The council of the future: starting with a simple conversation

22 May 2018

The council of the future: starting with a simple conversation

By Sophia Looney (@sophialooney)

The world around us is shifting, fast. The (relatively) predictable, safe relationships that councils have enjoyed with their local people are no longer the same. The power of movements, fuelled by dissatisfaction, digital platforms and disjointed expectations is changing relationships; the conversation with local people is having to change.

This revolution doesn’t feel like one we can stop, or even slow. How can our labyrinthine governance and necessary checks and balances cope with instant responses that are now demanded? The scale and the pace of change and the shift in expectations that it brings feels daunting.

But this isn’t necessarily a dystopian. The strengths that lie latent, both in frustrated citizens as service consumers and within the people who operate as service providers, employees of public services are strengths to be tapped, released and used. The frustration is an energy which, with the right platforms to support it, could be an energy which drives change and delivers outcomes.  The opportunity this presents us is enormous.

How can public bodies embrace this opportunity? What conditions which will allow public servants to truly understand the places in which they work and the energy that those communities command? To create a new relationship, dialogue will be difficult, uncomfortable and potentially painful. It will push against the structures we have created and often seek comfort from.

To see citizens as equals in a partnership to deliver outcomes, not just as the passive recipients of service decisions, they have to be present, in the room and central to the decision making.  We need to spend time with them, talking, building understanding. We need to have that dialogue directly. Not through intermediaries or via third party providers and not as an occasional afterthought, but to be frequently in the room with local people. How else can we bust our presumptions and prejudices about the skills, attributes and strengths that are there within the community?

While this might be different from what we’ve got used to, it’s not as fundamentally different from what is at the core of public service. People are and always have been central to what we do, how we work and how we operate. Deep within the operational core of all public services is the interface. There, people are, day in, day out spending time directly with citizens. It is their voices that should be the starting point for the shift. They will be the nearest to the energy that is, without doubt, out there. With support, it is these public servants who can start a new conversation with people – maybe through different platforms and through different means – and create a new relationship with local people.

By bringing together the intelligence that these daily interactions attract, councils can start to change the way they think, to start working out how outcomes can really be delivered in partnership with local people.  This is more than just ‘big data’ or predictive analytics. While these perspectives are important, even they are not ready for the shift in power and the movements that are growing in our communities.  Conversations will need to happen not just with individuals, but with movements; not just directly but through a range of new and different platforms. All of which will have to shift the way we think about organisational form.

So where do we start?

  • Recognise the power of the day to day interactions you are already having – and don’t lose the intelligence these can provide in the speed to optimise. What are people really saying to you? What are the front line of the workforce hearing? Is anyone really listening to the insight this provides? Get to the messages which already sit behind the numbers.
  • Find new ways to have direct conversations with local people – and encourage everyone to find time to do this. Talk to people about their experience of the places they use when you are out and about. Take time to visit the points of public service – libraries, leisure centres or the local café and strike up a conversation.  Value the interaction for the relationships that can be built and the trust that could start to be built.
  • Recognise that it can be daunting – contact with local people isn’t something public servants do frequently in many roles – they will need support and help. Look to find ways to do this and value it as important part of the work we all do.
  • Gathering broader, different insights can help support different ways to solve problems. Stop yourself jumping to solution before you really have spent the time to gather insight and new perspectives on the challenges you face.

As movements of power change and the context of our work shifts, the ambiguity and uncertainty can be daunting. But the opportunity it presents is enormous and one which we should embrace; starting with a simple conversation.  

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