Friday, 3 September 2010

Success and how you define it...

In the last 24 hours I've seen two totally different ideas of what success looks like. I liked one, I didn't much like the other.

Today we had a celebration of Hull City Council's graduate scheme. We three grads popped over to the Guildhall for an hour with our line managers, mentors and the HR guys who've been running it. In the end four line managers made it, out of 12, and one mentor, of three. And rounding it off were our two handlers, a big HR boss (who I'd never met before) and an even bigger HCC boss (who I'd not met but who seemed, on the strength of our brief conversation, like she will be an asset to Hull. She's also been to Sierra Leone before which gives her many brownie points).

When we got the invites it felt a little weird. It didn't seem to make much sense to celebrate a scheme that has four of us looking unemployment squarely in the face come October 1st. Gallows humour on my part suggested it was more like a wake so when there was a little speech on how successful the scheme had been and there was a (muted) round of applause I just couldn't stop the incredulity and had to ask what criteria of success we were using. For me, the elephant in the room was our future employment, or not, as the main criteria of how successful this two years was for us.

I shouldn't be surprised. When we started in 2008 the graduate scheme made no promise of further employment and the 5 graduates who made up the first cohort warned us very early that little planning or forethought went into what had happened for them (eventually shoehorning them into temporary contracts until something came up...only 2 are still there today).

Call me naive but I thought they might have learned from that and heard the disappointment of our predecessors. It was the first time they'd run it after all, wouldn't they clock that paying the salaries of the three of us for two years, paying for an MSc in Public Administration at INLOGOV and giving us the breadth of experience and knowledge and building relationships across the organisation would make it strategically worthwhile to retain that value come the end of the programme?

So I asked the question and it led to a healthy discussion between me and the speaker. From the HR perspective it was successful - look at what we'd done in our placements, how we'd grown and how we were now really valuable assets not just to Hull but well prepared to go and contribute to the wider public sector. Sadly we were just the victims of poor timing and there was work going on to try and match us to vacant positions in Hull but clearly noone could have foreseen what the situation would be.

Those vacant positions form something called redeployment. Now, as you might imagine the public sector is full of terror about impending doom (we'll bypass the bit where that writing was on the wall 18+ months ago). So we have a recruitment freeze. That means they can't just keep us around in a job they make for us on an ad hoc basis. So since July 1st we've been on redeployment - that is we get first dibs on jobs at the same grade. We're not the only people at our grade and there aren't many jobs. Since July 1st there have been 3 jobs. None of us have got one. So, with four weeks to go, we are creeping closer to not being in education, employment or training.

However, the thrust of that argument about success was very selfish - what had we got out of it for ourselves. Call me old fashioned but I'd like to reclaim Weber's ideal of 'bureaucracy'. I am not working in the public sector for my own personal development. It wasn't about being a good way of getting another degree (who needs three anyway?!). It wasn't about what I would get out of it. It was, and is, and always will be, about the public. I chose the switch from international development because I desperately want to get stuck into the communities and lives that I can engage with as a British citizen who understands where people are coming from because I understand language, culture, history, food, weather, etc. And I chose to apply for the graduate scheme in Hull because of the hope filled vision of the future that this council shared with us. This idea that actually the problems facing Hull, of which there are plenty, aren't insurmountable and we could be part of that organisation getting stuck into it over time.

It's wonderful that the council is altruistic enough to train up people for two years so they can give them away but I'm not sure you could sell that to the ordinary man or woman on the streets of Hull? Don't they want organisations to develop people and retain the knowledge and build on those individuals? That's what I'd want City of York Council to do.

The reason this stuck was because of something I'd heard at Conversations on Wednesday night. We watched Nooma - Today, a video from Rob Bell (leader of a church in the US and author of a couple of really good reads - Velvet Elvis and Sex God). He was talking about how being stuck looking backwards means missing today and what that means for our approach to the future.

He talked about the exchange between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane after his resurrection. Jesus says to Mary 'don't hold on to me' and Rob Bell made the point that after the resurrection, Jesus wasn't saying carry on and do what we did, he wasn't saying to keep harking back to the loaves and fishes, to bang on and on and on about the Sermon on the Mount and how great it was when he turned water into wine. Jesus' point is that all of that, it was about what's next, all that has been is nothing compared with what is next. And so we have Acts and the Holy Spirit and the church turning the world upside down on the basis of the resurrection kicking that off, not really because of the nice stuff Jesus said.

Rob Bell illustrated it with stories of people who spend so long rooted in the past and holding on to their experiences that they fail to live for today and tomorrow. The decisions that get put off because 'we're not ready' only to find that the opportunity has gone. Of not being able to see beyond the success we had before.

Instead it begs a different vision of success. One that's totally about the future and how it impacts on your life, the lives of those around you and the life of your community. That's a measure of success I can get behind because it's rooted in the hope of the future and what can be as a result. Not just pointing to how great stuff was (even if that has a longer term impact). I wanted to commit to Hull, I did. We might not have moved from York (and I've had the 4 hour daily commute as a result) but that wasn't because I wanted to leave after two years it was because of Christine's phd. That's finished in April, we could have left York and moved. Success for me would have been the future implications of what Hull City Council invested in us these two years. But for Hull, not for anyone else.

I'm full of hope about the future because it's literally the only way I know how to think. Naive idealism to some but I'll take your cynicism. There's some great stuff happening in the public sector and I'd love to be involved with it. There's some great stuff happening in the space between the public sector and the public public and it's going to be brilliant watching that unfold. What I do next is something of a mystery. There is a phenomenal job in York that I'm applying for but I don't just want to do a job for the sake of doing a job...If that's what keeps me in Hull beyond October I'd rather get paid less and temp in York so I can look after Christine and get stuck into my community than just go to Hull and get paid public money to do a job that happens to be there. At 26 I'm not prepared to just settle for shunning my passions.

The bottom line is that it wasn't a very celebratory affair. I hope what I said was reasonable, I certainly hadn't planned to get into the question of the scheme's success and I didn't go to cause trouble. It's not bitterness or anger, it's just disappointment. Maybe it was the fact this celebration didn't even have any refreshments. Too much to ask for tea, coffee, water and biscuits given that we were celebrating? Not even a round robin email saying 'we can't spend money on such frivolities but maybe we could all bring something'. It felt nothing more than a self congratulatory back slapping exercise for a vision of success that's rooted in a measure of how it makes your own life better, not what it's made possible for Hull.

So, now the dissertation is done it's time to get into what that future looks like. Exciting, innit? :)

Picture credit to:
su-lin: Party Poppers and More
Will Lion: successes and failures in this version but original CC image from parrhesiastes: 4th Dan throws First

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