I have learned a lot from three years working at Coventry City Council and six months taking part on the 2017 Local Government Challenge. As I’ve progressed through the challenges I’ve continuously reflected on the main lessons I’ve learned, and these are my final pearls of wisdom
- Local government is politics – you can’t ‘do’ local government while keeping out of the politics. It just doesn’t work. Politicians are the decision makers, so as a local government officer your job is to work with them and implement their plans and policies. There are ways in which you can negotiate effectively, but ultimately, elected members call the shots. If you really disagree with a political decision maker, and you can’t change your mind or theirs, your best bet is to suck it up, or to resign. To make matters worse, our democratic processes aren’t always particularly democratic. Turnout for local government elections is often low. The most vulnerable people are also those who are least likely to vote and have their voices heard. When people do vote in local government elections, they may be voting based on the candidate’s party rather than them as an individual, and there are a number of councillors I’ve worked with during the LG Challenge who (both for better and for worse) do not agree wholeheartedly with the policies of the party they represent.
- Local government isn’t always female friendly – although around 75% of local government officers are women, every single Chief Executive and Council Leader that we encountered on the Local Government Challenge was a man. Where were the female role models?! It turns out that the Councils we went to are largely representative of the rest of the country in that respect – only 13% of Councils in England have female leaders, and only 10% have female Chief Executives. How is it that 25% of the local government workforce are getting 90% of the top jobs? Obviously this is an issue for wider society as a whole and not just local government, but in a sector renowned for being flexible, family friendly and largely female, something is going wrong. As the entire legitimacy of local government rests with elected members, female under-representation in the top jobs is a particularly damaging trend. This needs to change if local government is to do better with fewer resources, and to thrive rather than survive.
- Confidence is key – if you look like you know what you are talking about, people will think that you know what you’re talking about. If you seem unsure, people will think that you’re unsure. Ahead of the last challenge, Adeola, one of our Public Health trainees in Coventry, suggested I listen to James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ just before I went in to present, to get me “in the mood”. In the mood for what, I’m not quite sure. But seriously, I played it in my head, and it did help. Confidence is something I’ve struggled with from the first day I came to work for Coventry City Council, but now I feel as though I’ve finally learnt to believe in myself.
- The environment is challenging – it’s not just me that finds working in Local Government hard. Everyone does. A lack of resources combined with continuous change puts pressure on an already complicated system. If it feels hard, or impossible, to make progress, that’s because it is. Resilience is really important.
- I can do it! – Over the last three years (and especially the last six months as I’ve participated in the Local Government Challenge) I have made a difference and achieved a lot. From writing the 2014 Director of Public Health Annual Report, when I first started working in Coventry and using it as a catalyst to improve primary care, to winning the Local Government Chronicle Award in 2016 and getting published in the RCNi Journal of Primary Health Care for our Marmot City work to reduce health inequalities, to re-commissioning our multi-million pound drug and alcohol services, I have made a difference in Coventry over the last three years. From being selected to take part in the Local Government Challenge, to winning three out of five challenges, developing business cases, presentations, interviewing difficult stakeholders and working collaboratively with others through to almost making it to the final, I’ve shown that while there are a lot of things I could do better, I can do local government.