I decided to pursue a career in local government after I developed a keen interest in politics and the public sector while studying for a degree in criminal justice. I joined the graduate scheme at Shropshire council, which gave me the opportunity to contribute to the community while also allowing me to be involved at a strategic level; my current placement is in supporting the implementation of the national troubled families programme within Shropshire, which we have renamed the family solutions programme.
One year on, I’ve learned a lot and graduates embarking on internships and graduate placements in local government over the coming months could benefit from the following tips.
1. Money, money, money
Funding is at the centre of the local government universe and understanding how council’s are funded is central to how it operates. Work out where the money comes from. With new payment schemes such as payment by results and community budgets it’s not as simple as X+Y=Z. You’ll also want to work out where it goes: budgets are a main priority within the council and understanding how budgets are set, worked out and monitored is a central part of being a manger. Finally, always remember that ultimately the money comes from the public purse.
2. Get out and about in the local community
Grab the opportunity to get out and about in your county. Explore different parts of the local area. There’s the risk of becoming too focused on the town or city you work in, but this may be very different to rural areas of the county. Meet the people you serve; as a local government officer you are there to provide a service to the local community.
If there’s a process in place that you can’t quite get your head around, don’t assume it’s because you’re not the brightest button in the box. Sometimes in local government things happen in a certain way simply because they always have. Challenging the status quo can be the best thing you do. However, don’t assume everything happening in the council comes from the dark ages, with time comes experience.
Councils are large organisations, and large organisations struggle with change. As young blood, you are there to come up with great fresh ideas to help things work more effectively for the community, and maybe save some money.
5. Attend meetings
Try to attend as many meetings as possible, even if they aren’t in your department. Most meetings are open and it can be helpful to learn how your council works, who works in what area and who makes the decisions. Attending cabinet meetings is also a great way to gain understanding of the political side of local government, and can be quite exciting when high profile cases are debated.
6. Learn the lingo
Local government has a language all of it’s own, and you’ll here certain phrases quite often including:
• “Identifying the key drivers.”
• “Mapping the customer journey.”
• “Instigating a decision accelerator session.”
• “Commissioning an improved outcome.”
I will leave you to discover what these mean. When I first started in local government it felt like my colleagues were speaking in tongues. Local government also loves a good acronym, so if you Duas (don’t understand the acronyms and sayings) it’s best to write them down and ask someone later. Keep a glossary in the back of your notepad to help you translate meetings back into English when your first start.
7. What you can do in private, you can’t do in public
Understanding the differences between the private and public sector is crucial to understanding local government. Councils are subject to a large amount of scrutiny and have statutory duties, this includes safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. There are also differences in the way data is handled as any member of the public can request information about projects, salaries etc through of freedom information requests.
Learning what statutory duties and responsibilities local government has in comparison to a private company is a key aspect of working within it.
8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Unlike the private sector there isn’t (generally) any intellectual property of ideas in local government. If you’re struggling to work out how to do something, ask someone in another local authority. Learning from another council can be a great way to avoid mistakes and build on successes.
9. Thou shall be careful what thy tweets
Social media is a great way to let the public know what you’re doing and raise your profile within your work place. However, be careful about tweeting anything that you wouldn’t tell your manager. You can tweet in work time about work, but don’t let on you have a personal life until after 5pm Monday to Friday.
10. Enjoy it
Local Government is a great place to work, so grab the opportunity with both hands.
This article is published by Guardian Professional. Join the local government network to receive regular briefings and the latest job opportunities