Once upon a time, I worked for Thanet District Council. Before that, I worked for Kent County Council. I’m occasionally asked, by the sort of person who is interested in such things, “What was it like, working for a local authority?” Well, I always tried to take my responsibilities seriously, be balanced in my work, and I’d never give political opinions either at work or publicly outside of the hothouse environment that is the local authority. Yes, I really did take my job seriously.
I spent a substantial period of my career – 10 years – in local government, during a period of concerted change. I actually ended up working for three local authorities simultaneously after they merged some services, and that was an interesting experience.
There were dynamic people in each organisation who were good at their job. Whether anything got done depended on whether there was a critical enough mass to actually make a difference. Were there enough decision-makers who actually valued change and were willing to take risks? That’s the same in any industry, of course, but the public sector is more high profile in many ways; it’s where taxpayers money goes, after all.
Being in local government was very rewarding when I had a chance to do something, and very frustrating when something went wrong – or when something is perceived as going wrong. Each issue depends on the people to push it through; what influences them, what influence do the officers have over the councillors, and vice versa – and how do people cope with change?
No council looks the same today as it was back in 2010 when austerity was introduced. They’re being convinced / forced (depends on the council) to collaborate and share services. They simply can’t afford to go it alone in the same way as they did before; if they want to continue as a solitary district, borough, city, or county council, then know that the services we once had will be reduced. Look at the current proposals to amend library hours, for example.
I was drafted into the new shared service in east Kent by the sheer fact that I worked for Thanet beforehand, saw my job deleted, and got a new one in the updated structure. I got to work, as a result, with three very different local authorities, and learnt how to deal with many different interpretations of a single idea. Negotiation skills were key, and you had to accept that you’d sometimes be delivering something differently in different districts.
I learnt a lot, however. I developed my public speaking and networking skills, and maybe – maybe – playing a part in making parts of the council a bit more accessible for a while. I’ve always enjoyed bringing people together, and when I was able to achieve that, I felt proud of what I’d done. But it was also frustrating; things didn’t always move at the speed I thought they should. I had to make sure I considered how politicians would react to a particular situation, and make sure I listened carefully to what was being said.
I actually enjoyed working in local government; it was the people who made it come alive, and the positives – for me – outweighed the negatives. But all things must come to an end, and 2015 was the end of that particular road for me. I’m proud of my time in local government; there was so much that was out of my control, that I couldn’t participate in, but when I was able to contribute, I was part of a team that hopefully made a difference.