John Shewell: Local services are in a time warp

The role and remit of communications is changing. The drivers for change are compelling - demographics, financial, social and technological are some.

John Shewell: Local public sector operates '19th century management techniques'
John Shewell: Local public sector operates '19th century management techniques'

Technology and society are moving together at an astounding pace and most organisations are struggling to keep up. Some local public services are really struggling and few have fully appreciated the scale of the change that is happening around them.

The local public sector understands the austere financial challenges but are still going about their business in the traditional models of management, including communications. Put simply, command-and-control style of management and delivery of messages.

The sector still operates 19th century management techniques in the 21st century networked world.

Local public service communications can be part of the solution. Now is an exciting opportunity to lead genuine change and bring their organisations into the 21st century.

This is no simple task - especially given the sector!

As Sir Humphrey famously remarked: ‘In government, many people have the power to stop things happening but almost nobody has the power to make things happen. The system has the engine of a lawn mower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce.’

Communications can be at the vanguard of innovation and leadership. This can be achieved in simple, practical ways. For example, opening up the organisation to tools such as Yammer to encourage better joined-up working across an organisation, and holding innovation camps in which anyone from the organisation is allowed to participate.

At Brighton & Hove City Council we've set up a project called ‘Fourth Friday’ which is an open invitation to everyone in the organisation to discuss and share ideas around small practical innovations that can improve service delivery and save money.

This is a type of ‘hack council’ event in which staff are empowered to help improve things. This two-way relationship is not about hierarchy or command-and-control. It's about involving people to have their say and giving them the tools to make a difference.

Communications' role is to facilitate the conversations by (a) creating the space and environment where it is possible for people to participate; (b) acting as a conduit between staff and leadership so that everyone is in-the-loop; and (c) promoting and modelling a new way of working that is expected of the organisation.

Will McInnes, MD of leading social business consultancy Nixon-McInnes and author of his forthcoming book Culture Shock sums it up neatly when asked about why organisations need to change.

‘Leadership needs to undergo a revolution. Leadership is defined by followership. You cannot be a leader in (your) business unless people want to follow you. Teams appoint their leaders. This is part of the future in this connected world.

‘Leadership needs to become more feminine, create more dialogue, become more empathic, and more authentic. 21st century leaders need to be connected to their people's reality, the frontline.’
Communications needs to devolve power and control away from the centre and across the organisation. Staff (and indeed citizens) should be encouraged to participate. By redistributing knowledge, power and control away from the centre the organisation begins to harness its greatest asset - people.

In short, communications needs to become liquid.

At the inaugural Meaning conference in Brighton on 1 October these issues will be discussed and debated.

Stowe Boyd, the American social technologist and future-of-work commentator, will address some of the challenges and opportunities in a world where communication is increasingly liquid and Twitter-like.

As Will says: ‘We are moving into a world of flow: of attention streams and realtime updates.’

Change is underway - that's abundantly clear. But what we need to understand is where the future is now. As the saying goes: if you want the same outcome, then keep doing the same thing.


John Shewell is head of comms at Brighton & Hove City Council.

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