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Carol Grant

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It's time to fall in love with local government again, says LGC's columnist.

The other day I interviewed someone for a senior position in a high-performing council. This person had been working in a council for the past two years, after an impressive track record in the private sector. Her achievements, enthusiasm and energy were palpable. As she put it: “God help me, I’ve fallen in love with local government.”

The remark took me by surprise. The idea of loving local government is not something that is often promoted by council veterans. Yet increasingly I’m coming across people who have made the switch from the private sector and are breathing new life into local authorities.

Public service ethos

One thing that many of them share is a commitment to the customer. There are different ways of promoting an ethos of public service. One is to carry it round like a fairly weighty but often unused badge of honour. The other is to do your work with an unfailing sense of energy about getting the right outcomes for local people.

Yes, many people who move from the private sector into councils talk about the frustrations of working within a big bureaucracy. Yet much corporate life is now bigger and more bureaucratic than any council. I coach senior staff in the public and private sectors. What’s interesting is how many private sector people, with an impressive track record under their belt, ask themselves the ‘So what?’ question.

They are intelligent and self-aware enough to know that chasing the profit margin is only satisfying for so long. For them, local government represents all the things that many who have worked in councils for too long ignore the ability to be really close to the customer, the opportunity to truly influence events to change people’s lives, the chance to give something back to their communities. It also gives them the opportunity to get involved in the rough and tumble of local life in a way that a daily commute to a gleaming tower in the nearest city can never deliver.

Switching sectors

One of the biggest criticisms of people switching sectors is that they struggle to grasp the nuances of local politics. Sometimes this is true. I have met people who have enjoyed illustrious private sector careers who emerge battered and perplexed after a couple of years in local government, swearing never to go there again.

Yet these days it’s rare to find anyone working in a big corporation who isn’t used to working in an intensely political environment, whether it’s grappling with regulators, negotiating with local planners or breaking into new markets and dealing with governments across the world. This experience readily transfers into local government. There is nothing mystical about how a council works.

Perhaps the most significant difference I’ve come across is that most former private sector officers love working with members. Rather than seeing councillors as a necessary but rather irritating part of the municipal scene, they understand their values and respect their political drivers and passions, even if on occasion there may be the odd robust discussion.

Blurring the lines

With an increase in partnership working, the lines between public and private sectors are starting to blur. This has to be a good thing. It prevents those in the public sector sitting in a battle-weary comfort zone. It exposes those in the private sector to life beyond the bottom line.

If you don’t love local government, perhaps you need to ask yourself whether it’s possible to fall in love again, and what you need to do to make that happen. And if, after having that discussion with yourself, you honestly still can’t love the job you do or the sector you work in, what are you going to do about it?

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