Lunch
Catch up on emails and eat something!
13.00 – 14.30 Marmot Steering Group
Coventry is a Marmot City (not named after a furry rodent, but after Professor Sir Michael Marmot at University College London’s Institute of Health Equity, who is a major Public Health celebrity and health inequalities expert). This means that senior managers and partners across the city are committed to tackling health inequalities through doing different things, and doing things differently. We meet with partners across the Public sector, voluntary sector and private sector once a quarter to review the progress we have made and further ways we can work together to reduce health inequalities. (Read more about Coventry’s Marmot City work here).
14.30 – 15.30 Review Coventry’s Drug and Alcohol Strategy
One of my team members is currently developing a Drug and Alcohol Strategy for Coventry, so I review the draft document and give comments and suggestions for improvement.
15.30 – 16.45 Monitor the Sexual Violence Support Service contract
To end the day, I walk to the Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (CRASAC) which is based in a different building a little way across the city. We commission CRASAC to provide specialist support and counselling for victims of sexual violence, so I meet with them once a quarter to review performance.
16.45 – 17.00 Go home!
At the end of a busy day I head home for a good night’s rest. It’s not long before it’s time to get up and do it all again!
Working in local government has its moments – it can be very interesting, varied and you never know what the day will bring. It’s certainly not quiet, and I can honestly say that I’ve never been bored here!
On the other side, it can be challenging and frustrating at times – Councils have limited resources, and significant public sector cuts have meant that Councils have had to make huge changes at an unprecedented pace. The effects of austerity make it difficult to deliver high quality services and to improve outcomes for the people of Coventry, and this is likely to have the biggest impact on those who most need those services, and increase inequality.
Working with elected members also creates a unique dynamic – it forces you to consider the perspective of the residents that Councillors meet day in day out, and the problems they face. It’s also important to consider the views of those who are most vulnerable and who may not feel able or be willing to ask their Councillor for help, and to reflect on the big, strategic things we can do to make a difference to health and wellbeing and address inequality across the city.
Councils are huge organisations – Coventry City Council employs around 5,000 people, excluding staff in schools – and it’s a complex environment. This can create great opportunities for career progression, meeting new people, partnership working and doing things differently, but it can also make it difficult to find your way round the organisation and to make progress quickly.
The Local Government Challenge is a fantastic opportunity to see what life is like in different local government organisations across the country. It has been very interesting to work on different challenges with different people, and in many ways it feels like the challenges have given me a chance to see what a day in the life of a government officer would be like without having to follow the processes or deal with the small ‘p’ politics which are inevitable in any workplace, but which can get in the way of all the fun and glamour!
A typical day in the life of a Local Government Officer isn’t, unfortunately, particularly glamorous – but it is definitely varied, and definitely challenging. Ultimately, working in local government is about making a difference and improving outcomes for the people we work with and work for, and while it isn’t easy, it is essential.