Over the past three year we have tried very hard to not write about our own place of work in any way that might be identifiable. This was for good reason; for a long time the blog was anonymous and we didn’t want to reveal ourselves in such a flagrant way.
There was another deeper reason though; we didn’t believe that people wanted to read about our personal comings and goings (we saved that tedium for our wives) but rather were interested in comment and discussion about the sector as a whole.
Today, I am going to break that rule for one day and one day only and with good reason; my council has just been shortlisted for the prestigious MJ Best Achieving Council of the year award. There are of course questions about the validity of a nomination of this sort and indeed about the whole local government awards industry but those should be saved for another day. For today, I just want to focus on the fact that the council I work for has been nominated as one of the top five in the whole country and discuss why I think we have been successful.
Whilst my answer is not particularly ground breaking, indeed in many ways it is the opposite, I strongly believe that Merton is an MJ award worthy local authority simply because of the people who work there. I wrote about this, albeit anonymously, in the past and many of the comments we got were best described as ‘sceptical’ but I am genuinely impressed with many (although obviously not all) of the people I work with.
In some ways this is an unsurprising response and in other ways it is probably not what would have been expected.
After all, I think many people would expect the sort of council that would win one of these awards to be in some way trend setting or to have one of those all-encompassing political visions. Alternatively, you might expect a successfully implemented transformation programme or a small cadre of members or officers leading the way. At the very least you might expect to have read about the council for reasons unconnected to the Wimbledon tennis championships.
However, Merton’s not like this. We do have good senior managers and a number of quite interesting transformation projects (and we do a great job with the tennis!) but there’s nothing all-encompassing about it.
Instead, what we have is a large number of excellent people throughout the organisation. Many of these people are not what you would call corporate types; instead they are masters of their own domain. The managers know their services every which way (a day spent with a manager in a service you don't know is a wonderful and humbling experience) and the staff members generally care passionately about what they do. Equally, there are some people who have the fire in their belly for a challenge or a new way of working and the council have largely let them give it a go. Again, there have been no grand plans but by allowing those with passion to pursue new opportunities what we have tried has largely been successful. It’s the people who have made us great.
We have some people here who don’t meet that lofty standard but they are relatively few and when surrounded by the generally excellent will hopefully find their way to a job that does inspire them or at the very least make way for someone who wants to live up to the performance of those that have made the council what it is.
I am not naïve enough to think that all is rosy in my council; indeed, I have long said that there is a paradox in working for a good local authority; especially for those of us who are endowed with a healthy dose of scepticism and/or a job that involves improvement within the job description.
The facts (such as they are) seem to suggest that we, as a council, are performing extremely well and yet the day to day experience is that of struggle; of identifying areas where things can be improved, of finding seemingly impossible budget savings, of dealing with problems and of expressing frustration with those areas of the council that are not as we would expect. Even in the best council, and according to the MJ (and a whole bunch of statistics and measures) I work for one, this paradox would exist; pitting the day to day challenges against the overall success of the organisation.
Too often we can let that dominate everything rather than focus on the good work we do and what we are achieving together.
Today, for one day, I want to revel in the good that is done by Merton council and say to the people I work with; I’m proud to work with you.