England & Wales, Global Brexit

Lessons from the campaign trail

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This column was written on Sunday 19 June. The outcome of the EU referendum was still a matter of speculation.

What was clear even before the horrific death of Jo Cox (and we may also know more by now about the political context of that act of violence) there was widespread anxiety about the way the campaign was conducted. It revealed and/or was a cause of a worrying coarsening of political discourse. In every sense of the word it was uncivil.

It is also clear the debate was always about far more than the mechanics, merits and faults of the European Union.

It spoke to something much bigger about who we as a nation think we are and about how we want to be in the world. Less commented upon, it showed how we feel about change.

That is not a simple binary between embracing change and resisting it, but a complex spectrum with, at one end, a blinkered nostalgia which turns its back on change that has already happened and, at the other end, the relentless push for novelty.

A strange feature of the campaign was that both sides were at different times positioned at both ends of the spectrum by their supporters and their critics.

Thus, Leave was portrayed as both a throwback to a mono-cultural ‘little England’ and as the bold proponent of a new place in the world for Britain.

Remain was portrayed both as a vision of cosmopolitan modernity and as the voice of a tired establishment trying to maintain the status quo.

For local government, this change spectrum is familiar. Councils deal with citizens who want everything to change and with citizens who want nothing to change all the time. Sometimes, as in the EU referendum, these are the same people.

But local government is also surrounded by a whole change industry. Think-tanks, consultancies and a range of suppliers are all invested in change for councils and often attempting to sell, either figuratively or literally, their solution to local government’s very real challenges.

Full disclosure: the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), which I have the privilege to run, works to support innovation in local government and is part of this change industry.

Fuller disclosure: I believe local government has to fundamentally change how it thinks about what it is and what it does.

But I also think we need to think more carefully about change and what it means for people.

Time and again in LGiU’s work we are told across a range of issues – from health and social care integration to community engagement – that the real difficulties are not conceptual or technical but cultural; that the key challenge is to engineer a cultural shift within the public service workforce.

How is this to be done? All too often the way in which practitioners experience change is as coercion or chastisement: ‘You need to do things differently. You need to be different’.

The language we use to talk about innovation is drawn from public management theory, systems thinking, services design and from digital.

Perhaps we need to look to a therapeutic or psychoanalytic idiom to help people engage with change, to help them understand the need for change, the challenges and opportunities it brings, their own reactions to it and what might be preventing them from fully committing to it. That means a lot of quality conversations and a lot of honesty.

Moving from systems-centred change to person-centred change is challenging. It is a slow and uncertain process.

In the end it is better founded because it involves working with the grain of humanity rather than indulging in the sort of magical systems thinking that wishes human complexity away.

If the EU referendum has illustrated anything, it is that only by engaging honestly with each other about who we are, what we want and what we fear can move forward.

If we can do this, then perhaps, as Freud wrote: ‘Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.’

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

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