There is something especially galling about finding out you have failed a test you didn’t know you had entered. A few years ago someone told me I had briefly been on a very long list of candidates to join the roster of Newsnight presenters. I suspect the list was as long as a telephone directory and my time on it as short as the life of a fruit fly, but imagine what I could have done if I’d known I was in with a distant shout: maybe I’d have hung around the reception area of Television Centre randomly stopping people on their way into work to ask searching and occasionally aggressive questions? Or perhaps written a blog demonstrating that I held all senior politicians in withering contempt?
I had another of these ‘if only’ moments last Wednesday. I was chairing an all day conference - entitled ‘getting more wfor less’ - dedicated to discussing efficiencies in public sector spending. The key note speaker after lunch was Andrea Hill, the dynamic and visionary chief executive of Suffolk County Council. But when we met she didn’t greet me with her usual warmth. It was only after I casually mentioned something in my blog that the reason became clear: ‘I’m afraid you’ve lost your Suffolk readers after you said something disparaging about us’ said Andrea. ‘But’, I lamely protested ‘I had no idea I had any readers in Suffolk. You’ve taken away something I never knew I had, and before I could even enjoy it!’
Had I know about my Suffolk fan base not only would I have steered clear of any criticism of the authority, but been sure to use frequent Suffolk references in my posts; not just to the wonderful Ms Hill and her reforming council but perhaps to Ipswich football club, the Aldeburgh Festival or Adnams bitter. If there are any last fragments of following out there in East Anglia - perhaps having failed to delete me from their list of favourites though sheer inertia - then please leave a comment and give me just a bit of hope.
The only redeeming moment of a session, which will otherwise always be tinged with remorse and regret, was when the charismatic Ms Hill concurred with my view of the challenges of becoming a Big Society council.
For councils genuinely to hand over power and responsibility to the community involves getting three things in alignment: a committed leadership, capacity in the community to rise to the challenge and an organisation (the council staff), between the leadership and the community, which gets the idea, understands and accepts the implications and makes it real. Changing the whole operating logic of an organisation is hard enough; to do it in a time of austerity (even though it is of course austerity that drives it) is harder still. Two out of three won't do the trick; unless leaders, staff and community are on side , the smaller state will happen sure enough, but the bigger society probably won’t.
This was also a point I also made yesterday, speaking at a social care conference in Scotland. I was on a panel with the big-thinking Anna Coote from NEF (who was also my step-mother for a few years in the eighties!) and James (Jim) McCormick from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Jim, who is one of the wisest and nicest people I know, was forthright with the conference saying that there was a huge gap between the private conversation about public services in Scotland (which recognises the need for radical reform) and the public one (which tends to be slightly complacent and defensive).
I expected the conference delegates to object to this idea but instead they seemed in complete agreement. So, afterwards, I talked to Jim about the idea of a joint RSA/JRF lecture series in which we would invite to Scotland people with radical views and/or who have delivered major change in public services. The series could work as an accompaniment to – and hopefully an influence on – on the Scottish Commission on Public Services recently established by the Scottish Government under the chairmanship of Dr Campbell Christie. If the series went ahead I suspect one of our first invitations would be to the impressive Ms Hill.
Obviously, we won’t take the idea any further unless Scottish Fellows like it and would be willing to get involved.
So, as well as comfort from Suffolk, this Friday sees me needing enthusiasm from Scotland.
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