Insight Experience Challenge Advocacy

Take five former Chief Executives; add the freedom from constraint that only retirement can bring; stir in many years of joint work experience and collaboration; season the mix with continuing strong affection for, and commitment to, local government, then add the spice of curiosity and enquiry, and you should end up with something like The Mercat Group.

Although we have known each other for most of our working lives, it took retirement, COVID, lockdown, and Zoom to bring us together, and to shape the project which reflects our continuing passion for the business, the processes, and the people of local government. Collectively, we have accrued around 150 years spent working in local government, and we share a common desire to use our knowledge and experience to help untangle some of the difficulties and challenges being addressed in the sector today, and to do something to record its recent history, personalities and events, before it is lost forever.

So, The Mercat Group was formed, and we set about drafting four ‘foundation’ papers which would describe and define our core beliefs and public sector values: in our first paper, we reassessed the relevance of the Wheatley Commission Report in the context of today’s challenges and issues; our second paper critically evaluated the rationale for the reorganisation of local government which took place in Scotland in 1995, and examined how it has fared since then, in the context of a devolved and changing Scotland; our third paper made the case for an agile and resourceful local government, embedded in local communities, and offering innovative solutions for both local and national problems; our fourth paper developed that theme further, through the prism of the COVID pandemic, and demonstrated how local government could have contributed more effective action in the early stages of responding to COVID than was the case, had it been appropriately included in the planning and delivery activities by the Government. The Municipal Journal published the first three of these foundation papers.

At the same time, we wanted to create a ‘home’ for our work, where others could find and access it on a permanent basis, and where we might build an archive of the lived experience and testimony of people who lived and worked through this period of great change in local government. On that basis, we were glad to accept the invitation of the Improvement Service in Scotland to join its Knowledge Hub, where our work and records would be given that accessible, and permanent home.

The Knowledge Hub now gives us the facility to gather and record the lived experience of individuals, as well post and store our ongoing series of papers and essays. The Hub contains XX video interviews and conversations covering a wide perspective across the theory and practice of making local government work, and also includes the personal reflections of former officers and Elected Members who have been at the heart of change in the sector. We have also added two conversations about the Dunblane Shooting Tragedy in which a senior police officer and the Council Chief Executive at that time reflect on the event itself, the response and the long process of healing and recovery which ensued.

In addition to our interviews and conversations, our written work continues with our ‘Essays in Good Governance’ series. The essays now published on the Knowledge Hub include critical reflections on democracy in local government, the organisation and conduct of elections, the potential of new business models in local government, and the potential of constitutional change. Future essays will address issues relating to community empowerment, the devolution of services and resources, and dealing with the challenges of delivering for people and communities in a post-pandemic, post-Brexit world. Looking to the future, we will be continuing with the Essays in Good Governance series, and recording the lived experience of former officers and elected members.

We are keen also to extend our contact with others in the local government community. If you like our approach, and you would like to contribute to our programme in any way, please contact us. If you are a serving officer, and you or your management team would like to talk through a difficult or challenging problem with a group of experienced professionals, to get to a solution, then contact us. If you would like to add to our growing testimony of the lived experience of people who worked through periods of change in local government, please get in touch.

And who are we? We are Bill Howat, formerly of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (bill@mercat.group), David Hume, formerly of Scottish Borders Council (david@mercat.group), George Thorley, formerly of South Ayrshire Council (george@mercat.group), Gavin Whitefield, formerly of North Lanarkshire Council (gavin@mercat.group), and Keith Yates, formerly of Stirling Council (keith@mercat.group).