If I could change one thing about local government….

July 2, 2013

It would be its timidity and institutional conservatism, okay that’s two things, but you know what I mean.

In my career to date I have looked at local government from many angles, outsider at first (in third sector homelessness projects) insider (for 23 years), and outsider again for nearly as long. I have worked for Solace Enterprises (actually private sector but local government ‘family’) BT and now iMPOWER (a properly exciting place). My other relationship to local government has been, through my Mother’s mental illness, as a reluctant customer.

In all that time despite so many apparent ‘transformations’ I am not sure how much has really changed. Three years ago in the midst of austerity, ‘perfect storms’ and the worst financial settlement for a generation, all the talk was of ‘thinking the unthinkable’, ‘straightforward and honest’ conversations with citizens. The life expectancy of the sacred cow apparently looked very short.

A short while later many of those who embraced that language and set off down that path are no longer with us. The 2011 LGC 50 ‘most influential voices’ now looks very depleted indeed. The basic model has changed very little, it’s just got smaller, less costly, more defended and often less relevant to the real needs and opportunities that are present in todays society. Its weak position made it a sitting duck in the next cuts round, and so it was.

I know I am not alone in hankering after a new version of an era when local government was bolder, when it would work from its core competence, being close to communities and stepping in to act, sometimes riskily, for the common good. The local government that was bold enough to run telecoms, gas and electricity for a time, because it needed to be done and no one else would do it, and the local government that, equally boldly, stopped doing these things when someone else could meet that need, was in touch with its true purpose. John Stewart describes Town Halls as “the cathedrals of the nineteenth century entrepreneur”, are they still?

Is it the case that local government’s own crisis stems from the fact that it is the servant of a political system that is itself in real difficulty. If so then perhaps local governments renaissance will come from the political systems own response to its dwindling appeal. As Kathy Perera wrote last week “What is needed, then, is a wider offer from parties in terms of people’s ability to ‘do politics’, rather than simply perform an occasional function of selecting others to do it for them.”

Perhaps the bold thing now, is actually to leave the cathedrals and return to communities, to really understand people’s stories and to use them to transform services from the outside in, to work with people’s own contributions and not make them passive recipients. When someone starts really listening to my Mum, rather than assessing and administering her, I’ll let you know.

Max Wide, Director

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