Murder at the town hall: retelling the story of local government as a thriller
An ex-council director turned thriller writer explains how to turn around gloomy and cynical narratives about local government
Dawn Reeves Guardian Professional, Thursday 4 July 2013 14.00 BST
Could local government staff learn from Alfred Hitchcock to create a thrilling tale around local government. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Someone will be murdered today at the Local Government Association conference in Manchester. It could happen in a narrow service corridor behind the catering area or in an unlit car park underneath the town hall.A chief executive may appear with strange blue marks on his hands or, to keep the city safe, a council leader could be forced to cross a line she’s never crossed before. I don’t know how it will end because that’s up to the participants – it will be their story.
Encouraging our local government leaders to write their own town hall thriller might sound like an improbable conference session, but there is an urgent need to tell a different story about local government. As a former local government director, and someone who’s worked with and in the public sector for 18 years, I was infuriated by the way in which public services, and local government in particular, are constantly undermined.In a spirit of quiet protest, I decided to write the story from a different perspective. Local government and thriller may not go together in many people’s minds, but I found that creating a dark entertainment with murder at its heart was a good way of getting beneath the surface of what happens in a town hall. A murder sharpens the focus on decision-making, and the most critical aspects of work suddenly crystallise – the political gets personal.
In my novel, Hard Change, local government officers are heroes as well as villains. The story examines whether they and their colleagues in the police and public health can act collectively to prevent another death. I think it’s important to tell stories in creative ways that change perceptions and shine new light on our experiences. Having written the novel, I thought about how possible and practical it might be to change the local government story. This led me to develop a workshop, which I’ve taken back into councils to continue the dialogue about how to turn around gloomy, cynical or antagonistic narratives. The workshop focuses on how to construct a good story and how to get different messages out in a way that really connects with people.
Using creative techniques also helps to work out the story we want to tell: whether it’s about the council itself or the local community.
At the LGA conference, my workshop will encourage participants to write their own town hall thrillers. I’ve no doubt that some of the stories they produce will have heroes that we can identify with, not stereotypical views of bureaucrats who don’t care
We need more stories about public services and local government – the more thoughtful, illuminating and the more they get under the skin the better.
How to change the negative narrative about local government*It’s the way you tell stories that counts. Use creative techniques to construct a good story and maximise the impact. This approach can get your message out there in a way that connects and is remembered positively.
*Work out your organisation’s story – what do you want it to become? What we choose to tell others and ourselves makes a difference. Visions or corporate mission statements rarely resonate, but developing a few clear stories that illustrate where the organisation is going, with you in a leading role, can be inspirational.
*Avoid getting stuck in a “problem” narrative. Damaging and lazy stereotypes in the media can mean that the council can be seen as the problem. Clarifying and communicating your preferred story and your intentions in creative ways has real power to shift to a more positive focus.
*Your point of view is critical – add interpretation and meaning to change perceptions. Communicating correct information is vital, but it’s not the end of the story. An interesting and illustrative story from your point of view isn’t spin; it’s legitimate and critical. It’s all about meaning, perception and whose interpretation gets adopted. Why not yours?
*Motivations matter – reminders that local government is about public good, not profit-making, are important. Showing why people do what they do in local government is a major differentiator. It’s what makes local government increasingly trusted.
Dig out the story that illustrates who does what and why, then spread the word!