Happy Election Day 2014. If you work in local government you may want to think about honest conversations. Really quickly. This post was first published in The Guardian.
by Dan Slee
As election day looms the last doors are being knocked on, the last leaflets dropped and church halls made ready for use as polling stations. But what does this all mean for the management of local government? After all, an army of council officers have made the wheels of local government turn for the past year and will be called upon to keep them turning.
Turn they will, but there is a change in the air of town halls. Black storm clouds are gathering, and the nervousness of politicians can be felt as the cuts bite among officers and staff. There is a further £20bn to come out of a weary local government in the next few years.
Election time can mean a change of administration and a change of direction. Such is the scale of the cuts that more than a few politicians are quietly hoping for an honourable defeat at the ballot box, and party activists talk of a dearth of new candidates coming through – they are being driven away by the fact that the first prize is a chance to cut key services for the very community that elected them.
One local government officer said we are now in an era of damage limitation where swaths of good work are being dismantled. The question is: what's next?
So, what do managers and leaders have in their inbox on 23 May when the voting results have been declared?
Some will find a new administration wanting to come in with a new broom. If they have swept to power, they will have no knowledge of the budget and won't have offered an alternative budget themselves. Other managers will find the same politicians eager to crack on with the work.
Whoever the managers or leaders are, three key conversations must take place. The first is with the new council administration, the second with council staff, and the third with the public served by the council. All these conversations will be difficult, but to stand a chance of weathering the storm in the medium-term and beyond all of them must take place. They are the same conversations, whatever the political persuasion of councillors. We will do less and there will be fewer of us to do it.
There needs to be a bonfire of conceits. The first conceit to abandon is the weasel-word euphemism "efficiencies". Efficiencies were by-and-large taken out six years ago. Local government is now cutting to the bone.
The second conceit is for leaders and managers to stop saying "the frontline won't be cut". First, "frontline" is a nebulous term that – outside the context of the first world war – can't be defined. Those who are seeing their library closed or its opening hours cut will not buy it.
Much of what happens in local government is thanks to the goodwill of staff, and if they are engaged they will do a better job. So, face-to-face, tell staff the position. Internal communications should not just be left to the overstretched internal comms officer. Leaders should lead on it, and managers should make good that leadership.
For residents, leaders need to be as clear and concise as they are with staff. This is going to hurt, but it marks the start of a grownup relationship with residents that is needed in the long term.
A leadership model that is shared, distributed and adapted is what we need. Already at Birmingham city council its chief executive, Mark Rodgers – with his engaged style and well-received blog – is evidence of a first step towards this.
Quoting Clash lyrics on Twitter may not be everyone's style. But senior officers and elected officials need to find a human voice and a way to reassure staff that there is a person in charge who can at least understand that what they are doing isn't easy.
Dan Slee is co-founder of comms2point0.
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