England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Change doesn’t just happen; it’s a process

Image by PopcornSusanN from Pixabay

At this time of the year we all think a lot about how hard change is. We’re reaching that point in January when resolutions falter: an initial enthusiasm for the gym crumbles and a commitment to Dry January begins to waver. The temptations of the snooze button and a glass of wine after a hard day become ever harder to resist.

My own moment of reflection on change came as I sat in a traffic jam in Bogotá, a city in which I am fortunate enough to spend a lot of time for family reasons. It’s a wonderful place with many fine features, but it does have terrible traffic. Locals refer frequently to the transport crisis and it’s cited by most people as the single most negative features of life there (this in itself is an achievement for a city once best known for its crime rate).

And yet, if you look it up, you will find no end of articles in urbanist journals about how Bogotá has transformed its transport problems through the introduction of the TransMilenio rapid bus transit system from 2000. A network of special bus lanes physically separated from the main roads and accessed from platforms at metro like stations. The idea is that you get the speed and convenience of a metro system at a fraction of the cost because you are upgrading existing road infrastructure, not digging tunnels. This revolutionises mass transit in a city previously reliant on cars, taxis and chaotic semi-regulated buses.

At least that’s the idea. The reality is you’re still sitting in a traffic jam for hours on end. Why? Partly this is about investment not keeping up with demand, partly it’s about failure to take on vested interests in the bus and taxi sectors. But mainly it’s because people don’t really want change. The average Bogota commuter stuck in their car for a two-hour drive doesn’t long to use a mass transit system, they long to be able to drive to the office in 20 minutes again. Change is for other people.

For those of us who try to support change in local government, this is a salutary reminder of three core challenges:

  1. Only on the ground can you really understand what is and is not working and why. There are real limits to what you can do with the sort of case study based best practice we are all comfortable with but which struggles both to fully reflect the reality of the places studied and to adapt to the context of new places
  2. You have to really understand, accept and commit to what change means for you and you have to help others to do that. This is much, much easier said than done. That’s why approaches drawn from organisational development are not enough; we need insights from behavioural science and even from therapy.
  3. This has to be a sustained effort of will. It’s a cliché but it’s true that change is not an event that happens, it’s a permanent process.

Failing to get to grips with these challenges is why our new year resolutions fail, why we’re still sitting in traffic jams in Bogotá and why real change in local government is so hard.

Many councils realise this and are moving away from talking about ‘transformation’ as a technical discipline and thinking about it more as a profound attempt to change culture by building capability and adaptability throughout the organisation.

It’s not clear how far these lessons have been learnt in national government. Last week’s reshuffle signalled a couple of changes that could be deeply significant or merely cosmetic.

DCLG was renamed the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and Jeremy Hunt transformed himself into the secretary of state for Health and Social Care. Interpretation of these changes might range along a spectrum: at the most paranoid end one might see this as evidence of an intention to hollow out local government. Housing and social care are what central government thinks local government does – they have no interest in place leadership or local democracy – and they are taking these back to the centre. At the most cynical end of the spectrum you might see it as an attempt to look like they are tackling intractable issues for the price of a new doorplate and some letterhead.

No doubt the truth is somewhere in between. What we can be sure of is that real, sustained change will only come about if we heed the lessons we learn the hard way every January.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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