Community engagement and quality of human resources critical to council success; but is innovation?

By Tim Thorogood.

The new local councils’ think tank Comgov facilitated a discussion on innovation and success at the recent SLCC Practitioners’ conference. Around 100 delegates grouped on 23 tables took part.

Councillor attitudes essential for innovation

Most tables (13) emphasized the criticality of councillor attitudes; whether councillors were enthusiastic about, or at least open to, change. Surprisingly, a much smaller number (5) specifically cited the skill or attitude of the clerk as a factor. Most tables (16) though did mention an ability within a council to ‘think outside the box’ or willingness to try something new generally which could be taken to encompass the clerk’s ability or attitude. Four tables specifically mentioned a willingness to take risks.

Interestingly ten tables mentioned engagement with the community as a factor driving innovation: meaning that listening to the community was likely in itself to lead to innovation.

Community perception the key to success

Discussion then focused on what defined success for a local council. Almost everyone cited the community as a critical factor. More than half (14 tables) gave strong positive perceptions in the community as a critical success factor with similar numbers giving high or increasing levels of engagement with the community (12 tables) and/or a high impact on the community (13 tables) as crucial to success. These could be seen as related themes: councils which are having a clear positive impact and/or engaging well will have strong positive community perceptions.

And good quality councillors and staff working well together

But the quality of human resources in its widest sense was also given in some form by more than half (14 tables) ; either quality of councillors, the quality of the clerk, attitudes to learning and innovation and/or having effective working relationships between councillors and with staff. There is an obvious connection between the quality of human resources at both political and professional levels and the ability of a council to impact positively on its community.

Again surprisingly, only a distinct minority mentioned what could be described as the ‘bureaucratic processes’ of objective setting and measurement and/or financial management as being success factors.

There was also only limited reference to formal awards in some form (6 tables).

It’s hard to generalise from such qualitative discussions, but the message seems to be that council success is defined by its impact on, and the subsequent perceptions of, the community, and that the quality of human resources within the council is critical to this.

But is innovation required?

Most however did not see innovation as essential for council success generally. The view here was that communities may be satisfied with things as they are and not looking for change. But most said innovation could be essential for success for some councils, it being suggested that councils with greater challenges or higher expectations would be likely to need innovation to meet them. As I said during the plenary, this is a surprising view. Although theoretically correct (some organisations – most likely those in stable environments and facing no challenges – can be successful without innovating), in the on-going situation where local communities face complex economic, social and environmental problems and diminishing public resources, at a time the state is rolling back, surely to play its full role a local council is going to have to be prepared to innovate?

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