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Five things I learned when I was a council youth worker (and how this helped me survive in digital government)

Around the turn of the millennium, I ended up working in some random jobs to try and make enough money and gain enough experience to get onto a journalism course. This included a spell as a part-time, sometimes paid, sometimes volunteer council youth worker. I won’t name the exact location for obvious reasons, but I worked/volunteered at a youth project based in an area that the European Union had defined as one of the highest areas of deprivation in the South of England.

The young people we worked with involved faced challenges daily. Early on, I asked a fellow leader why one of our usual visitors looked a bit tired. Because he’d been woken in the early hours of the previous morning, I was told, by an axe coming through his front door in the pursuit of some missing personal property. I once mentioned that I’d seen someone using a public phone box and that was how I discovered that the phone box in question was used principally by people selling themselves in exchange for drugs. I learned not to ask questions.

The young people were smart, resilient, and faster to spot a fake and mercilessly deal with them than any group I’ve ever encountered. I liked them. In return they tolerated me and paid me the compliment of leaving my car, which I used to park out at the front of the hall where the project was based, untouched. At the time I assumed that my time with the project would be something to stick on my CV. What I didn’t realise was that I’d still be using the lessons I learned nearly twenty years later to help me work in digital government. These are the five lessons that have helped me the most.

1. Don’t make the rules

September. Beginning of the school year. First session. What do we do? We ask the young people to come up with the rules that they wanted for their youth project. We promise not to add any of our own. Madness? I thought so.

Never again do we get them to sit down for as long as this. As the year goes on and as I quote one of the rules back to a young person for the umpteenth time I realise that enforcing rules that you decided on is a power game that can be seen off from a distance. Asking what rules you want to play by? that changes things.

When I’m Transformation Lead for GDS, working on site with departments and agencies and meeting sometimes hostile senior stakeholders for the first time, what’s the first question I ask? It’s exactly the same, though phrased slightly differently. This is your club and your rules and I will commit to upholding them. What is so important that you want to write it down to ensure that we’re still here in a few months?

2. You are as strong as your weakest link

On a trip out, we’re stuck in a traffic jam in a minibus full of young people. It’s hot. Ritalin doses are wearing thin. It’s a continuous fractious battle of ebb and flow to ensure that seatbelts are being worn. One young person turns around and starts using some racially abusive language towards one of the other young people. Two of the three leaders on the bus immediately step in. One stays quiet. The abuse continues for the remainder of the journey.

In the debrief after the trip, there was criticism of the leader who stayed quiet. At the time I felt bad for them: they were young, it was an aggressive atmosphere after a tiring activity, it was language that the young person in question almost certainly heard at home on a daily basis.

Now, I understand the reason for the criticism. Just as the security of a system is only as strong as the weakest storage of a password, a management team of any description is only as strong as the support of the least enthusiastic member. If a critic can find a chink of light, even silence in the light of their continued behaviour, they’ll continue until that chink of light or that hint of neutrality widens enough to provide them with space to continue.

3. Make friends before you make enemies

When we had special activities, or holiday playschemes, who was the first person we invited? The local PC. Partly because he was great. But also because if you live on an estate considered off limits to many, then if your first experience of the police doesn’t involve fear, threats and bad consequences it’s just possible that, one day, you might call them when you need them.

One of the digital teams I worked with realised that the project they were working on had big challenges to the security standards of the agency. What did they do? they invited a representative of the security team to their stand-ups and planning sessions before they hit problems.

If your first interaction with someone is friendly, you are probably going to try to help them; if your first interaction with someone is them causing you problems, your first instinct will be to try and make sure that they experience further problems. Making friends now ensures that you don’t end up making enemies later on.

4. Be ambitious but be realistic

Towards the end of my time with the project, we decided to try and take the older young people away on a residential course. A lot of them had never travelled outside their own postcode; most of them had never been able to last more than an hour at a time in any type of structured activity.

We found a way to make it happen. The aim we set was that we returned at the end of the week with all of the people that we started with. In other words, we kept behaviour within the margins to the extent that the place we went to didn’t throw anyone out. We managed it, but we ran it close to the wire.

No-one else – and certainly not the centre we visited that was used to nice middle class schools – would have approved of our aim. Stuck in the middle of the situation, we were the best people to determine the success criteria. We were elated when we met it. Times when everyone else notices your success are the easy ones; the rewarding experiences are when no-one else notices.

5. It’s all about consequences

If you spend time in youth work, it turns out that the most used word in your vocabulary becomes “consequences”. What do you say to an angry 13 year old threatening to take off his safety harness on the top of a cliff because the instructor has told him what to do too many times and he’s angry at being shown up in front of his mates? Not “don’t be an idiot”. That doesn’t usually play well with angry 13 year olds. No, the best thing you can do is suggest that they “take a moment and think of the consequences”. This isn’t infallible, but it does at least give them the control and the decision.

What I didn’t realise when I was standing on top of a cliff was that this would also become my default approach to HiPPO scenarios. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in conversations with frustrated colleagues either about how senior stakeholders need to understand more, or about how senior people are making unreasonable demands.

In situations where unreasonable demands are being made, it is my experience that it is even less advisable to say “don’t be an idiot” to the person making the demands. If you can stand back from the emotion and lay out the choices and the consequences of those choices to whomever is making the demand, you’ve got a chance of a reasonable conversation.

Sometimes, that’s not enough. Sometimes, people will walk away and do something stupid. You can’t be responsible for them at that point; all you can do is make sure that you’ve given them the best possible information on which to make their decision.

6. Spending a year strategically losing at pool ruins your game forever

My game was decent at the start of the year and had corroded to erratic bordering on terrible by the end of the year. It’s never recovered from the deleterious impact of playing on a warped table with slow patches due to beer spills from the previous night whilst occasionally deliberately missing to protect the ego of my opponent.

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