• Oxford Together Stories

The Council For Me Is The People On The Ground

I felt the ultimate goal was supporting an amazing charity to do amazing work. I'm in the right place and I'm using absolutely 100% of my capacities and I'm doing something useful and that's been really amazing.


I work at the Museum of Oxford and I'm the Community Engagement and Exhibitions Officer. I've been there since 2018, so it's been about a year and a half, and it's changed quite a lot during that time, but basically, I work with various community groups doing projects around their heritage, and then the outcomes of those projects are put into community exhibitions. To me the most important thing is the people I work with get something out of the work that we're doing together.

Going forward the museum could be a lot more like a social space, where people can talk about the issues that affect them here and now. We’re a museum of social history within a city, but I’m interested in seeing that as more than just the past, you know. I never really saw history as just the past - to me it’s something that feeds into the present, and the future, it doesn't just disappear.

Because the museum's part of the city council, some of us have been drafted into this emergency response, setting up locality hubs and working with the Oxford Hub, helping Oxford Together. There's a small management team that has drafted people from across different teams across the council to become part of these five local hubs: central, west, east, south and north. They’re people from all sorts of different jobs, who have never met before, it's me from the museum, somebody from the tenancy sustainment team, who worked with council tenants, people from the antisocial behaviour teams, people from regeneration zone teams, sustainability teams, it's like the whole local authority spectrum suddenly coming together into one team. I think on the 25th of March we had the first meeting to talk about it and the 26th of March I went into the Old Fire Station to set up the central locality hub. It was a slightly panicky environment, you know – Oh my god, people are asking for help and we don't really know how to help them. How is it actually going to work out in practice? How many people do we need to make this happen? And then gradually it all slowly fell into place and now the systems are a lot better.

I went from working 18 and a half hours a week and having loads of voluntary activities, my own hobbies and social things, to working very long days just trying to set up new systems and converging with the Oxford Hub in ways which were also really interesting to watch: the local authority, this big, massive traditional organisation, meeting this small and nimble charity that was trying to do things really quickly. What I see is that a lot of the essential services that the most vulnerable people relied on disappeared. Places like food banks and mental health services massively reduced their services. I don't really know what percentage of places closed because they didn't know how to keep delivering their services safely within the whole new COVID procedure, and what percentage closed because of having to furlough their staff, but I know that there is a fair amount of that. So, the services that have become essential to support people in many different ways, just kind of disappeared and the council felt that it’s the council's responsibility to look after it.

It's been interesting watching as someone who's been involved in community environmental action for the last few years, watching how much those smaller groups suddenly became key to solving some of those issues and how the council was like, ‘These groups are amazing, we totally need them,’ whereas a couple of years ago, I felt like we were on the margins, knocking on the doors of bigger organisations.

The organisational culture clash was really interesting to watch. The council is such a hierarchical organisation, I don't really know what's happening up top, and what decisions people make and why. Well, I see the result of those decisions, but I don't really always understand the reasoning behind them. This is that issue of a lack of trust and not really understanding each other. I don't really know how you bridge that in an organisation of this size – within a hierarchy, how to enable people who have expertise and a level of experience and knowledge that is useful, to share that at a higher-up level. A few times over this period, I didn't feel like I could take good ideas straight to the decision-makers in my organisation. And that's frustrating, and awkward, because I don't want to undercut people, and I don't want to undermine people. And also, within the context of this rapid restructure I was often unclear who was responsible for what. I just want somebody to say ‘Yes, I'm hearing what you're saying, how can we improve it, because you're on the ground and you can see things.’

I think what is working is people on the ground talking to other people in their communities. What's not working for me is people who are not doing this work and who are managing this big organisation and they just don't really see what's happening on the ground. We're in the middle of a pandemic, people are run ragged to try and respond to it, without often being given the right steering, or the right tools to do what they're supposed to be doing, and yet there isn't a space to be able to express those frustrations honestly and clearly.

There is more interest in the more localised responses, and more interest in looking into the communities and making more contact and understanding them more, understanding the little guys more. [If the Council wants to work closer with communities,] there's going to be a clash of expectations. We want it to be amazing and shiny and positive, but that's gonna clash with the reality of actually working with communities where it's a hard grind sometimes, trying to establish relationships, and sometimes it is about failing and failing and failing.

I'd love to know what's happening on the bigger, higher levels of decision making. [Before the pandemic] I used to sit in big meetings thinking, this is just not working for me, I'm not getting to know my colleagues, I still don't understand what you do, and over the last four weeks, I'm suddenly thinking, all these teams, I see what they do. I see all these people and I see them, I see their faces and I know who they are, I know how they work, I know what systems they work with, I know what people they work with. It’s just such a quick, steep learning curve, which I've been thinking about, and wondering how you can possibly replicate that without the crisis situation.

I think overall for me it's been an incredibly positive experience. I've had days in this role where I felt incredibly fulfilled because it felt so needed. I think in my day to day job I do this culture work I know is really valuable, but you don't always see the immediate need for it, whereas with this it's basic needs that people needed help with. I felt the ultimate goal was supporting an amazing charity to do amazing work. I'm in the right place and I'm using absolutely 100% of my capacities and I'm doing something useful and that's been really amazing.

I've also developed a bit of council identity. I remember when we first started at the locality hub, and I could see people answering the phone, saying ‘I'm so and so, Oxford City Council.’ I thought I'd never say that, I'd just say my name. Whereas now I totally do that, and it seems quite natural and I feel quite... I feel a sense of pride, I think. The work that I've done over the last few weeks has brought me closer to council colleagues from other teams who I really respect, now I've seen their work and I've seen how they respond to things. I work with great people, and the council for me is the people on the ground.


Edited by Sofia Smith-Laing

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