Wednesday, 14 March 2012

"Making a difference" - from my work newsletter


A version of this appeared in my work staff newsletter, I've adapted it slightly.  Regular readers will probably not find this informative as they have probably picked up what I do and most irregular readers may find it a bit long and self indulgent.  However for anyone who is interested in balancing a day job with the work of a councillor this might be of interest.

As accountancy tutors we have a real chance make a difference to our student’s lives: furthering their careers and improving their understanding of the world.  A lot of us also do things out of work to support others, whether through volunteering, school governing or even being a magistrate:  I’ve been asked to talk about my experience as an elected councillor.

I’ve always had strongly held political beliefs and been passionate about a better world.  I was already a school governor when I was selected to stand for the council.  Being an elected councillor is in my view one of the best ways to support your local community.  I carefully keep my politics out of my work, although students do sometimes spot me in the local paper.  I also find there’s a lot of crossover of ideas between the roles and my CIMA training helps with both, while not being shy in front of groups of people is pretty crucial.

I have strong views about the direction of government policy (clue – I’m in the Labour party!) but regardless of that as a local councillor it’s extremely important to do the best you can in the circumstances for your residents and while the different parties have different priorities on this we can at times work together.

Of course there are times when it looks quite exciting – there are jokes in the office about my celebrity lifestyle, like last week when I had to run off to speak to BBC news in a break from teaching before dashing back to do a radio interview.  Most of being a councillor is much more mundane, if more rewarding: meeting a huge range of people, listening to their problems and trying to get the best for them is key for any ward councillor.

Becoming a council cabinet member means a real step up in responsibility. The text book stuff I teach in class about delivering change, managing a budget and HRM becomes a whole lot more real when you have to cut 10% from a budget that’s already been cut by more than that the previous year; deciding whether to merge the role of Chief Executive with Director of Resources; or a major reform of Housing finance means almost doubling the council’s debt. Being a qualified accountant has been incredibly helpful during the many hours I’ve spent working with fellow councillors and council staff to understand the implications of proposals. Often what at first sight might seem like a small detail after analysis could turn out to mean something like cutting the library book fund or have severe impacts on the disabled or elderly. 

I was proud that despite the circumstances this year we had – for the first time in Reading’s history I believe – a budget that the main opposition parties supported. In Reading there are no library closures, no cuts to social care, not a single youth worker made redundant along with a council tax freeze and fee increases averaging around inflation. Some hard decisions were made about senior management, organisational structure and methods of service delivery but it was described by opposition councillors as “a budget which protects services to people who need them most whilst also responding to concerns expressed by residents”. I can’t imagine Ed Balls saying that about an Osborne budget (or vice versa) – a good example of the difference there can be between national politics and local politics!

We always advise our students to manage their time effectively and let’s face it, it’s something as faculty we have to do as well whether its student queries when we’re trying to prep, family or something else.  Balancing teaching, looking after my daughter and meeting with residents, council staff and fellow councillors – not to mention my three email accounts continuously overflowing isn’t straightforward.  Sometimes I do wonder what I’m doing, a thought I’m sure many reading this have had in their own experiences.  Ultimately though seeing the difference you can make to other people’s lives is the reason I get up in a morning and I have great opportunities to do that.