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Solace blog

28th July 2017

What working at a council has taught me about policy

Coming to the end of my fourth week as Head of Policy at Solace, an uncomfortable realisation has hit me. I spent 15 years working in policy, but it is only now after finishing an 18-month hiatus from that world that I truly understand that my job is not about being clever. There are loads of clever people out there with shiny theories that set out nice neat solutions in a series of easy steps. (Incidentally, we met a lot of people wanting to sell us their shiny wares when I was at Birmingham City Council; it is one of the hazards of working at an authority engaged in a well-publicised
process of transformation.)

But here’s the rub: policy isn’t about the nice neat solutions. Effective policy should be a framework that enables us to translate the messy and complicated into action that may also sometimes be messy and complicated but will make sense to the people and places affected. It’s the translation role that is really crucial and is one of the factors that drew me to this role at Solace. In my 7 years at the LGA, it was often the insights from Chief Executives that I relied on most going into discussions with civil servants. Quite often, that evidence about how an idea would likely play out on the ground was what enabled us to stop weak policy from being even worse – which in a system as centralised as ours, is often as much of a win as persuading departments to adopt a new policy idea.

A few other reflections on what my time working at a council taught me about policy:

1) It’s not any one policy that matters but how policies interact (or don’t) with each other. I remember a conversation that I had with a DCLG official a few months before I left Birmingham about work we had underway on community cohesion. She couldn’t understand why I wanted to talk about school admissions, welfare reform or fuel poverty as those weren’t issues in DCLG’s remit. But if you asked our residents about what did or didn’t make them feel like they belonged in their city and connected to their neighbours, those are the issues that would come up.

2) Sometimes we bring centralisation on ourselves. I worry that as local government, we can suffer from a bit of Stockholm Syndrome from having operated in a centralised system for so long. Too often, colleagues would often talk about the need for central government to issue “guidance” instead of looking to residents and partners for a steer on what would work best in our areas. Gaps and ambiguity can be rich ground for developing local solutions. Given that a lot of central government policy development will grind to a halt in the next couple of years, we should have ample opportunity to put that to the test as a sector.

3) Leadership trumps policy every time. Working at a council, I got to see first-hand what a powerful force authenticity, accessibility and generosity can amount to. When you’re invited to the table because partners want you there and believe that you have something of value to contribute not just because the statutes require them to, that’s when the magic really happens.

Over the coming weeks, the Solace policy team will be developing a strategy that brings the individual bits of work being led by our spokespeople into more of a coherent overarching narrative. The last point about leadership is one that we will be seeking to thread in more visibly throughout our policy work as it is how we can play to our strengths and have a distinctive voice in what can be a very crowded landscape. We look forward to sharing our ideas and hearing back from you in the autumn.

By Piali Das Gupta, Head of Policy at Solace