Last week, I was delighted to find out I had been voted as this year’s Guardian Local Government Future Leader. For those who have, up to now, managed to avoid my tweets and blogs on the subject, the selection process involved a nomination (from my boss), a short listing process (by the Guardian’s editorial panel) and finally a public vote.
So a somewhat more rigorous process than what passes for presidential elections in some large countries today. Why then do I feel a little bit like I have hoodwinked the lovely Guardian team into letting me win, and am about to have the accolade removed at any moment?
My own reaction to the news was less than ecstatic. Though this is undoubtedly the highlight of my career to date, I felt both awkward about winning when such a passionate and talented group had been shortlisted, and also knew that I would likely face criticism when the news was announced.
Inevitably, whilst lots of clients, colleagues and friends from the Young and in Gov network have got in touch to say congratulations, towards the end of last week my stomach dropped as I went on twitter to see a number of conversations pointing out that it was “absurd” that a private sector consultant would win the award for local government future leader. I couldn’t help feeling a bit embarrassed and upset to see people discussing my win (not to mention sharing links with huge pictures of my face!) on the site.
Now, whilst I am absolutely used to meeting people at events or on projects who express mild cynicism upon meeting a consultant who focuses on, and claims to be genuinely passionate about, improving local government, the barrage of criticism regarding the award (“weird” said one commentator – hopefully not talking about my face, “depressing” said another) has taken me a little by surprise.
Have we not been saying for years that we desperately need more “commercialism” in local government, or that our future leaders would need to have experience of the private and third sectors, as well as an understanding of local government to be effective? Didn’t the Chief Executive of Norfolk resign recently precisely because of a lack of those skills? Why then, is it so surprising and depressing when the person voted as a potential future leader in the sector has a background that matches what we imagine we need?
Just as it’s highly offensive when people assume public sector workers are ‘inefficient’ or ‘uncommerical’, it’s just as frustrating for me when people assume that consultants lack passion for the public sector, and are only in it ‘for the money’. The majority of the accolades mentioned in my submission were the so-called non-revenue generating, additional activities I do, mostly in my spare time, and purely because of my passion for local government.
Somewhat defensively, I took a look at the last LGC “50 Most Influential Figures in Local Government” to determine whether my inclusion in the Guardian shortlist was really so trailblazing as some of the twitterati seemed to imagine. I started to count how many of these 50 influential figures were from agencies and companies which work with, and certainly influence, local government, but were not from local government itself. I stopped counting at 10, and I was by no means at the end of the list.
So we’ve been happy for people to influence the sector from afar for a number of years, which is great. But to have the potential to lead it, and for that potential to be recognised? Less so.
My point is, do we need to change our perceptions of sector boundaries and “friend versus foe” to match the current and future realities of local government? We talk the partnership talk, but until we’re comfortable with influencers and leaders from all backgrounds entering the sector and that experience being just as valid and valuable as the in-house experience of others is, we are not walking the walk.