Flash fiction – the future of public life in 350 words

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Change the ending has been published! Here’s my latest the article from the Guardian in case you missed it

Flash fiction collection offers unique insight into future of local government.From assisted death to mobile libraries and bees, Dawn Reeves has curated stories from those who love local gov

Derrick Anderson, chief executive of Lambeth council, said the book is ‘extraordinary and engaging, brimming with commitment’

Can you tell the future of local government in 350 words? That was the task I set back in June, when I asked all those who care about the public sector to submit a very short story on this huge and profoundly complex subject.

As someone who’s proud to have spent most of my life working in the public sector and who now focuses on facilitating change and creativity, and writing novels, I wanted to set a different agenda. I was fed up of the gloomy, negative narratives that are so prevalent and I wanted to hear what other people think and feel.

Even though the project was backed by the Guardian’s Public Leaders Network, Solace and KnowledgeHub, which gave me confidence, I had no idea what kind of reaction I would get. What I found was that while some national observers were talking up the end of local government as we know it, people in councils across the country responded to my challenge to create alternative scenarios, to envision futures they wanted to see, and to tell it like it could be.
I received many more stories than we had space for, including lots from first-time writers more accustomed to producing reports than fiction, and the overall standard was extremely impressive. Well over half of the 42 published stories were contributed by people working at a senior level in local government, including accountants, planners and public health consultants, although people who don’t work in the public sector, but nonetheless care deeply about it, wrote too.

The stories, three of which are being published by the Public Leaders Network (see below), cover a broad and in many ways unusual range of subjects, from fraud and illegal immigrants to assisted death, mobile libraries and bees. Some of the narratives are set in the future, and others draw lessons from the past. Some have a melancholy feel, and a sense of protecting what the writers value about current provision, but even in the darkest stories there are glimmers of hope. One child dies but another is saved; people are pushed to their limits and risk their careers in the hope of change; doubt and fear appear in the margins, but bravery brings rewards.

By contrast, there are also uplifting stories about people with complex lives that have been changed for the better by the intervention of public sector workers. And while many of the tales are full of warmth and humour, the collection contains real grit and serious ideas. The writers have taken on knotty political issues with great heart and insight, inviting readers to think again about how we care for vulnerable older people, how we balance difficult choices between quality and cost, how we value people who work in the public sector, and how and if we can make the resources stack up.

To buy Change the Ending, curated by Dawn Reeves, please contact production@sharedpress.co.uk OR go to www.sharedpress.co.uk

How It Might Start
By Andy Burns

He arrives at Clare’s house at 11pm and hesitates. It’s too late to knock, so he sits in his car, thinking. He’s been living in the shadows of Detroit, the spectre of municipal bankruptcy stalking him. He wraps himself in a thin blanket of denial. It couldn’t happen here. Surely they wouldn’t be the first to go under. But there’s no hiding from it now. Why else would he be here? Hours pass heavily in a flash. His clothes crease and mould.

Clare had offered a solution. “We can put our arms around you.” She’d been speaking metaphorically, one council with money to another with none. One chief executive with options to another with … not much time left.
“Come round and have a drink. We can talk, offline,” she’d said.
He tries to convince himself that it’s the politicians who won’t accept the help of a neighbouring authority, but he knows that’s only partially true. At this unearthly hour of the morning, there’s no escaping himself.

The first light is watery and insubstantial. That’s how he feels. He knows he should be pushing back the gloom, putting in support structures, holding up the sky, but he can’t do it alone. He has to ask for help, has to admit he’s not enough.

He knocks his head against the steering wheel. Come on, man, have the conversation!
When a light goes on in the house, his mood improves. Clare answers the door in a soft grey dressing gown that’s more like a blanket. In the hallway, the smell of coffee revives him.
“It’ll be an investment. We’re not interested in a takeover,” she says. “And we’ve got about 30 minutes before I have to get the kids up.”

