Our colleagues ain’t so bad
Local Authorities are basically conglomerates of all sorts of different services staffed by all sorts of different types of people. Whilst it is often the case that staff, whether working for a company or a public sector organisation, will defend their organisation regardless of what is going on, it is not always the case in Local Government.
So why this tendency to, as the Americans would put it, ‘rip into our colleagues.’
I’ve heard two or three examples of this over the past few weeks which can point the way a little:
1) The ‘I could have done it better’
Local Authorities are having to make some tough choices at the moment and our local newspapers are keen to shine a light on some of the cuts and fee increases that are happening. Just this week, a series of parking increases were getting our residents, and thus the local papers, exorcised. No matter where you went in the council people were sharing their wisdom over exactly how the situation should have been handled; be it by phasing the charges, communicating better or maybe being a little bit smarter about the across the board policy. If you talk to the parking managers they will roll their eyes, point out that they considered all of this but quite simply in order to make the income target this was the ‘least worst’ option. And I believe them.
2) The ‘Oh, for *7%^s sake; you’re really just not helping’
When councils make mistakes, or when the local press/population believes that the council has made a mistake, the rest of the council staff are usually very quick to take the side of the newspaper. Expressions such as ‘well, ain’t that just typical’ are not uncommon and the benefit of the doubt is rarely given. About three months ago there was one of those awfully complex adult social care stories that sometimes finds its way into the public consciousness. It was, thankfully, nothing serious but everyone assumed, including me, that we’d made a mistake. It was only in the past couple of weeks that I had a chat with someone about the general, publicly known details. He pointed out that the complexity behind all of this was substantial. He, obviously, wasn’t going to share with me the details but said that the decision was a border line one and that he still wasn’t certain we got it wrong. And I believe him.
3) The ‘This effects me’
Every member of staff uses council services, so when something is made public that affects them then it’s a very different issue. This is especially the case with things like school applications and transport. No matter what is happening, the local government workers will be thinking like parents in nearly every situation and therefore their sympathies will lie there. If you talk to the dispassionate professionals, they’ll be quite sympathetic to most cases but usually point out that we have to have a policy and enforce it or everyone will suffer.
All of these little examples are underpinned by the simple fact that we don’t really know that much about what our colleagues do and often don’t try to find out more. Decisions which might seem to be ridiculous are actually sensible and well thought through. Likewise, service changes which on the face of it have been made rashly are sometimes the product of being the only remaining option.
When was the last time you spoke to someone in a different service about their work, or visited a different office within your local authority? My feeling is that if local authorities are to keep existing as single entities then managers and staff need to do more to make sure that we all know what’s going on elsewhere. If we did that then we’d be more likely to see the best in people and not always assume the worst when the local paper found something to be upset about.
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