Listen to what’s inside

Can local officers help with translation?

Last week we took a look at how Council’s respond (or not) to social media.  Our argument was that generally we don’t, and the comments received pretty much back that up.  This got us thinking about other simple ways in which local authorities could make better use of their organisational ears in order to take the local pulse.

Usually when officers want to find out what local people are saying they will run some form of engagement or consultation exercise.  The quality and usefulness of these activities is a topic for another day, but in essence they involve officers going out into the community in some way to find groups of residents and other stakeholders to ask them what they think about something.  This often takes some time to do and can cost a significant amount to organise, although arguably this money is very well spent and can save that same authority ten times as much by ensuring the services delivered better meet local needs.

However, this still involves reaching out to local people and hoping or expecting them to get in touch; how about turning this around and reaching inwards for a change?

Those readers who currently work in local government (and at a guess, most of our readers do) will be able to conduct their own quick field test by looking around their office and seeing just how many of their colleagues live outside of the borough in which they work.  A solid mixture is normal, but generally speaking a decent percentage of any workforce lives locally.  In fact, in many places schemes are set up to promote precisely this, with positive discrimination offering opportunities for positions and additional training for locals.  If schools are included in the mix, it would not be unusual to see anything up to 40% of council employees having less than a thirty minute commute, which adds up to a significant number of opinions to gather.

These local officers have a dual role which they live on a daily basis yet probably never consider.  Firstly they have the potential to act as the council’s link with communities.  They know the area around them because it is not just a place to work in during the day and occasionally night; it is their home, a place full of connections and memories, where they know why a certain alleyway is avoided or which park bench to sit on to avoid being propositioned by street drinkers.  They have local knowledge that sits well outside of the ability of all but the most skilled outreach officers simply because it is naturally and organically developed over extended periods of immersion.

If councils were to be able to harness this combined knowledge and feed it into an appropriate system, many of the problems which frustrate local people so very much would become much easier to understand and grasp overnight.

Their second role is one which many officers actually dread: they are often seen as the community’s link with the council.  there is a common misconception that if you work for the council then you know how to get things done and have it easier.  Family and friends can ask officers to help them find out what to do if their house repairs aren’t progressing quickly enough, or who to call if they have a question about a parking permit.  Local officers sometimes do know this information without having to research anything, but at other times will happily find out which team can help and pass on contact information, or perhaps even approach them directly with the resident’s query.

This blogger has first hand experience of having their family asking them to contact a councillor to tell them about a problem they were having, or being asked what the latest plans were for a proposed housing development.  Where help could be ethically given it was, otherwise the best routes were found and passed on, but the role of go-between for residents and the council did not diminish.  In fact, if anything it increased, as others also began sharing their own support needs and questions.

This is not an unwanted or unwelcome burden however.  As officers our role is to serve the public – hence the existence of the phrase public servant.  We should be doing all we can to ethically help those who require support within the limitations of our positions, and if that means going the extra mile to get a colleague’s phone number (perhaps not an epic task, but still outside of the normal day job) then so be it.  That is what we are all paid for so it is part of the job, sitting within that wonderful catch-all at the bottom of every contract which states that we will ‘undertake additional duties commensurate with the pay grade’.  No-one gets paid too much to help local people directly once in a while.

This two way street therefore has different ways to positively contribute to the working of the council, increase local ownership of local authorities and increase levels of communication with the public as well as providing priceless first-hand street knowledge.  So, what is the most common way of mining these gems from such a rich seam?

We ask an annual survey.

The staff survey is commonplace in local authorities, and to be fair does provide some interesting and useful information.  However, as an annual (or even less often) quantitative survey its depth is limited, as is the range of information it gathers.  It is excellent for example at collecting data to support a council-wide initiative of some kind, or report against the old National Indicator sets, but beyond that the uses outside of the corporate centre tend to dry up a touch.

In order to make better and more full use of our local workforce resource we need to go back to basics and treat it as an ongoing engagement project.  Local authorities need to start considering ways of creating an ongoing dialogue (and yes, I hate the jargonistic terms being used here but it serves a purpose) with this group and start allowing them to contribute directly to the work of the wider council, as opposed to the smaller service areas we currently silo ourselves into.

We spoke before about the opportunity for listening that social media offers us with the public, and there is no reason at all why such principles cannot apply to listening to and engaging with our own workforce.  Free tools such as Yammer allow councils to create private online spaces out of the public eye to start having these conversations and tapping into local knowledge and working the findings into action plans.  The conversations can either be managed through facilitated online discussion, or simply allowed to develop of their own accord and then monitored, as long as they are reviewed and insights gleaned.  Of course other social networking tools exist, although considerations into data security and ease of use also have to be taken into account.

We need to get over our inhibitions about internal staff needing to simply focus on their own small pieces of work to the extent of ignoring others in related fields.  Officers are multi-faceted and skilled individuals with interests in all manner of potential projects and work areas – even more so if they themselves are a stakeholder in any work of the council.  They are more likely to get involved if they can both see the project from a residents and from an officers perspective, and will act as a far more balanced middle-man/woman/person-of-indeterminate-gender as a result.  As long as officer neutrality is maintained, the understanding of local workers could fill a gap in the knowledge that we didn’t know we had.

Being a local resident is not a pre-requisite to being an effective and knowledgeable officer; indeed, after a short time many officers who aren’t local develop a close affinity for their ‘patch’.  However, local workers do have the ability to speak two languages – residentish and councilese – and if we don’t start using them as informal translators we could just be missing a trick.

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5 Comments on “Listen to what’s inside”

  1. Tom Phillips Says:

    Hooray, someone writing about a subject I long believed to be taboo – the suggestion that collectively, local gov staff were a normal bunch of people, with normal needs, views and experiences, well able to form a worthwhile caucus, yet never tapped.

    A while ago, I suggested using staff as a consultation group on a specific issue where the demographics of an ideal response group pretty much matched the organisation’s own demographics. The suggestion went nowhere, of course, and the biggest arugument used against it (other than the predictable “but we’ve never done it before”) was that any results would “lack credibility with the public”. Sort of begs the question about who local gov thinks “the public” are, of course. But if the comment was true, would it not also question who the public think “the public”?

    • localgov Says:

      Hi Tom,

      I can see that argument about credibility, but that implies that those internal engagement sessions are the only work that would be done. Using internal staff as part of a pre-consultation consultation might tease out some of those simple issues which the public will bring up and identify areas of work not yet considered.

      Most public servants genuinely want to make their areas better, so we should make use of this enthusiasm in my book.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Tom Phillips Says:

    An “are” got left off the end of my post.

  3. Big K Says:

    Two issues. Firstly the evidence from across different sectors shows a strong correlation between staff statisfaction and customer satisfaction. Understanding this and using your staff as a stakeholder group can be really effective.

    Secondly – a major bugbear of mine is that in local government we are guilty of not planning engagement well enough and not taking the time to map different stakeholder groups. If we did this better across the board then I have no doubt that staff would be included more often in the way we inform our decision makers.

  4. Andreane Thomas Says:

    I agree full heartedly with these comments as local residents / local government officers have the best knowledge if both worlds which could prove extremely beneficial to the authority where they work.

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