Sometimes, a throwaway comment made by someone else can have real resonance. And so it was a few weeks ago when someone at a conference I attended mentioned (I think it might have been Carrie Bishop but if not sorry to whoever did say it) that being a policy officer in local government rewarded negativity. Officers were given extra points if they could dissect a piece of policy or another proposal, in as elegant a manner as possible.
The reason that wrung true is that it’s not just policy officers; being critical, and having a critical mind, is one of the most sought after traits in local government.
Think back to the last time you sat in on a strategy meeting or something similar. Doubtless there was an officer there who had brought forward a researched and thought through paper that was then dissected by the attending managers. Even those that are supportive will only use their support as a preamble to then depart some piece of critical wisdom.
This is not necessarily a surprise. Having critical thought is one of the traits most praised in degree students and in society in general. Being critical assumes that you are able to analyse situations and not just take them at face value. The high value given to it in local authorities presumes that the act of creating good policy and particularly making good decisions requires the deconstruction of other work and thorough questioning before the right outcome can emerge.
Unfortunately, it also presumes that the same people who are experts at the critical element of the process are also able to take that criticism and turn it into something positive; in other words that those who can tear down can also build back up.
I’m actually not against the idea of people with critical minds being in charge of local authorities. I’d far rather that than naive optimists who see the good in everything and therefore end up implementing policies or procedures without fully understanding the implications of that which they’ve just agreed to.
However, my problem does not lie with the straw men sitting firmly in their uber-sunny and un-critical utopias.
My problem is that the cult of critical thinking pervades so far into local government that whereas the naive optimist is flushed out fairly early on (often erroneously) the wrecking ball default critic is often promoted way beyond their actual skill set. I know of quite a few managers in local government who have overdosed on the critical thinking pill. A meeting never goes by without these individuals conducting line by line assassinations on even the most innocent of proposals.
But whereas the best managers would accompany their criticisms with alternative proposals and use their critical facilities to identify problems and then try to find solutions these eternal critics take great pleasure in criticising without ever offering alternative solutions.
It’s easy to see why they do well, at least initially. They are often able to identify problems that others have missed and thus they perform well in meetings; especially with managers who otherwise might not experience their work. Plus, there is often more to say for the critic than the supporter and if the critic is as much of a wrecking ball as I have experienced they are often good at it and win the ensuing debates.
However, what annoys me is that this is tolerated once these managers get to a senior level. I’m not going to be one of those naive ‘if you can’t say something nice don’t say it at all’ people; we need people with critical minds in local government. However, if you can’t see the good in a proposal, can’t think of ways to improve the situation, can’t be optimistic about the way forward and generally can’t contribute in a positive way then quite frankly I can see no purpose for you (outside of academia or perhaps the media), and I certainly don’t want to be managed by you – although ironically the uber-critical are for some reason the least self-aware about themselves, their work or often their team.
Critical thinking is good; being simply critical is not.
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