We know best?


Advice: often asked for, not always followed

Whilst attempting to remain within the bounds of anonymity, I am happy to share the fact that I have two children.  They are at the age when they not only have their own opinions, but they are increasingly willing and (more worryingly) able to eloquently explain how their opinions differ and are superior to my own.  Where they are explaining why their choice of music is better I’ll smile and wave, but when they try to explain why you can eat a diet of nothing but fast food and still stay healthy I can’t help but disagree.

In my mind, and despite their protestations, there are simply some situations where I know best.  I can disagree with them about what I perceive as small things, but when it comes to more major issues like their safety or their health I am loathe to let them make decisions which I have clear evidence to support my assertions that they are wrong.

This head to head battle came to mind recently when I witnessed a version of the same struggle taking place between an officer, some local residents and a handful of councillors.  To provide an outline, the former had recommended a course of action for a project which was different to the ambitions of the residents and therefore against the wishes of the councillors.  This had been going on for some months, and eventually resulted in the elected officials simply noting the officer’s concerns and overruling them.

In this situation, both sides were both right and wrong.  The officer felt that it was entirely within their role to robustly defend their position and push for their professional opinions and recommendations  to be followed.  The councillors felt it was their job to represent the interests and desires of their constituents, and the residents simply wanted the project to be delivered as they believed that it would make a positive difference to their area regardless of the contrary advice from the professionals.

It seems that there are those of us who are officers who are generally very happy to engage with the public on either of two areas; where we expect the end result to match up with what we are recommending, or when the issue being discussed is non-controversial or not actually that important in the grand scheme of things.  Of course, it goes without saying that there are many who take a more enlightened view and offer multiple and real opportunities for residents to get involved, but those who don’t usually see engagement as a part of their job description often aren’t as willing to do so.

Essentially we are happy to discuss things when it addresses what residents want, but not when it addresses what they need.

There are of course many reasons why we officers may not always feel that resident’s views are required.  It is not for nothing that many of the more specialised areas of work which the council is responsible for require years of study before they can even begin, which is usually followed by years of experience before they are able to lead on pieces of work and take on responsibility.  This is not to be laughed at or ignored – it is hard, hard work and is the only way to arrive at a required level of expertise.

However, it is precisely this level of focus which sometimes places blinkers on those same officers.  The level of detail and effort that they put into for projects they are working on means that they often become focussed on the project itself rather than necesarily the reasons the project exists at all.  By focussing on the detail it is easy to forget to step back and remember the bigger picture.

Residents and Councillors are rarely able to match this level of attention, and to be honest rarely do they want to.  It is often not for them to worry about the micro detail when they are more likely to concern themselves with the end destination rather than the journey.  They are also conditioned by a lifetime of accumulated opinion which no amount of reasoning – rightly or wrongly – will break down.  Residents are usually content to know the outline of a project and how it may achieve their goals, and are more willing to take a leap of faith to see if it may work than to wait around whilst a full range of alternatives are exhaustively researched and put forward.

There is also the issue of ownership.  Simply asking residents for their opinions early on in any process will engender a sense of ownership which is impossible to replicate by engaging later on in a process.  The more a resident is able to shape a service, or at least feel that their opinions are truly considered and taken on board, the more likely they will be to then support and make use of that service.

Sometimes officers may very well be right, may very well know what is the best solution and may very well come up with solutions that all residents and service users agree with and support.  However, if they don’t ask residents they will never know, and we risk missing out both on positive suggestions and a degree of public support.  If done badly this can lead to a sense of arrogance on the part of officers in their approach and can create unnecessary barriers between the council and the public.

Essentially, we may very well have a very, very strong idea of what is best for people, but until we talk with them we’ll never know.  We’ll also never have the chance to work with them to explain why we got to our recommendations, and perhaps help them understand a little bit more about where we are coming from.

My kids now know why a constant diet of fast food is not perhaps the best thing.  They still have no appreciation for David Bowie and Stevie Wonder.

They’ll learn.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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2 Comments on “We know best?”

  1. Phil Mason Says:

    An excellent post. I will take some lessons from that! As one of those “experts” in my field, and having often to pursuance others (sometimes whole communities) of the “right way” to do something I now recognise the mistakes made by me (and others).

    Communication is also a skill that has to be learned.

  2. Tony H Says:

    I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode when Homer decided he knew better than the guy who ran Springfield’s Waste Displosal Service.

    The public servant said something along the lines of “if you think you can do better…” Naturally, when Homer took over the service the resultant chaos was catastrophic!

    Perhaps an extreme example of where staff with years of training and professionalisn are misunderstood by the public and taxpayers who all think they know best…


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