No more 'unknown unknowns'

Donald Rumsfeld called them things about their jobs they weren't aware they weren't aware of, and the same can be said of developing political awareness in local government officials. Kent county council hope to change the status quo
Donald Rumsfeld
Former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld coined the phrase 'unkown unkowns'. Photograph: AP

Educating local government officials in how to support their politicians is an idea that points up an interesting fact: until now it seems they haven't known much about it.

Or nothing official, at any rate – with no formal framework for training the senior leaders of tomorrow in managing the environment in which they will have to operate, in the past it's been a case of listen and learn, trial and error.

Kent county council may are looking to change this premise with the trial of a project aimed at increasing its officials' political literacy, knowledge and awareness.

'Managing in a Political Environment' is being run by University of Sheffield politics professor Matthew Flinders, and close monitoring by Local Government Improvement and Development (formerly the IdEA) and the Local Government Association suggests it could be the first wave in a national sea change.

Two half-day training sessions have so far taken place, identifying among attendees what in Rumsfeldian parlance might be termed "unknown unknowns" – things about their jobs they weren't aware they weren't aware of.

In April and June respectively, senior IT leaders and director-level members of the executive leaders' programme were given pragmatic advice and explanations about both their roles and those of their political masters.

Mutual understanding

Using case studies, role play and input from politicians themselves, the project is aimed at fostering a mutual understanding of what it is both sides do. Hugh Martyn, the council's learning account manager for leadership and originator of the scheme, says officials need to engage in a process of influence and negotiation, advising and guiding though from a professional distance, while politicians must maintain good relationships with officers if they are to move their policies forward.

Improved communication is timely, he adds, given the challenges currently facing the public sector.

Flinders says part of the reason no such official training exists in local government is because senior managers and councillors have historically been scared of being accused of attempting to politicise their officials.

"As a result there was an assumption they would pick up a sufficient level of political awareness and knowledge through osmosis and simple day-to-day experience.

"The sessions have allowed officials and some councillors to explore their relative roles and responsibilities and, most importantly, where their roles potentially overlap and how this creates both opportunities and challenges. Even the simplest questions have opened-up quite complex debates about managing in a period of growing public expectations but diminishing fiscal resources."

Martyn says the new training will create more equality of opportunity. "Potential senior leaders and officials have tended to learn about the political environment through mentors, experienced directors who give them the opportunity to access and engage with politicians – without mentoring it's unlikely that individuals will succeed either in achieving their career aspirations or in driving forward the performance of local government."

Kent county council is currently working out how to insert the training into its leadership programme to deliver practical results.

"We want to be investing time and effort into people who can make a difference in their leadership, rather than simply creating a management qualification," says Martyn. "Once we've found a model that works we hope to get more people engaged in learning more about the political environment."

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