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Solace blog

24th June 2016

Public life and public services: Time for a new discourse

It was always going to be a time when we reflected on our values, our role in the world, and what democracy means to us. What wasn’t anticipated was that this would occur in the context of a tragic and senseless murder of a young, talented and compassionate MP. Jo Cox entered public life with the drive and determination to make a difference.

Seeking to understand this event and the motivation of the perpetrator will unfold in the months to come, but some impacts have been immediately felt.

The denigration of public service and those who put themselves into a position of influence in public life hasn’t yet begun happening. Those of us working in public services at a senior level, and particularly in a political environment, will recognise the hatred, the contempt, and the simple lack of respect for public figures that has seeped into and spread across our discourse on public services in recent years. The most obvious manifestation of this is in social media, but it is not confined to that. Our politicians now have to be sophisticated network navigators able to swerve
from strategic decision making to the micro impacts of the hyperlocal. Maybe it was always like that, but now it is a journey undertaken in the most public way, where the many positives that come with accessibility of our decision-makers have to be balanced alongside what it can require in terms of personal resilience to anger, abuse, and personal challenge.

It is not only our politicians who experience this, as SOLACE Members will know that Chief Executives and Senior Managers in local government are similarly subject to it. The local government press has highlighted that some capable individuals may choose not to place themselves into positions where they will experience this, or that those who do will be affected by the environment in terms of decision making. And it is an experience felt across all our public services. I happened to spend some time with a Chair of an NHS Trust this week, working in another part of the country to me. Like most people in his position, he is in the middle of some challenging changes to the way the Trust is providing services. He has been reflecting on the public meetings held recently, where he has experienced hatred and abuse, recalling one particular heated debate where he was told that “you have blood on your hands”.

It is entirely right that those in positions of authority and influence in public life are held to account for the decisions they take. That the Nolan principles of public life are adhered to, and that transparency and accountability mean that we must be able to meet directly with those impacted by the decisions we take, particularly in an operating environment of reduced resource, and redesign of how we do what we do. But my most immediate response to recent events was a review of our arrangements for the personal security of Elected Members and staff and collaboration
with Police colleagues following up on previous work we have done in response to threats made to our local MP.

In my role as Deputy Spokesperson for Community Safety, the imperative is to consider the most immediate threats and risks, and recent events should lead all of us to consider our risk assessment of both personal safety and extremism in our communities.

In the longer term, it is time to be less apologetic about public life, about those who operate in it and like the rather wonderful hashtag #thankyourMP simply say thank you, have more respect for those who enter politics who do an arduous and mostly thankless task, and who nearly always, want to help ensure a better world. For those who, as George Steiner once said, need some ‘ballast against the wind’ if they are going to do their job and ensure the haters will never win.

By Robin Tuddenham, Director of Communities and Service Support at Calderdale Council and Deputy Spokesperson for Community Safety and Resilience