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Archive for February, 2009

Social media is playing a real and surprising role in complementing traditional methods of communications to help people develop and retain their contacts at work.  That is the conclusion of a Work Foundation report, The Changing World of Work, published last month. The report, produced in association with BT, is based upon a survey of 1,240 employees in businesses employing more than 500 people,

Its five headline findings are:

1. Working relationships matter (strong social relationships mean people feel trusted and that builds job satisfaction)

2. New technologies are not supplanted traditional ways of communicating but creating new ways to interact with people

3. People prefer to work for places characterised by strong working relationships and a focus on outputs rather than processes

4. People with access to new technologies are more likely to characterise their organisations as having a culture of mutual trust

5. Managers need to think innovatively about what tools to use to develop and sustain different relationships.

While 85% of those surveyed say their organisation is based on formal rules and policies, only 6% say they prefer to work in this type of organisation.  It’s an interesting conondrum and a challenge for public sector organisations like councils.  For very sound reasons, we tend to be rule-bound organisations but it’s a culture that perhaps doesn’t chime with encouraging innovation and risk taking.

People who have access to newer technologies like instant messaging, wikis, professional networking (IDeA communities of practice being a shining example), social networking, blogs and integrated voicemail/email, are more likely to characterise their organisations as being committed to innovation and development and focused on achievement.

The report found that the older you are, the more likely you are to dislike technology.  That doesn’t mean older people don’t use it but from this survey at least, older people are more likely to feel uncomfortable or wary about using technology than those who are younger.

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If, like me, you have children who are currently at primary school, you will probably be famliliar with being handed on laminated cards the individual literacy and numeracy targets the teachers have set for your children.  So I’ve been interested in the coverage of the Cambridge Primary Review’s interim report published last week.  The report which is independent of the Government highlights the ‘excessive pressure’ many children are under form a ‘high-stakes national testing regime and teachers’ anxiety about league tables, inspection and the punitive culture of school accountability.’  In an opinion piece in today’s Times, Libby Purves argues that ‘treating children as tiny workers tied to formulaic targets has failed’.

This week’s Economist also covers the Cambridge report, contrasting it with the Government commissioned Primary Curriculum report being carried out by Sir Jim Rose.  Sir Jim has been asked not to look at standards and testing and his view is that the key problem at the moment is curriculum overload.  The authors of the Cambridge Primary Review point to a narrow diet of literacy and numeracy and argue that a broad, rich and balanced curriculum, far from distracting from the basics, is actually a pre-requisite for high standards in them.

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In her article in a SOLACE pamphlet, Governing a world city, published earlier this month, Lucy de Groot writes about the potential that Local Area Agreements offer for Londoners.  In the piece, she quotes a comment made by Rob Whiteman, the chief executive at Barking and Dagenham, that councils need to focus on priorities, not targets to improve the lives of local people.

This distinction between priorities and targets is important.  Every organisation needs to have a clear set of priorities if it is to make the most of its finite resources.  And I think the emphasis placed in the Comprehensive Area Assessment on ensuring that these priorities are based on sound intelligence and identified in collaboration with local communities is appropriate.

Take a central government example.  If 12 months ago you had suggested that Whitehall should set a target for the percentage of bank share holdings that it wanted to bring into public ownership, you would have been laughed at.  Of course the government never had such targets.  But faced with a situation where a number of banks looked like they could go under and the economy was seizing up due to a lack of lending, the government’s priority was to keep the financial infrastructure working.  The lack of targets didn’t mean that there wasn’t a clear priority.

It seems to me that Rob Whiteman is right and that priorities and targets have become muddled.  Take community strategies.  Increasingly these seemed to be framed around the national indicator set rather than the long term strategic priorities councils and their partners share.  The tail is wagging the dog, with managerial judgements of the deliverability of national targets taking precedence over local judgements about priorities.

We need a variety of different ways to assess progress against our priorities, and targets are clearly a useful way of doing this.  But our approach needs to be sophisticated so that we use the targets as a means to an end, not simply an end in themselves. The danger is that in chasing the targets we may lose sight of our priorities.

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If you were laid up at home, convalescing after an illness, how would you spend your time?  A bit of daytime TV, catching up on DVDs, drinking lots of cups of tea?  I’ll hazard a guess and say that you wouldn’t spend your time watching cucumber plants climb.  But that is exactly what Charles Darwin did in 1863 – using a pattern of markers he noted how the tips of the plants would circle around and around over time and grasp anything they touched.

