Annual Conference 2017: Adam Lent’s introductory speech on driving change

February 21, 2017   By Adam Lent, Director, NLGN

Firstly, I would like to thank the City of London Corporation for hosting our conference in the fantastic surroundings of the Guildhall. I also want to offer very special thanks to Norse and the Municipal Journal for partnering on the event and making it possible.

And finally, welcome to all of you. I have only been in post as Director of NLGN for three months or so but I have used that time to meet with as many people within the NLGN membership network as possible and it is great to see many familiar faces here.

I have found all of the conversations I have had over the last few weeks incredibly inspiring and heartening. There is a powerful combination of gritty realism and visionary optimism that characterises this sector. Everyone I have spoken too has no illusions about the scale of the challenge that local government faces, nor about the fact that that challenge is likely to get even more intense over coming months and years. But at the same time I sense an emerging willingness to meet that challenge not through short term fixes but through a radical reinvention of how local government works and how it relates to the people and places they represent.

The challenge as I see it for NLGN is to capture and understand the spirit and the reality of that radical change and innovation and share it in whatever way we can with our members and the wider sector.

The time for radical thinking is now. Not just because local government is under pressure as never before but also because the problems that beset the UK and many other countries around the world are now bursting through in unexpected and deeply troubling political forms. Long-running challenges like our ageing population, the housing crisis, regional economic imbalances, low productivity and political alienation are feeding a sense of grievance, insecurity and fear that cannot be calmed through the usual dynamic of mainstream party politics. Something much more fundamental needs to happen.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no serious lead on this from central government at the moment. One of the most disheartening developments of the last few months has surely been the way the vote for Brexit which was as much a generic cry to the Westminster establishment for meaningful change on a whole range of issues has been reduced to little more than a confused and confusing row about immigration. The opportunity that the referendum vote offered for a real reset of the way we do politics, policy-making and service delivery has been missed I fear and the political consequences of that will be profound and unpredictable. And I should just say this is a problem right across the political spectrum – and has been for decades.

This leaves local government in an intriguing position. Despite the day-to-day challenges – or maybe because of them – there is a real opportunity for local authorities and their partners to chart out a very different way of governing and delivering social change. Based on the fantastic conversations I have had over the last few weeks I want to make a very tentative stab at outlining what that alternative looks like here.

But I want to do that by talking about Peru! And specifically Lima. Because it is there that one of the most fascinating and successful experiments in addressing a profound and long-running social challenge took off. And I feel that experiment captures much of the spirit and values of what is beginning to happen in British local government.

The story starts with a woman named Albina Ruiz, whom some of you may already heard of. Albina was raised in the pristine surroundings of the Peruvian rainforest. Her first visit to Lima was when she arrived there to study for her engineering degree. She was shocked at the state of her nation’s capital city. Without properly functioning environmental services, Lima was blighted everywhere by huge piles of uncleared rubbish slowly rotting in the tropical heat. Worse, those rubbish piles were populated by thousands of children and their families eking out a living (if it can be called that) picking bits of reusable rubbish such as plastic bottles and cans and selling them wherever they could.

The classic response may have been to lobby Lima’s municipal authorities to clear the waste dumps and possibly offer state support of some form to the wastepickers or more likely just let them fend for themselves – after all, wastepickers were widely regarded as the very lowest of the low barely worthy of acknowledgement let alone help.

But Albina’s mind worked in a very different way. Starting small she persuaded residents to donate a small levy to establish recycling schemes. This began to address the problem of waste being dumped at the unofficial waste sites.

But Albina’s real insight was to recognise that far from being a liability, Lima’s wastepickers were the solution to the city’s waste problem. The funds raised from residents were used to help the wastepickers establish their own collection and recycling businesses to service the schemes. This not only recruited a pre-existing workforce for the schemes but almost overnight transformed some of the most marginalised, impoverished and derided people in Lima society into entrepreneurs earning a proper living and recognised by their community as doing a socially useful job.

It’s an approach that has now been adopted across not just Peru but the whole of Latin America and now into Africa helping literally hundreds of thousands of vulnerable, impoverished people transform their lives while contributing to the solution of local pollution and waste.

I love this story not just because it shows what is possible in circumstances even more extreme than those we face in the UK but also because, as I mentioned, it highlights the values I see emerging in local government across the country.

So many of the people I have spoken to recently seem to be recognising that for all the focus of the last few years on complex restructuring and institutional design what really drives change in an organisation are culture, norms, values – the unwritten rules that govern our behaviour. And the values that seem to be moving to the forefront of people’s consciousness are creativity, collaboration and self-determination. Albina’s initiative shows what can be achieved when those values are allowed to flourish.

  • Creativity – approaching big problems in completely new ways without preconceptions and allowing that creativity to flourish across the whole organisation not just at the senior levels.
  • Collaboration – breaking down artificial barriers and boundaries to allow ideas, information and resources to flow wherever they are needed.
  • Self-determination – giving people the freedom, resources and capabilities to change their lives for themselves.
In this, local government is really part of a much bigger movement occurring across the world in commercial, social and public sectors. Look to the most impactful social enterprises, the fastest growing private companies particularly in the tech industry, the most inspiring experiments in health, education and care and you find organisations rejecting the hierarchy, inertia and egoism of the old corporate models established in the last century.

Even the military is changing. The US General, Stanley McChrystal has become a guru of modern organisational thinking for his complete redesign of military practice right in the middle of the mess that was the Iraqi insurgency after the 2003 war. His approach was to break down that classic hierarchical, rigid military mind-set and give frontline troops the permission to improvise, act on their own initiative but always share information and seek ways to collaborate. Most importantly it worked, turning the tide in the fight against the insurgency.

Now many senior officers and members are thinking very hard about how to apply what some in the social sector call a “changemaking approach” to councils themselves. There is a great deal of work to be done here. Transforming the cultures of organisations that have been used for decades to a polar opposite way of working is no easy task.

But even that is only the beginning. What the example from Lima shows is that those values generate real change when they explode beyond the walls of a single organisation. Real social impact and positive change can only be delivered:

  • once the full creativity of wider communities is released,
  • once individuals and groups start collaborating for the greater good
  • and once those same individuals and communities accept that they have to take responsibility for issues such as public health and economic regeneration.
This is nothing less than a major culture shift in the way citizens, communities and places think about themselves. And we need urgently to understand how councils can lead it.

Which brings us back to where we started with the seemingly intractable problems we face as a nation. Creating changemaking councils and communities might ultimately reveal that the solution to our biggest challenges cannot come from government alone – central or local. Ministers may one day find the courage to make the necessary long term decisions.

But that will only ever be a start to responding to the housing crisis, imbalanced economy, productivity gap and so on. The long-term and sustainable solutions have to come from a population willing to think and act in entirely different ways and in an entirely different relationship to the state and to public services based on the values already mentioned. This implies a total recasting of the way we think about, develop and implement government policy and indeed go about leading and governing altogether.

There are as many questions here as answers but my hope is that in close collaboration with our members, NLGN can develop a powerful and practical changemaking vision that can help reinvent councils, transform communities and so begin to address our biggest challenges.

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