Local government or The Matrix? Five job titles that might have you confused

It’s your local council not a role in a sci-fi film, so why are the job titles so impenetrable? Joanne Fry demystifies some of the more unfathomable roles

First published in The Guardian Public Leaders Network 24th April 2015

What does a corporate policy officer do? When I first realised I didn’t have a clear answer to that question, I also realised how opaque and unfathomable many job titles are in the public sector. I struggle to encapsulate what I do in an accessible way, and I’m not alone – an assistant director I used to work with told me her mother thought she did “something in admin”.

There is a serious issue here. Given recent efforts to ensure local government is as transparent as possible, and good at communicating with communities, it’s important people understand what we do.

So here’s my attempt to demystify my current role, along with four other zingers I’ve come across over the years.

1. Senior policy officer, corporate policy

Currently, my full job title is senior corporate policy officer for localism and engagement. Yes, it’s hard to fathom, and no, it’s nothing to do with corporate law or the police (people have asked).

The corporate policy team, according to official guidance, responds effectively to national and local policy challenges and coordinates strategic policy thinking and planning, taking forward the localism agenda, strategic consultation and engagement and strategic partnership working. But perhaps that doesn’t make things much clearer.

Essentially, I help my council to strengthen local democracy. In recent years, councils, communities and individuals have taken on many of the decision-making powers that used to be in the hands of central government. I find ways to put these powers into practice.

It’s an important function – and one that relies on engagement with local residents – which is why it irks me to have such an impenetrable job title.

2. Improvement officer, organisational development

Previously I was in organisational development. Even when you understand the jargon it can mean different things. Indeed, the council I worked for at the time had two organisational development teams that did completely different jobs. My team designed policies and developed projects that made the council more efficient. The other team worked on staff development, improving knowledge, skills and learning. These functions overlapped, and sometimes we’d get confused about who was supposed to be responsible for what. At least the job title itself was pretty self-explanatory – improvement officer. Whatever I was working on, from performance to risk management, it was always about finding ways to improve services.

3. Assistant improvement programme manager

This was my first job title in local government. I used to car share with a traffic warden (sorry, civil enforcement officer) and on our very long commute I struggled to explain my role to him, mainly because I didn’t quite understand it myself.

The council had advertised for someone with an interest in public policy, and at the time I was doing a master’s degree in public policy and administration. Even during the interview it wasn’t clear what the role involved, but I figured that since I would only be assisting, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Eventually I learned that my role was to manage a programme of activities and projects that aimed to make the council more efficient. It seems obvious when I think about it now, but at the time it wasn’t.

4. Enterprise architect

A friend of mine had this job title and, unfortunately, he didn’t work on a Star Trek set – in fact, his role was much more straightforward than this technical title implies.

The job of an enterprise architect is to align IT development with business needs. They make sure the right digital infrastructure is in place to support an organisation’s growth strategy, cutting across silos to ensure a common approach. Enterprise architects are like city planners, providing the roadmaps and regulations that a city uses to manage growth and provide services to its citizens. It’s not too difficult a concept to grasp, and I’m not sure why they need such a confusing title.

5. Change agent

This immediately makes me think of shadowy figures in The Matrix or Men in Black, who may or may not be up to something sinister but who definitely own a flashy memory-eraser pen. I wanted to be one until I realised all it involved was the unenviable task of trying to smooth things over in the wake of staff cuts and reorganisations.

There are a plethora of euphemistic titles around this field of work, perhaps because “transformation manager” sounds a lot less scary than “person employed to sack as many people as possible and move on to the next department”. I’m being a little unfair: a change agent can be a valuable function. They are experts in enabling people to work effectively as they plan and implement change, and they often introduce and champion new initiatives that improve performance and morale.

I started working life as a secondary school teacher. While I’ve no regrets over changing careers, I do miss shorter dinner party conversations: “What do you do?” “I’m a teacher.” “Oh, poor you.” End of discussion.