The Post-Pathogen Reset Button — Action Pointer #6

The quality of local management

Welcome to Action Pointer #6 in this series exploring responses to Covid-19.

What’s just happened?

Three weeks ago, squeezed between the first and second budgets, the UK’s government was still debating whether to order a lockdown. The impending economic disruption demanded a flurry of reassuring messages from UK management; one day, people, we will be ‘getting back to normal’.

Fireworks usually carry an instruction, “light the blue touch paper and retire’. The management’s message was not reassuring. Even if the thought of returning to ‘normal’ was never intended to ‘blow the bloody doors off’, it certainly triggered a reaction. The notion of a Reset Button to restore previous settings exited, stage right. Attention flipped to envisioning some new, very different, normality.

Tom Clark, in Prospect magazine, referenced Lenin’s ‘weeks when decades happen’ and, from the USA, we quoted AOC (back in Action Pointer #4) ‘we are choosing to act in ways we could always have acted’ — both of them underlining the rapid pace of policy change.

Steven Pinker cautioned (on Channel 4 News) that when a crisis has passed, memories and resolve quickly fade; predictions of major changes rarely materialise — but this time, surely, returning to the past seems preposterous.

When minds have been stretched, they rarely return to their original shape. More important than their outer shape, is their inner receptiveness. Previously impervious minds are now able to absorb new possibilities and today’s topic is the quality of local leadership for your community — the place you call home.

Care For The Community

If the tide has turned it was surely signalled in the Prime Minister’s expressed relief that ‘there is such a thing as society’. His carefully chosen words, precisely phrased, may have raised media eyebrows but should have rattled his ministers — particularly those still carrying a flag for 1980’s economics. Commoditisation of people — reductions to units of productivity in some mechanistic economic myth-take — was always as woefully incoherent as measuring progress by shifts in Gross Domestic Product.

Communities everywhere are rediscovering and renewing threads of social fabrics that were weakened by decades of competitive hamster-wheeling. Wizards in Whitehall may wonder how to get the wheels of the economy turning again. One answer is less management, not more. The central comprehension of the economy is merely average — it is literally the aggregation of endeavour across a very diverse and unequal country. The diversity and inequality — no place is average — gives rise to a question from the margins of the centralists map.

Q. Why do some places succeed whilst others decline?

A. It is complicated, but one key factor is the quality of local management.

However success or wellbeing might be measured — employment, health, resilience, creativity, cohesion — the happiness and industry of your place does not happen by accident. Places that thrive — places where folks take pride in their local identity, and, where viewed from afar, are recognised for their resilience — are the result of long-term care. It takes time and persistence, and willing support from within the community.

Such are the ravages of austerity that, with the exception of a few major cities, local people know little or nothing about their mayor or council leader. If Tom Clark is right, the reconstruction of economies will need multiple generations. Even where local projects are already underway, the wished-for renaissance of local Authority and stronger community cohesion must now be adapted in response to the ravages of Covid-19 and the even greater global climate challenge.

With fortuitous timing, the framework cited in Action Pointer #2 — the doughnut model developed by Kay Raworth — has just been launched in Amsterdam to reflect local priorities. This localisation is the culmination of work by many hands both in the city and elsewhere across Europe. The project offers a glimpse of how well-reasoned global and national priorities can be attuned to local needs.

Other frameworks are, of course, available — not least the long-term distillations from the Intelligent Community Forum. UK cities needing to study inspiring policy options could (when/if travel ever resumes) visit Espoo in Finland — but meanwhile, remote videoconferencing might suffice to boost campaigners for city sovereignty. The work of Community Organisers also continues to impress and, interestingly, often garners support from people untouched by conventional council structures.

Much of Britain must contend with many structural issues. Consistent local leadership is rarely well-attuned to national party politics.

Being closer to the action, leaders often need to adapt policy to changing, locally-perceived, priorities.

Inspired leaders must be able to encourage wide support from within the community and express clear vision.

That demands story-telling — not the conventional outward-facing PR machines beloved of Councils, but citizen story telling — proactive feedback for the benefit of the management.

For decades now, campaigners have argued against over-centralisation and the demotion of Local Government Authorities to mere Agencies of central government. The case has merit — particularly in England — and the proponents of empowered cities and ‘city sovereignty’ may see this as an opportunity. Metro mayors — notably in Liverpool and Manchester — have impressed but remain constrained. Westminster’s ritual nods to the North, however, serve only to confirm a Southern incomprehension of life in the margins of a dis-United Kingdom. All mental geographies carry notes in their margins: ‘Here Be Dragons’.

With the old economy (and trust in Government) trashed, few would yet bet on any future fiscal freedom to re-engineer governance along more Federal lines. Covid-19, however, and the decision to crash the economy, will breath life into old ideas.

Will the local management of the place you call home find the talent and energy to rise to these opportunities?

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Previous episodes in this Action Pointer series can be found via the Medium platform.

Fresh thinking for economic & societal development: David Brunnen on Municipal Autonomy, Intelligent Communities, Sustainability & Digital Challenges.

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