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FEATURES-A PASSION FOR PRAGMATISM

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Claire Seneviratna talks to Abigail Melville, one of the architects of the IDeA's new online training and advice se...
Claire Seneviratna talks to Abigail Melville, one of the architects of the IDeA's new online training and advice service, about her credentials for succeeding in national politics but remaining committed to local government

You get the feeling, talking to Abigail Melville, assistant director of Improvement and Development Agency's Knowledge directorate, she is the archetypal Blair babe - minus the Westminster job.

But right-on, keen on modernisation and undeniably glamorous, Ms Melville is strangely cynical about

national politics. This fact is made even stranger when you consider that Lambeth LBC, where she is a councillor, has traditionally been seen as a nursery

for ambitious politicians, with John Major and Peter Mandelson both cutting their political teeth in the

council chamber.

'People always ask me if I want to enter the House of Commons and I just look at those MPs and think, 'what are you doing?' They have a massive in-tray all the time and are just run ragged.'

This is a woman who likes to get her hands dirty. Practical change is Ms Melville's raison d'être and local politics is still her inspiration.

'I've always had a belief in the community and making decisions at the lowest possible level. That's why I love local government.'

Just last week, she finally alighted the 'emotional roller-coaster' she's been on for the past two years, developing an e-learning system intended to revolutionise the workings of councils.

IDeA Knowledge went live last month. Its aim is simple yet daunting - to provide councils with an integrated web service which will offer training and advice on achieving best practice.

'We want to get rid of the notion that each authority is an island. Councils have to learn what works and why, through dialogue with each other as well as ideas from other sectors,' says Ms Melville.

Previewed at the Local Government Association conference in Harrogate last month, the response to IDeA Knowledge has already been massive. In just a week, requests for the service have risen from 200 to 1,500.

The hitherto absence of cohesive guidance will soon be replaced by case studies, how-to guides, route maps and frequently-asked questions. 'I am so not technical. I'm crap on the internet, really impatient, just your bog-standard user. So I understood the need for a user-friendly system,' she says. 'Knowledge was originally one of 10 departments but then it was turned into a directorate and it's now seen as the building-block department - the place where change begins.'

With her previous experience of both the public and private sectors, Ms Melville has the non-ideological approach which seems to epitomise this government's modernisation plans.

Having been head of local government at the Labour Party, then a senior consultant on best practice at public affairs consultancy, Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn, she isn't afraid of the public/private partnership debate.

'A lot of people in the public sector think they have a job for life and believethey are owed a living - but they are not. Some of the problems in local government stem from a lack of strategy. The discipline that characterises the private sector is what I want to develop, but without profit being the bottom line.'

She acknowledges the suspicion that exists among more senior council staff but is buoyed by the attitudes of many beacon councils that have embraced new initiatives. 'We are here to show people there could genuinely be a renaissance at a local level, where local government gets ahead of the game and is seen as excellent. It won't be easy and there is a long way to go but the momentum is there.'

With a zeal that almost belies her moderate stance, Ms Melville is unsurprisingly no stranger to political activism. While a student at Oxford she campaigned for her college to remain single sex to 'guarantee the jobs of women fellows'.

When the Green parties made great strides in the European elections in the late 1980s Ms Melville became motivated to pursue a career in environmental policy at the Association of County Councils. But she soon became disillusioned with the 'more fluffy and unrealistic end of the Green agenda', again opting for pragmatism and a near obsession with 'practical, hard-edged change'.

She currently sits as councillor in Stockwell, the ward where she grew up, and is one of Lambeth LBC's celebrated elite. The council has a wealth of young, professional councillors, including a health policy advisor to Tony Blair and a Daily Telegraph journalist.

'People came in at the last election on a wave of enthusiasm. They were full of energy and ideas but many have simply burned themselves out.'

The pressures of work look set to force her to stand down from the council next year. But she admits she will miss the hands-on experience. 'Having the perspective of what it feels like to be a councillor has really helped me in developing the knowledge project,' she says.

'You can work on the policy and the theory but until you become elected yourself, you don't realise how undefined and unsupported the role is.'

Whether she truly will remain resistant to the lure of national politics is unclear. But for now Ms Melville has a one-track mind. 'I am really committed to what local government can be. Coming out of an era of being beaten into submission, there is now an opportunity to really begin to lead communities.'

www.idea.gov.uk/knowledge

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