There’s been a lot in the media lately about Charles Darwin, celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth.  What I hadn’t realised was how young Darwin was when he made his famous voyage on the Beagle and how the experiments he carried out over forty years spent living at Down House in Kent helped him to develop his theory of evolution.  The Galapagos Islands may have provided the spark but it was the years of patient work in Kent that refined his thinking.

And one thing which I think is very interesting is the simplicity of many of these experiments.  In 1855 Darwin carried out a survey of Great Pucklands meadow close to his home and through patient observation, identified 142 species of plant and how they occupied subtly different niches within the meadow and regulated one another’s population.  In another experiment with oat seedlings, Darwin showed how they always twisted towards the light and by devising little caps to cover the tips of the seedling leaves, he found they no longer responded to light.  In this way he showed that there was a photosensitive region at the tip of the seedling leaves.

The big theories that Darwin was grappling with – the interconnection between different species, the governing forces of nature – are some of the most complex questions there are and still arouse strong feelings.  Evolution or intelligent design remains a political issue, especially in America and it was interesting that President Obama chose in his inaugural address to talk about the need to ‘restore science to its rightful place.’ 

So how does any of this relate to local government? In a number of ways, I think: 

  1. True, Darwin had independent means but if he was well-equipped in terms of resources, it was in having time (and a big garden).   
  2. You need to be patient.  I think particularly as councils focus more on behavioural changes, we need to be more patient in our approach.  Darwin studied the humble earthworm for over 45 years before publishing his final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits.  (Don’t all rush to the library!)  It includes the observation that, “Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose.”  If we are in the business of reducing inequalities, promoting better health and quality of life, is the three-year span of Local Area Agreements and an assessment framework that seeks to assess progress annually all that meaningful? 
  3. Don’t under-estimate simplicity.  Perhaps too often we are drawn to macro solutions.  We seem to always be in the business of restructing local government and redesigning the NHS.  We need new charters, new models of accountability, revitatilised performance frameworks, new models of efficiency, services transformed around the user etc.  We still seem to hanker after big ideas which will effect dramatic changes.  But often there might be some simple things we can do that won’t grab the headlines but will make a real difference to people’s lives.  We all know the difference we feel as customers between being treated courteously and not. 
  4. Thinking space – Darwin appears to have spent quite a bit of time pondering.  He went on a daily walk to collect his thoughts.  Perhaps we need to recognise the balance between time spent thinking and doing.  Of course, it does help if, as most people accept was the case with Darwin, you’re a genius.

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With the opinion polls suggesting once again, in the context of the worsening economic situation and the worsening weather, a clear lead for the Conservative Party, it seems an appropriate time to be thinking about what a Conservative Government might mean for local government.

Early in January SOLACE published a booklet entitled Would a Conservative government need local government?  The booklet contains a number of essays by some well known Conservative local and national politicians. Margaret Eaton, for example, develops further the place-shaping role of local government, arguing that the council is the champion of the locality, the guardian of its character, knowing and reflecting its personality and preserving its identity. It’s a slightly disappointing collection overall in that it rehearses a number of times some familiar lines of argument about the short-comings of national targets and is perhaps a bit thin in terms of tangible proposals.

Since the publication of the SOLACE document, David Cameron has spoken at the launch of a new Demos project exploring ‘progressive conservatism’.  In his speech the Conservative leader identifies the four ends of progressive conservatism as:  

  • A society that is fair;
  • A society where opportunity is equal;
  • A society that is greener;
  • A society that is safer.

He argues that the defining characteristic of the Conservative approach is a belief that we achieve progressive aims through decentralising responsibility and power to individuals, communities and civic institutions.  And the way to do this, he argues, is by creating frameworks rather than rules, influencing behaviour (nudging) rather than issuing diktats; smart incentives rather than blunt regulation.

A promised Conservative green paper on local government which was trailed last year is still awaited. In the meantime, a paper entitled The Permissive State, provides some indication of the policy direction.  It identifies four ways in which the balance of power will be shifted:

  • greater powers for local government;
  • greater transparency of, and local control over, the money that is spent in local communities;
  • greater powers for neighbourhoods themselves, for local citizens and civil society;
  • more local control over policing.

Specific proposals in the document include:

  • Abolition of the regional tier of government and the restoration of the regions’ powers to councils;
  • Additional powers for mayors including over policing;
  • Abolition of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment and the Best Value regime;
  • Phasing out ringfenced grants to local authorities;
  • Councils will be encouraged to transfer responsibility for the improvement and
  • management of local parks, leisure centres, and public spaces – e.g. specific streets or squares – to neighbourhood groups or parishes;
  • Residents should be able to assume control over housing estates;
  • Local people will be given the power to elect the men or women who supervise

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