England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Trust me, I work in local government


Close-up of two men in suits shaking hands. Photo by Rock Staar on Unsplash

Sharing in LGIU’s 40th celebrations, Chris Elliott, Chief Executive at Warwick District Council reflects on the beginning of his time in local government 40 years ago and what has not changed. Highlighting the stagnant issues of the sector and growing mistrust, Chris argues that truthful practices need to be ingrained in all local government does going forward.

The LGIU is celebrating its 40th year of existence this year and I’m celebrating – if that is the right word – my 40th year in local government. It’s quite a coincidence, isn’t it? But perhaps that coincidence serves a more useful purpose for me in affording an opportunity to reflect upon what we have faced over those years to better understand what we should do in the next 40 years – particularly around trust in local government.

The last 40 years

When I started my scale 1 job as a temporary technical/administrative assistant in the Planning Department of Mid Sussex District Council back in 1983, this was what was happening in the sector:

  • A deregulation of rules and regulations was taking effect (all those jobs and investment locked up by planning rules was simply too complex);
  • Cutbacks on the money given to councils and complaints about the inequity of the rates;
  • A devastating change to the economy with circa 3 million unemployed (I was one);
  • Inflation was high;
  • There was a political argument about Europe – oh yes and a war had just been held!

Sound familiar? Plus ça change. Does nothing ever change or is it that what comes around goes around if you stay around long enough?

Yet, today feels different for public services at large and especially for local government. Having just ploughed through a pandemic crisis and currently struggling through a cost of living crisis, it seems we now have to tackle a crisis of confidence in public services for which trust is crucial for resolving.

It’s a sad indictment, but the reality is that the false narratives told in parliament and the actions happening contrary to the rules imposed on the wider public don’t just have an impact on those guilty of doing those things, they denigrate all of us, councillors and officers, in public service. That experience has undermined trust from the local community in public services generally and in turn, falls onto local government.

If people don’t trust local government to do the core things they expect of us, why should we expect them to trust us more generally and to use their money wisely? And why should they bother to participate with us in anything if that trust is absent?

Democracy is more than a set of rules, laws and votes. All of those things work best when there is a respectful relationship between people towards each other and towards the rules and laws that do apply.

This article is part of our LGIU@40 work looking at the future of local government – examining key questions about trust, democratic engagement and sustainable finance. Explore our collection on trust.

The next 40 years

Fast forward 40 years to today, 2023. The question now is how do we address this tragedy of mistrust and set up a fairer future for local government? Well, since it feels like we are in election mode – even if the General Election could be another 18 months – here is a manifesto for the local government trust agenda:

As leaders, whether of the politics or of staff, we all need to display a good behavioural approach to restore trust in us and perhaps these guidelines can help:

  • Give trust especially if you expect it.
  • Be honest and open and tell the difficult news with care but without spin.
  • Openly acknowledge mistakes – don’t just say we will learn the lessons; show that you’ve learned the lesson.
  • Say sorry about things gone wrong and mistakes – and try to do something about it to put it right.
  • Take responsibility for actions – own them for good or for ill.
  • Don’t consult on something where there isn’t a real choice, but do properly consult when there is a real choice to be made.
  • Tell people you disagree with them if you don’t agree with them; don’t just say you’ll listen.
  • Respect people even those with whom you vehemently disagree, but don’t take abuse.
  • Try to find answers not deflections or delays, but be open about what we can and cannot do.

This sounds easy and truthfully, nothing here is new – but practising it is an everyday, every hour, every minute task that should not be lost in time – like it perhaps has been. Trust is what we need to have a future. Otherwise, local government, local democracy and our communities will suffer.

With better, truthful engagement, people will have more faith in local government and how we propose to do things, including how we might finance things. And who knows with such trust maybe even central government might decide that local government can determine the planning fee for a porch in the next 40 years.


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