More weirdos wanted!

By Donna Hall | 15 January 2020
  • Donna Hall

Dominic Cummings is definitely on a mission to radically shake up public services. He is frustrated by the slowness and lack of innovation and he needs the brightest, the best and some brilliant weirdos to jolt public servants out of their befuddled, compliant, path-of-least-resistance complacency.

I remember enthusiastically reading The MJ for the first time as a frustrated middle manager, looking to learn from others, for pearls of wisdom and seeking inspiration. I wanted to change the world and get things done in my neighbourhood and my organisation to help the fantastic people living in a tough area of our city.

It was the start of New Labour spending on public services and communities and we were part of a single regeneration budget programme. We had £25m to spend over seven years and I was full of optimism – bursting with energy and ideas.

However, my council colleagues and I kept coming up against the ‘can’t do’ barriers of organisational lethargy and complacency. We were seen as weirdos for wanting to rock the boat across departmental boundaries and silo rivalry.

In our little integrated neighbourhood team we would have an amazing idea about how we could work more effectively in our local area with frontline workers, all keen to do the best they could for residents but hampered and held back by daft system rules. Some of the rules were set nationally but some were just retrograde custom and practice we had developed all by ourselves.

Why can’t every council area just get on and implement their own model of reform based on working differently with their people and communities to transform?

Sometimes it is due to a lack of corporate or partnership capacity to change, but some councils chose to cut their corporate transformation leadership. At the start of austerity, they chose to cut the corporate policy, strategy and transformation team, their corporate public relations and communications team, strategic finance and organisational development teams. Any business worth its salt knows that in a time of massive change and the need to save money and be more effective this would be the last place to cut.

You don’t have to be either brilliant at digital, algorithms or a weirdo to see that naked self-preservation and worrying about rocking the boat too dramatically is what is behind the failure to deliver public service reform within our localities.

This is hard and you need a deep visceral courage and clarity of purpose to stick with it and not get dragged back into the comfort blanket of business as usual.

You also need to be a bit of a weirdo to see it through.

You can say ‘yes’ to everyone, disagree with nobody yet deliver no real change whatsoever. You get paid the same, you get no negativity or attention but nothing happens. So why would anyone be bold or courageous?

At the New Local Government Network we have called for a new Community Paradigm and a Community Power Act to cede power and control to communities.

A vital part of this paradigm is a changed form of courageous, bold, but humble leadership – one where we engage very differently with our communities and staff in exciting new power models. We say when we have got things wrong. We do structured listening through citizens’ assemblies, staff listening in to action sessions, we work as one with the NHS, Department for Work and Pensions, the police, housing, community and voluntary sector. We share data with each other and the public and invest in new models of community and voluntary power structures and we build on the stronger things in our neighbourhoods.

So, if you are a bit weird like us, or just plain courageous, join us at our Stronger Things Conference on 12 March in London.

Donna Hall CBE is chair of the NLGN and chair of Bolton NHS Foundation Trust

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