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.

Why working for the European Commission drove me up the wall

How fence-sitting, bureaucracy and indecision drove one official out of Brussels back to the arms of UK local government

First published anonymously in The Guardian Public Leaders Network 13th January 2015

Having previously worked only in the UK public sector – specifically, local government – I thought a large, multicultural body like the European Commission would be light years ahead in terms of its organisational culture.

But no. I had somehow overlooked the Commission’s foundations in the stodgy, bureaucratic public administration principles of the French civil service in the 1950s.

This was hard to deal with, and seriously jarred with my preferred working style. These are the things that drove me most up the wall when I worked for the European Commission:

Fence-sitting

I am analytical yet decisive; I like to take decisions based on facts and evidence. This did not bode well in an organisation which seems to endlessly discuss and debate things without ever wanting to make an actual decision.

At times, when I wrote minutes in meetings, I had to call a halt to proceedings to push someone to declare whether or not a decision had been reached. Usually not.

Endless bureaucracy

I like policy and strategy: they reduce the risk of duplication and wasted effort. I thought I would enjoy a place full of rules and procedures, but there’s nopoint in following rules unless they actually add value. Doing things “by the book” because nobody wants to take any actual responsibility for their actions is less attractive.

I am also results-oriented. My motto is: “do it now and get it finished”. At the European Commission I had never seen so many pilot projects in my life, and I was not sure of the point of any of them. It seemed there were no mechanisms to kill a pilot if it wasn’t working, because nobody wanted to admit failure.

Passing the buck

I don’t do work arounds. If I can’t see a clear pathway to achieving an objective, I hack one out with a machete. I’d always rather ask forgiveness than seek permission. Which is why I once had to sit in a meeting and justify why I took action I believed to be simple and straightforward. Apparently, it should have gone through a chain of command first. Urgh.

Lack of clarity

I am clear, to the point of being brusque on occasion, about my opinion. For better or worse, you will never be in doubt where you stand with me. My impression was that the European Commission did not find this a desirable quality for management. I lost count of the number of times I came out of a meeting unsure of whether anything was agreed or not, or whether an idea was accepted or rejected. It’s anyone’s guess whether it was a “yes – yes” or a “yes – no”.

Hierarchical culture

Even more important than the working style is the culture, and no amount of arguments about efficiency and effectiveness will gain any traction if it’s not part of the overall ethos. This is why I feel much happier in UK local government and why I have come back to it. In my experience, councils tend to be flatter and less bureaucratic, there’s more autonomy, more scope to mould your own role, less micro management, and authority is based on knowledge and skills rather than a position in the chain of command.
Having said all this, things are changing within the Commission, and the last six months I was there, I was involved in a programme of culture change – though it didn’t come to fruition quickly enough for me. I was a square peg in a round hole and didn’t want my sharp edges whittled down.