Local Government Magazine

Reflections on a career in local government

William J Taylor, MBE, recently joined the Far North District Council as its general manager Corporate Services. He is a former UK Council CEO and has worked across the globe with a multitude of councils as an interim manager, coach and international management consultant.

Recently I sat down with a nephew to talk about his options after leaving university. I suggested local government – he laughed aloud and said it sounded way too boring. 

Instead he said the media would be much more interesting. It got me thinking – is local government really boring?

Back in the day, there used to be a series of posters and TV adverts run by the UK military. The ‘strap-line’ was – ‘join the army and see the world’. Graffiti artists went to work and defaced the posters by adding the phrase…‘and kill people!’ But I digress. No, I didn’t join the army, but I did end up seeing the world – via my career in local government. 

And, far from being boring, I have found local government to be stimulating, and wholly worthwhile as a career.

It would be fair to say that during my local government travels, I have seen some weird and wacky stuff along the way. Far from boring, here is a selection of exciting ‘tales from the crypt’. 

Early in my career, I started working in Edinburgh City Council and, on my first day at work, I was instructed by the CEO to find a way of stopping the South African athlete Zola Budd from running at the city stadium.

Suffice to say she did run, but we did put up hoardings around the track with the message – ‘Edinburgh Against Apartheid’. 

At the same Council, on another project (how the council could bring the Chinese Terracotta army exhibition to Scotland), I had the dubious pleasure of working alongside the late Robert Maxwell, international newspaper tycoon (his newspaper group was underwriting the costs of the project). 

Working alongside Maxwell was interesting, as he would pause at our meetings to take what he described as ‘important calls’ – indeed one time we all got kicked out of his office as he had an incoming call from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Maxwell’s colourful life would end in both tragedy and disgrace – he drowned, mysteriously falling overboard from his super-yacht, and he was found to have swindled thousands of his Daily Mirror employees out of their pensions. 

While on an EU trip to Vietnam, working on an eco-tourism project with the Ha Long Bay municipality, I kept wondering who the guy was constantly sitting silently with the council officials, but who was never introduced. Turns out he was a communist party minder who was secretly recording our every word. Big Brother is watching you!

I can recall smoothing over a diplomatic incident during a ‘sister city’ visit to Germany, where a councillor from the UK had way too much to drink and was berating our most civilised and generous German hosts about the second world war… not a great day for international relations.

While working in Greater Manchester in the UK, I had the privilege of observing the City’s CEO, Sir Howard Bernstein (who is interviewed in our October 2019 issue of LG) lead a quite astounding rebuild and renaissance of the city centre after a terrorist bombing. This episode was the finest example of municipal leadership that I ever witnessed.

During my time working at Waverly Council in Sydney, Australia, I spent my first day at work visiting staff at their various locations. All was normal until I went down to Bondi Beach to visit our lifeguard team … only to find that I had walked on to a TV studio set and the staff were ‘stars’ of the Bondi Rescue TV reality show.

Early one morning, I arrived outside a town hall in Thailand, only to find that its gates had been locked. The staff were being turned away by two rows of steel-helmeted soldiers with bayonets fixed, and tanks were quite literally parked on the lawn outside the municipal HQ, (there had been a military coup overnight). Democracy is precious – yet we often tend to take it for granted.

So, local government is, the world over, many things – but dull and boring it is not. 

I am a recent arrival to New Zealand and am hugely impressed with the quality of Council staff. 

Talking to colleagues it is clear that they choose to work within local government because they are part of a team which is dedicated to making the community a better place to live, work and play for everyone, every day. 

Our staff recognise that councils are not all about bureaucracy and politics – colleagues are working within local government to ensure that their communities are the best they can possibly be. 

From our local librarians, building inspectors and customer service teams, all the way up to the chief executive, everyone working for local councils is focused on making sure their area is a great place to live, play and visit

Council staff are rightly proud of the contribution they make, and colleagues I speak to would recommend it as a career choice. 

That said, we will have to work hard to polish up our public perception – while image isn’t everything, it does count. 

We are, after all, competing to gain the very best talent into our ranks and the labour market is a competitive place. 

So, to return to the question, ‘is local government boring’?

I have found it to be quite the opposite.

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