How many of you remember the magical performance of Robin Williams as the English teacher John Keating in Peter Weir's film Dead Poets Society?
‘Make your lives extraordinary’
In an early scene a student reads the foreword to Understanding Poetry by James Evans Pritchard. Keating (Williams) describes this guide to understanding poetry as ‘Excrement - that's what I think of James Evans Pritchard - we are not laying pipe, we are talking about Poetry’.
You'll be wondering what on earth all this has to do with municipal life. So let me explain. Last Friday, with fellow panellists Theresa Grant OBE, former chief executive of Northamptonshire CCl, Sophie Timms, corporate affairs director at Kier, and Colm Howard-Lloyd, director of public affairs at Cratus, I was judging the finalist for the Community Heroes Award for The MJ Awards. We had 81 entries whittled down to nine shortlisted. Let me just say, all 81 deserve praise and our thanks.
The first presentation of the day set the bar very high. One by one we listened to amazing stories from all over the country. We met some of the most extraordinary members of the local government family, who in the last 18 months have gone far beyond the call of duty.
‘I stand upon my desk to remind myself to constantly look at things in a different way, the world looks very different from up here!’
Every entry was driven by the passion to serve residents, respond to the needs of those least able to help themselves, to find ways to protect and connect with those most at risk. Two themes started to emerge.
The first theme was that everyone who presented to us - council officers, like those working in the NHS - kept services going while having their own personal challenges to overcome. Some had lost relatives to COVID, others had to learn to juggle working from home and home-schooling their children, while tackling the challenges they faced at work. One wonderful soul had home-schooled four children, while achieving amazing things for those who they supported in the community.
‘Rip out that page, the entire page, you heard me, rip it out’
The second trend was how officers had reacted to the need to respond quickly to the unprecedented challenges. The Government's decree to get every rough sleeper off the streets and into safe accommodation is a good example; councils had days to achieve this goal. Another example was how quickly they could build the networks required to support those shielding, the most vulnerable and the families in most need. Those who shone and excelled had all done the same thing. They quite literally ‘ripped up the rule book’.
For example, a redundant property in need of major refurbishment was transformed in five working days into a new hostel for the homeless. Kitchen units were taken from other buildings as suppliers had shut down. A supplier of beds agreed to stay open long enough to deliver the night before the hostel opened.
The builders and council staff worked shifts with PPE and social distancing, and they achieved what they first thought was impossible. They had created nine much-needed places for the homeless in their area to live, safe and sound. They had set aside procurement rules, the need to report to committees and secure political approval. In ‘peacetime’ that same exercise would have taken 18 months going through the decision-making convention, but then they had a clear ‘task and finish’ objective set for them.
‘It's not the bible, you’re not going to hell for it’
Services just had to be redesigned. Old phones, tablets and laptops were collected and refurbished to enable council services to be re-created with Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp groups. Bringing online support into homes where vulnerable people were forced to isolate from friends and family. These lifelines were made possible by throwing aside the rules but never losing sight of the needs of the residents.
‘This is a battle, a war, the casualties could be your hearts and souls’
What was so clear is that as the council officers, with political support, gained confidence, things started to happen that nobody could have predicted at the start of the pandemic. In one northern city we heard of councillors and officers, who didn’t need to be the heroes themselves, but who wanted to empower and encourage community groups and volunteers to become the community heroes. They redefined the relationship between the council and community groups, a legacy they are expanding with even closer working relationships for the future.
‘Think for yourselves again’
The late Professor W. Edwards Deming, one of the founding fathers of the total quality management movement, believed that people are entitled to ‘joy’ in work. Those people who had excelled, showed us they had ‘joy’ in their work. Their eyes sparkled with pride in their achievements. They aspired never to go back to past ways of working, they wanted to build upon their experiences and achieve more. To harness this new confidence, to enable dramatic transformations in council services, it will be essential for leaders to seize the day. For these outstanding public servants, if the opportunity is lost, they will be drawn to those councils that do ‘Seize the day’!
‘We don’t read poetry because it's cute, we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race’
When asked how the teams’ experience was influencing how they looked to the future we were told of IT departments being asked to look at how even more services can go online and reach inside people's homes, how community engagement plans are being ripped up and rethought to embrace the new opportunities with the best of the past, and how community volunteers can be encouraged - working more closer with council officers by being part of the discussions for the future and not managed as consultees.
The liberation the officers felt by the ripping up of the old ways of working, meant they were professionally alive again. Their passion for public services has been rekindled. Decades of rules, conventions and management practices have simply disempowered them, limited their ambitions, aspirations and imaginations of how things can be achieved for those they serve, the residents.
‘The power of play goes on and you may contribute a verse, what will your verse be?’
We have a long way to go. The pandemic will influence our lives for many months to come. Some have experienced great loss, hardship, and harm to their health that is not limited to COVID alone. After a storm comes renewal, this is our once in a generation moment to improve our quality of life.
I am not suggesting council officers stand on their desks and shout ‘Oh Captain, My Captain’ but I do think they can all stand tall. For chief executives and councillors, the challenge is now how to seize the day together as those who have found ‘joy’ in their work will not be willing to lose it again. Once found it cannot be lost to outdated rules, they are ‘not laying pipe’.
In all nine shortlisted entries for The MJ Award for Community Heroes, it was not what they had done alone that made me feel emotional and heartened. It was the thought that the best is yet to come. They are all Community Heroes.
Nick Kilby is chief executive at Cratus
Cratus is proud to sponsor the Municipal Journal award for Community Heroes 2021.