How to stifle creativity in local government
As I have slowly climbed the corporate ladder I’ve gradually been introduced to more and more of the secret ways of local government. When I initially joined at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder I thought it was all simple; everyone kept their heads down, got on with their jobs and it all came together beautifully. I also thought that all strategic plans and policies were obvious, well thought out, planned and interlinked.
It’s only as I climb each rung do I realise that less and less is set in stone and that officers at every level are the same: doing the best they can, but often forced into making do with what they can get together. And as I climb I get access to a few things; the senior toilet facilities (attendants, a range of bathroom products and silky loo roll), my own desk and training specifically designed for senior managers; training they don’t want you to know about, but which I’m going to blow the whistle on here.
So here’s a We Love Local Government EXCLUSIVE – the training notes for the training module entitled “How to stifle creativity” *
So, someone’s come along with a bright idea. It might be a consultant, it might be a colleague, it might even be a junior minion who doesn’t yet know their place in the grand scheme of things. We all know how dangerous change is to the status quo, and how such ideas could significantly alter the established and accepted power bases of senior managers, so to prevent upheaval of biblical proportions simply follow these simple steps to make sure that their ‘creative’ idea never sees the light of day.
1. Develop a pro-forma
Ideas are exciting, inspirational things, so the first thing you need to do is restrict them to the least exciting and inspirational process of all; form filling. Develop a form, preferably made up of no fewer than 25 pages of fixed-size text boxes, which they need to fill out before they can do anything else.
Include sections on context, drivers, equality impact assessments, cost implications, financial projections, resource implications, risk registers and case studies. If you can, phrase the same request three or four different ways and make sure there is plenty of overlap in the answers for each section: this means they won’t be able to easily copy and paste, but will have to rephrase their argument several different ways.
2. Create a steering group
No project worth its salt can be delivered without the aid of a steering group, so insist that one is brought together and engaged with before anything is proposed formally. There will need to be people there from at least six different services, so make sure they get them along even if they don’t want to come. The more people who are involved, the more changes will be suggested for scope and aims, so the less creative it will end up.
While you’re at it, why not ask for a project board as well? Ask them to involve a handful of service heads or higher, to ‘ensure strategic buy-in and coordination’. This tier of officers are statistically more risk averse than any other group in history, so will quickly and efficiently sap all creativity from any system.
Make sure all of your staff fill in timesheets. This tells them a number of things:
- You don’t trust them to be in the office for as many hours as needed
- You know they would never do any work outside of office hours
- You expect them to work to their hours
If you get people into the mindset of working just to their hours you will also get them into the mindset of working just to their job descriptions, leaving little to no room for them to creatively problem solve outside of their remit.
4. Introduce project management software
You can call it project management software, project management, project coordination, information sharing or any other meaningless combination of words, but make sure they have to fill in a load of web forms and upload data onto a central system. This system should preferably require at least a days worth of training before you can use it, and should have more sections than will ever be needed.
Make them fill some of it out via online forms, make some of it open text boxes, have some flash graphics thrown in and insist they upload all pdfs and other files, regardless of the fact that they can’t be easily accessed nor will they be by anyone at any point. Make sure they also do a RAG report, and look angry when anything comes back amber or red.
5. Send them on PRINCE 2 training
No matter how small, make sure they follow the full PRINCE 2 methodology. It doesn’t matter that the idea they have come up with should take less than half a day to implement in its entirety, make them spend a week preparing Project Initiation Documents, Risk Registers, Issue Logs, Gantt Charts and everything else.
If they are still looking keen, don’t let them copy and paste anything they used in the initial pro-forma.
6. Bring up all the times this failed in the past
If they are still keen, make sure they are aware that someone tried to be innovative several years ago and it didn’t end well. It doesn’t matter that we live in a different day and age, that technology and culture has moved on and that the people blocking things in the past have moved on, if it didn’t work once then it’ll never work in the future.
7. Take control yourself
If all else fails, take over the project yourself. Don’t actually do anything to make it happen of course, but declare that you want to lead on it and will move it on. Then stall.
Make sure your diary looks full, and every time they book a meeting with you to develop things agree to it but cancel it at the last minute as ‘something urgent has come up’. They might get frustrated and upset that their idea is going nowhere, but they need to learn sooner or later that the way things are is the way things should be.
*Just to be clear, this is all made up. There might very well be training of this type, but I must not be senior enough yet to access it!