When diplomats retire they are able to write a valedictory. After a lifetime of service they are allowed to be slightly less diplomatic and say what they really think. This is a valedictory for someone who has left local government.
by Ben Odams
I have failed in local government but that’s ok, in fact its bloody brilliant!
So I leave a career in local government, as I reflect on my career I have come to one conclusion – I have (largely) failed, but that’s ok and in fact I am quite glad.
I have spent nine years working in local government. I haven’t changed the world, in fact it feels as though I had barely made a mark in it. I have glowing reports from people who thought I was intelligent and good at what I did, but I still feel a failure. You may feel a desire to sympathise please don’t – you see this failure is one of the best things that has happened to me, I am genuinely very happy and content.
So what changed? The revelation for me came in two places stretch over a long period of time, the first – talking to my partner Julie, who is by far the most intelligent person I know, and secondly reading my books. Each has in its own way helped me ‘to fail’ properly.
Talking to Jules – those individual conversations held at differing times, I realised that in fact my expectations were far too high, focused on the wrong things and that I often didn’t follow my own advice and analysis.
To explain, I am hoping to do a PhD in part on the historical evolution of public goods and institutions – why am I surprised that ‘Local Government’ didn’t listen to me when 400 years of evidence shows they don’t. It struck me that in fact I should be reconciled with the knowledge that I understood what was going on and that should assure me that my failure wasn’t letting anyone down nor a wasted opportunity, in fact this was things working exactly as they should. One of my favourite films has the following quote:
I know how things work, but right now there are 16 dead children and I want a little special treatment.
The strength of the bureaucracy is measured by it's ability to resist giving anyone special treatment.
I don't appreciate your sense of humor. –
One day you will.
Citizen X 1995
We, by default, work for a system that isn’t designed to reform – its designed to adapt. Its slow and this is infuriating buts that is what it is. You may disagree but this isnt a criticism this is a reflection on why none of us individually succeed. For me I want to be recognized for what I think, what I know and what I say – local government isn’t the place for me to do that. This thought process proved invaluable to me, rather than being annoyed with something I couldn’t change I looked for the thing that I could. Me.
Secondly, reading – I love reading, aside from a select few I prefer my books to people. I also have many of which less than 2% are fiction. Rereading theorists like Serres, Latour and engaging with new historians like Braddick, North and Voth, I found myself reading people who speak to me, the way I think and see the world. It reminded me that this was what I was meant to do. Crucially, that lack of progress I have felt in local government seems so arrogant in a world of fantastical change even if its glacially slow.
In short, I became comfortable, reassured that my perception of failing meant I was better in many respects – clearly the general statements of: I have learnt a lot, worked with great people and met Jules all apply. But more than that, I reaffirmed that I was doing the wrong thing, that my work, as proud as I wanted to be of my achievements, they were not the sort of achievement I actually wanted.
Local Government is just a place like any other – I failed in it, that’s ok but I wish you all the very best.
Ben Odams used to work in local government as a public affairs officer in a policy team. You can contact him here.
Picture credit: Smithsonian / Flickr