The New Virtual Town Hall

Ian Briggs

They wear tweeds, ride fold up bicycles and have a strange obsession with bandstands, they are often viewed as being at the fringes of society – a minority interest group with a small but powerfully loyal following – they are those who hold dear to their hearts that our 19th century heritage should never be lost. They value the majesty of the Town Hall as a Victorian edifice that spoke of the power of the elected (or in most cases the appointed) in society – have they lost sight of the importance of downsizing public organisations, ensuring that we have a quasi retail approach to services and that we should administer them from anodyne, faceless replicants of a local branch of an insurance company?

Certainly for many within cities and towns the structures that spoke so loudly of the power of the local community served not just to reinforce the civic dignity of the individuals who were called upon to govern but also were – and perhaps still are important icons of civic place and power. True, they are a huge burden to the local purse but at a time of dwindling concern for the council (mindful of a story told a few days ago of a recent election in a ward where only 16 people bothered to vote) we perhaps need a kind of iconography to remind us all that choice and voice at a local level is so profoundly different from the way we have our political views represented at a national level that we need to have some physical representation of the distinctiveness of local democratic place.

All this came out in a conversation with a senior member at this week’s LGA conference here in Birmingham. How he was so troubled by the ‘Moulton fold up bike brigade’ (MFBB) who were repeatedly making his life such a misery with their expertise in the preservation of the civic heritage and their near obsessive persistence that large amounts of expenditure must be made to keep the Town Hall in the condition that our forefathers wished it to be in irrespective of the impact upon other services that he was genuinely afraid for his seat!  However, if we cannot afford the physical iconography can it be replaced with a virtual one? This became an interesting question – opportunities offered by social networking when exploited with care and sensitivity could perhaps replace or compound the iconography of the traditional approach to ‘civicness’? As we are developing our understanding of the community leadership role of councillors should we be thinking more about the overall impact of placing the locally elected in a virtual space as well as a physical space? These are skills that councillors are now just beginning to develop – they understand that their role extends beyond the importance of effective problem centred decision making to being the custodian of the local narrative. In the past the narrative has for many places been the Town Hall representing the power of civic dignity and profound distinctiveness of place. The contemporary narrative is one of connectedness, blending historical tradition with the requirement to maintain and better local conditions so the ‘MFBB’ of the future will look upon our ipads, tweets and blogs as worthy of preservation as much as the Victorian edifices are valued by some today. Watch out – it will happen.

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Have public sector leadership programmes failed so badly?

From the late 1980’s a new sub industry emerged in the UK public sector, mass sector wide leadership development programmes. The Health sector was well and truly into this game by this time with huge programmes developing future leaders and the local government sector followed swiftly behind. The very best of these programmes were based upon the assumption that investment was needed to ensure a steady supply of fit for purpose leaders and good, imaginative national programmes attracted an interesting cadre of supporters and participants, some who signed up were clearly ambitious and needed successful participation in these programmes on their CV’s to be even considered for the next job up the organisational scale, others were, on reflection pushed on these programmes to ‘cure’ them of old habits or wake them up to rapidly changing circumstances.

Did they work? Well the evidence is mixed but some who participated on these programmes are now in the top jobs and others have sunk without trace. But was the programme itself a key determinant of success? Perhaps they were destined to have sharp inclines on their career trajectories anyway and the programme was at best incidental in helping them get there. But in a world where every last penny is squeezed out of budgets to fund the front line services and the best development on offer now which incidentally is free (just browsing the net?) as the remaining option means we might be missing a trick? The research evidence on how people get into top jobs is a bit hazy – the best we can glean from it is twofold – getting early experience of project based corporate working and that past performance (whilst not always the most reliable predictor) remains as the best predictor of future performance. There have also been a few interesting hiccoughs upon the way – the National College for School Leadership was a brave if not brazen attempt to demonstrate that professional classroom competence was just not enough to lead a complex entity such as a school – even if they seem to have succumbed to the magnetic pull back into professionalism as opposed to true leadership – and the National Graduate Programme for Local Government has had a bit of a stop/start journey to where it is today.

But now, as we are hollowing out many of our public sector organisations – senior strategic staff are doing the administrative work because all the expensive administrators and middle managers have been made redundant we need to find a way of bringing these hungry, ambitious and talented people out of their shells and help them find ways of transforming our public bodies. Doing it by ‘browsing the net’ will not work. Leadership development is about carefully planned and facilitated constructive socialisation – it is not about reading and knowing more about leadership theory (as interesting as that is anyway) but unless we can find the development opportunities, at the right cost, in the right place and at the right time we are running the risk of facing all the same problems we were dealing with a quarter of a century ago.

The Centre for Leadership at the University of Birmingham (CLUB)  is starting to open up this debate once again – can we find a way to rethink leadership development and inspire, not ignore those who are on the steep career trajectories? We think there is a way – keep watching this space. Leadership development cannot be done without some investment in time and energy as well as a modest financial contribution. We need to bring those people who are genuinely striving to become better leaders together, they need to spark off each other, test out their ideas and clarify how they impact upon those they are there to lead. As someone once said “Leadership – it’s a contact sport and not a virtual reality”

 

Ian Briggs - Inlogov

Ian Briggs (Senior Fellow)
Research interests lie in The development of effective leaders, leadership assessment and the identification of potential; Performance coaching, organisational development and large scale leadership development interventions; Organisational change and the establishment of shared service provision.