He wonders if they can make it work. What he’ll say to the councillors, to the management team, the staff, his wife. It’s all a risk.
“We’ll make it work,” Clare says. “We always find a way.”

Back in the car, relief floods his engine. He sits a while longer. It’s the right result. The city and their communities need a way forward. The road ahead will be rocky, the navigation a nightmare, but she’s given him a new direction.

Andy Burns is director of finance and resources at Staffordshire county council and president of the Society of County Treasurers

Chicken Chow Mein for the Soul
By Gareth Young

It had been a big day for Stephanie; the sort of day that deserved a celebratory beer and a Chinese takeaway; the sort of day that came very rarely for a hardworking but underappreciated social care commissioner. After eight months she was about to deliver a new home care contract for the council.

Whereas previously some areas of the borough had had spotty coverage, there would now be multiple providers in every area and, most importantly, Stephanie had saved the council an incredible £3 for each hour of care delivered. It was no wonder she had been roundly congratulated, so why didn’t it feel quite right?

Just five years out of university, Stephanie was committed, intelligent and ambitious. Admittedly it was a sign of the times that someone so young had been asked to lead this crucial piece of work, but she had done well and a promotion was on the cards, so why hadn’t she ordered her chicken chow mein yet?

At the back of her mind she knew why. Although the contract was a great deal for the council and therefore the local taxpayer, the companies providing the care would need to find a way to absorb those cost-savings and that meant paying their staff even less.

They had to cover administration charges, management overheads, travel costs, holiday pay, sick pay, pension contributions and a small amount of profit out of that hourly payment, which left very little for the people actually delivering the care. This nagged away at the young local government worker; the people looking after people like her sick grandma were now going to be paid a lot less.

Had she struck the right balance? She wasn’t sure, but she did know she hadn’t had a choice and she’d enabled the council to deliver the most significant savings in the history of local government without taking services from the vulnerable people they served.
It was a big day and Stephanie ordered her chow mein and had her beer. She’d done a good job and deserved it. It just didn’t quite taste as sweet as she had hoped.

Gareth Young is a local government officer and the co-author and presenter of the popular welovelocalgovernment blog and podcast

Lessons in Corporate Parenting
By Kersten England

I learnt almost everything I know about being a corporate parent from an extraordinary young woman I met courtesy of Radio 4. She came into my kitchen one Saturday morning, talking straightforwardly about her and her sister’s experience of local authority residential care. Her desire to reach out and support other young people whose birth parents were not able to nurture them was palpable.

New to social media, I tweeted about the interview’s impact on me. Right back at me came a tweet from Radio 4 connecting me to Kyra. It turned out that she was a recent care leaver and one of “our children”.

We met in my office just as she was going to uni. We talked a lot about what care leavers really need. Actually, mostly I listened. Sure, we have always had a committed team of “leaving care” professionals who have navigated fluctuating funding streams and shifting policy approaches. But now we have brought our care leaver children closer to their wider corporate family.

When one young man wanted to be a firefighter, we called the chief fire officer. When someone needed funding to attend an international care leavers’ conference, we found it. When a young woman’s roof leaked persistently, we didn’t get off the phone until it was fixed. We made sure more care leavers got apprenticeships. When we realised just how little the basic apprenticeship left a care leaver to live on, we introduced a “living wage” apprenticeship.
Uni hoodies, Christmas presents, quick coffees in city centre cafes are all part of our corporate parenting and, yes, on occasion, helping young women, sometimes now with children of their own, to find refuge from abusive partners. We are not perfect parents, but we do want the best for our care leaver children.

And what about our young Radio 4 woman, Kyra? She is now an ambassador for student care leavers and about to have her foundation degree graduation. She cares for various members of her family, older and younger, and is a weekly visitor to her foster mum, who doesn’t get out much anymore.

I am indebted to Kyra.

Kersten England is chief executive of York city council. She is a trustee of Nesta, the national innovation charity, a keen cyclist, hill-walker and mother of five young adults

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