Culture

Councillor Mel Usher

 

Much has been written about the Frome Town Council being Independent. There is no denying that this has been crucial in how we select councillors, how we interact with one another and others, and in some of the values we have adopted.

However something else is at play here which centres more around a classic cultural change programme, despite never being called that. Most of our travels and contact with other councils boil down to several common moans:

  • The Clerk does not understand/let us do what we think we should be doing.
  • The rules/procedures of the council and the law don’t allow you to do this.
  • The Councillors aren’t tuned into modern local government and won’t allow us staff to get on with the job
  • We have always acted like this and its been fine with us
  • The voters of ‘X town’ won’t like this and I am elected to make this decision
  • We have no money (often because there has been no at-tempt to raise the precept nor to explain why it is necessary)
  • Why change. What’s wrong with what we have got now?
  • Our council is riven with factions and petty in fighting on the political stage so there is no consensus on what we should do next.

Of course not every council is like this, but few in the sector wouldn’t recog-nise at least some of these traits in their home council. Whilst councils can receive help from NALC and elsewhere to solve knotty legal problems there is very little assistance around cultural change, partly because there are no accepted role models.

We are not advancing FTC as that model, local circumstances and require-ments will dictate how a council operates and that is right. However there may be some mileage to some of these thoughts.

Ditch the Local Government speak

Have you noticed how we suddenly adopt a new impenetrable language of our own when we write reports or enter a committee arena? It’s as if some cloud of abbreviations, latin primer constructions, ancient English words and acro-nyms descends on us. We have tried very hard to rid ourselves of all of this, just a look at our “summons” to a council meeting tells a story. Social media also helps to clean up the language and our one page “what happened last night?” posting after every committee is written in English. The very informality of our meetings helps strip away pompousness.

Challenge belief systems

It’s absolutely crucial that as councillors (and staff) we ask the question “Why?”. Don’t stop at the first reply to a “why?” – for example “because we have always done this” is not an answer. Keep going and ask “why have we always done this?” In effect each answer forms the basis of the next ques-tion until you get to the root of a problem. It might take as many as 5 “why’s”. Destabilizing and unsettling questions can also be healthy, as long as they are asked for the right reason (too often its for self aggrandizement or to carry on a personal disagreement). We also spent a lot of time as a group of people asking the question “what is this organisation for, why is it here and indeed why are we here?” You might be surprised where that takes you and indeed how many different answers you receive. But you will get to what you believe in and others will join you.

Be niche

Its good to be different. Once you have carved out a niche, stick with it. People know what to expect from you. Our niches have been around saying “yes”, engaging with people, being a little odd and being independent.

Celebrate connections, be outward looking and seek diversity

There is a tendency for many providers of services to look inwards – at their own efficiency. That’s fine but its not enough. Every community, big or small, has a myriad of voluntary organisations, informal one off events, statutory services, local groups, delivery people and so on. We have spent a lot of time identifying these people and helping them see connections, building their strengths and taking a holistic view. In theory that should make all of our efforts more effective.

Look for expertise in unexpected places.

Why do we sometimes assume that because we are elected we are the repos-itory of all knowledge? Every community has a wealth of experiences within it. Traditionally local government has spent a lot of time excluding others from being involved in the build up to and in the decision itself. We have tried to overcome this by allowing greater speaking rights at meetings, holding meet-ings in a much more transparent manner and format, publicising our intentions well in advance to allow comment and handing over decisions to others, for example through participatory budgeting and panel meetings run by “experts” in their fields.

Create space for the unplanned, stay open minded.

FTC has a fairly sophisticated system of moving from strategy to work plan-ning to implementation and then subsequently review. However some of the best decisions we have made have been opportunistic, seeing the budget as a guideline rather than a blueprint. So for example we were able to unlock a large lottery grant for a local venue by borrowing money one year, we saw an opening for a voluntary car scheme for the disadvantaged when a surgery closed, so we created one within weeks.

Use resources as a tool for change.

We see all of our staff and money as being a resource for change. Yes much is locked up in year on year budgets but you can create headroom. For example 20% of our annual budget is “given away” to groups in the town to help them be more successful. The use of techniques such as a crowdfunding site, where a successful proposal is part funded by the council, have not only released new sources of money but have addressed areas that might not have made a budget line, like a breast feeding club.

Model the future

In 2011 we used a technique called future basing. Essentially we cast our mind forward four years, identified what the town might look like, graded out the essential elements and tried to recognise which decisions, made when, would help to get us there. Of course it was only partially successful, we don’t live in a static system but it did help us to identify areas to concentrate on.

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Our parish council world has an odd view of itself, much of it divorced from reality. Essentially it says: councillors set policy and decide what is to be done, paid staff carry this out and the end product is done to the community because this is a representative democracy. There is so much wrong with this view that its difficult to know where to start. The role of the Clerk and the Council is am-biguous and oh so cautious. The Clerk is in charge unless the Council is sit-ting. We know that is not true and does not chime with councillors determining a course of action. It’s a system built on fear of what will happen if we let these elected people take charge and is out of step with the rest of local government. The relationship between the paid staff and those elected is also much more sophisticated, it’s a constant interaction with shifting roles and outcomes. And that is fine. Just “doing it” to communities and individuals is no longer good enough and doesn’t work in the long run. So people need to be helped to be involved in the process and decision making. Mixing it up involves using skills and experiences at all different levels to the advantage of the community.

Make more mistakes.

This is a difficult one to get across without being misrepresented. If you only do what you have always done and always err on the side of caution and safe-ty you will never change, even though the world outside has moved on. The argument goes that as a result you will never make a mistake, it worked last year so it will work again. Of course this always assumes that you are doing the right things in the first place, whereas you could be doing the wrong thing right.

So there is a school of thought that says if you are really pushing the bound-aries you are bound to be at fault sometime. Usually when this happens there is a search for a “victim” to blame. We have tried to avoid this approach, if you don’t, you can never really ask anyone to experiment with a new way of doing something. Quite a few people have left FTC but none for making a cock up.

Ready fire aim

Of course this is the reverse of normal business and government philosophy and does not apply in all cases, so use sparingly. There is, however, a tenden-cy at a local level to over think a problem, to delay a decision, to put things off, to over consult without any end product. Sometimes its best to get started and learn as you go along even if you are still uncertain of the final objective. As long as you are heading in the determined direction the exact point of arrival does not always matter too much.

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