England & Wales

The Obama effect – making local government cool

At a meeting with Dominic Campbell of FutureGov (see out top ten local government twitter post) yesterday, he mentioned almost in passing that he saw part of what he does as ‘making government cool’. That got me thinking. While there are lots of cool people in local government and lots of cool initiatives, I think you’d struggle to describe the sector as a whole as cool.

Because I am not very cool myself I started to over analyse this. What do we mean by cool? How can we make local government cooler? Obviously there’s a lot of rather loose concepts in here but I think there are some useful general observations we can make.

Let’s start with the coolest man on the planet.

Right now that’s officially Barrack Obama and Dominic talked about the Obama effect making participation and community engagement cool. But why is this and what can we learn from Obama?

My former colleague Rowland has escaped think tank drudgery to write a book about confidence (an essential part of cool) and his blog pointed me towards this National Review article on Obama (bear with me this will come back to local government I promise).

The main point it makes is that despite some sharp suits Obama actually lacks a lot of the traditional attributes of cool – he is gangly, worthy and nerdy (so there may be hope for us all), but what he does have is

a classic, old-school kind of cool–one based on confidence, nonchalance, and the ability to radiate that you are far too cool to care if others recognize your coolness.

This last quality is a key reason why cool is such a rare commodity in politics. The very nature of the game compels its practitioners to be petitioners, ever bowing and scraping for votes, legislative support, and money. And it is hard to be cool when you are constantly begging.

vitally, Obama convinced millions of regular Americans that supporting him was all about fulfilling our needs, not his

I’d add a couple of points to this: Obama was supremely effective in engaging people and giving them ownership of his campaign, his cool was a projection of their desires and they were invested in it. So being cool is about being confident and giving people what they need, but it’s also about listening and engaging and making people feel good about the process.

So here (finally) are some proposed lessons for local government.

Local government spends a lot of time asking people the wrong questions: don’t ask people whether they are happy with what you are doing, or how you are performing, or whether they like you – that is needy and uncool.

Do spend time asking people about how they feel, what they need, what would make them happy, then try and deliver it.

This is not about top down paternalistic delivery; engagement is crucial but effective engagement requires openness and confidence. You care what people think about the issues but you don’t care what they think of you. You are open to change and collaboration because you don’t need to prove that you’re right. You care about outcomes and not about approval.

Easy to say, hard to do, especially when you’re up for re-election, but is this the key to making local government (even more) cool?