Look for the silver lining
There is very little to be happy about in local government at the moment. People are losing their jobs. Services are being cut. Battle lines are being drawn and people are being forced to take sides, whether they want to or not.
But do you know what? I’ve seen a sliver of silver lining on this depressive cloud. It’s not much of a lining perhaps, but in these dark times every sliver helps.
People are talking.
Some are talking about the amount of non-jobs in local government others are talking about the impact of cutting vital services to vulnerable groups: but whatever the debate, people are talking about local government.
In my relatively short career in my own ivory tower I’ve never known so much focus on something that has often been derided and seen as nothing to be proud of by many of my private sector friends. Until recently when I told people that I worked for the council and told them what I did they would simply smile politely and nod, before moving the conversation onto some other level of inanity.
Now, those same people ask me what it’s like at the moment with so many jobs being lost, share their opinins (positive or negative) about how efficient local government is and give their own thoughts on where additional savings could and should be made. Many of these opinions are nothing more than facile repetitions of media releases, and depending on the leaning of their favourite daily rag range from condemnation of the condem government to axe sharpening of the highest order. But the amazing thing to me is that they have opinions.
I’ve even heard one aquaintence do their best taxi cab driver impression and tell me they’ve got nothing against public sector workers – some of their best friends work for the council – but there are too many fat cats earning more than the Prime Minister and not enough real frontline workers. The fact their definition of frontline is as blurred as the current situation facing the NHS and their idea of back office makes my knowledge of quantum physics seem encyclopedic is not the point. The point is that they were thinking about it.
The more people that are talking about the challenges facing local government, the more likely it is that the level of understanding of what local government actually does will increase. Every time people find a new service being cut and point it out, more people might stop and realise that the council does more than collect taxes, bins and bin taxes. The range of services offered and the complexities of delivering these effectively is mind boggling and sadly hidden, especially those which are not deemed sexy but are well run and help residents live a better life.
I’m not sure this is what Eric Pickles et al had in mind when they began pushing local government into the spotlight, but it most definitely is a positive side effect that might have a more lasting impact on the perceptions of our work than the cuts will. Even after funding levels have settled and local government is able to identify the level of services it will deliver, local people will be able to point to more things than ever and say “the council does that”.
It might be pouring with rain at the minute, but I’m going to keep my eye firmly on that silver lining and put an umbrella up.