Entrepreneurs! Do they exist in local government…

…or are they exclusive to organisations that exist to generate capital and profit?

This question presented itself to me after a colleague of mine, @andysimcox (you should follow him), posted an interesting link on twitter titled, What’s an Entrepreneur? The Best Answer Ever. It claims ‘this classic…definition pares entrepreneurship to its essence and explains why it’s so hard. And so addictive’.

Now entrepreneurs, or the word entrepreneur, has always been a capitalist word in my eyes. If you said to me, “That man over there. He’s an entrepreneur.” I would assume he was a self-made business man. That he had seen a business opportunity, maybe a gap in the market, from which he had made his fortune (or least a decent living).

Indeed, traditional definitions seem to back up my capitalist theory: ‘the owner or manager of a business enterprise who, by risk and initiative, attempts to make profits’, or ‘a middleman or commercial intermediary’.

The definition in the article is as follows:

Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.

As the article suggests, “people…need to say it out loud 50 or 100 times before they really understand what it means”. I’m not suggesting I do understand and I’m not going to waste your time or mine, breaking down and giving you my interpretation.

It was the following interpretation within the article that struck me. This was the bit that triggered formulation of the question posing as the title of this blog:

[The definition] matched the one demographic fact Harvard Business School researchers already knew about entrepreneurs—they were more likely to start out poor than rich.

Followed by:

“They see an opportunity and don’t feel constrained from pursuing it because they lack resources…They’re used to making do without resources.”

How could I not immediately associate these elements with the current austerity confines of local government: ‘more likely to start out poor’ and ‘used to making do without resources’. It sort of just fits. So, what of it? Well, my relative experience of working in local government, in controlling and managing budgets, forecasting spend and knowing full well that once it’s gone, it’s gone, develops a sense of care – often unspeculative, uncreative.

I also assert that some of the best work a team I worked in carried out, was when our capital funding was slashed and there wasn’t as much to throw at projects. It forced us to start thinking differently. It fit more with this:

The perception of opportunity in the absence of resources helps explain much of what differentiates entrepreneurial leadership from that of corporate administrators

It is not my intention to label ‘corporate administrators’ as lacking in the vision department. What the public sector is going through currently, the enforced changes, efficiency savings, looking for new and more effective ways to deliver services on reduced budgets, in short, must be an absolute bloody nightmare.

I would assert that their position as guardians of an organisation, trying to implement programs of change whilst sustaining its integrity, is difficult. Equally, it is surely worthwhile for them to consider how they could more freely evoke “emphasis on team rather than hierarchy, fast decisions rather than deliberation”.

Overall Change versus Pockets of Invention

These are clearly two very different things.

Change, on a corporate level, has to be a top down process, but one on which to consult with your employees. In a heirarchical structure of change, the natural steps are to look at Directorate; Services; Departments; Teams; Staff.

Pockets of invention would be defined more like this: “entrepreneurs offer their team members a larger share of a vision for a future payoff, rather than a smaller share of the meager resources at hand”. It is difficult to say this, without it seeming critical of the Change level heirarchy.

Yet, these two elements can surely be complimentary, depending on how you execute the former over the latter.

The question is:  At what level within the heirarchy of a local authority is it safe to promote the letting loose of creativity in an entrepreneurial sense, whilst at the same time maintaining the stabilty of the organisation?

Surely it is worth some thought!

At whatever level the organisation conclude it is safe to let loose, it should consider its approach in the following way, but be brave enough to err not on the side of caution, but a little beyond it.

Every time you want to make any important decision, there are two possible courses of action. You can look at the array of choices that present themselves, pick the best available option and try to make it fit. Or, you can do what the true entrepreneur does: Figure out the best conceivable option and then make it available.

There are surely services or departments that through the Change approach, ultimately suffer from the first part of the above statement. From the latter Entrepreneurial approach, surely there are some services or departments that could thrive through re-invention.

The necessity for local government to uncover their own entrepreneurs

This, I guess, is the most important part from my point of view. That, just becuase a person works in the public sector, does not automatically mean they do not possess the entrepeneurial vision or skill of somebody who applies their skills in the private sector.

If we just quickly go back to the original definition:

Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.

Never has there been a time in local government, where there is so much need for the rise of the public sector entrepreneur. This is a person, or people, who operate in a way that is beyond the need of immediate resource. People who are not restrained by tradition or blinkered by long established process.

I am certain that these people exist in local government. I am certain because I’m pretty sure I know some. Not only that, I have worked alongside some who have inspired me to change the way I think about service delivery.

The unfortunate restriction is that, rather than being able to continually pursue their entrepreneurial outlook and vision, it is a second place role to their ‘day job’, which means they are heavily restricted in bringing their special qualities to the table as much as they should, which is therefore detrimental to progressing new ways of doing things.

If somebody could find a way to discover public sector entrepreneurs, freeing them from the confines of their daily chores, allowing them the freedom to explore, I believe the potential then exisits for local government to really change and meet the challenges it is currently faced with, and those it will be faced with for a number of years to come.

I sincerely think it would be worth investigating.

How do you think local government can find and let loose public sector entrepreneurs, whilst maintaing the strong governance and integrity of the organisation? There must be an answer. Maybe it needs an entrepreneur to start the ball rolling?


5 thoughts on “Entrepreneurs! Do they exist in local government…

  1. I like this a lot, Spencer, both because it argues for a definition of entrepreneur which I think is the right one, and because it reflects a lot of my thinking about local government. I’ve lost count of the times in the last couple of years when I’ve proposed something to a local authority only to get the stock response “we’ve got no money”. In many cases problems can be solved by a bit of imagination and leadership. And, perhaps, some of these solutions might be a bit more long-lasting than the old way of throwing money at the issue.

  2. Great post Spencer, thanks for posting your thoughts it has got me thinking about a number of things…

    To try an answer your last question first….

    “How do you think local government can find and let loose public sector entrepreneurs, whilst maintaing the strong governance and integrity of the organisation?”

    My personal view is that whilst there are huge financial constraints facing local government, unless there is a true desire within a given council to “want to change” and think differently about how local government can and should be designed and delivered it will simply take option 1 “You can look at the array of choices that present themselves, pick the best available option and try to make it fit.”

    Coming back to your overall question as to whether entrepreneurs exist in local government, i agree with you that indeed they exist, in fact I believe that there are many of them – and as you rightly point out they aren’t always in the right places. It is this exact reason that unless a culture of change is desired or fostered these people will, in my humble opinion simply grow frustrated and potentially leave the sector altogether. There are many examples of this happening all over the place…

    The real challenge is that should a council wish to change, how do they quickly identify and mobilise these people to assist in doing what they do best and provide a framework for change which allows the organisation to adapt and respond quickly.

  3. Really good piece, and timely. There are plenty of entrepreneurs in local government. Why would you enter it if you were not passionate about public services and the pursuit of progress. However ‘systems and processes’, weak leadership and lack of synergy between elected members and officers often mean that it is much, much harder than it should be to make progress.
    I suspect the most effective local government entrepreneurs will be those who know how to facilitate ‘civic enterprise’ and make stuff happen in spite of procedures and protocols. Who day in day out encourage a participative democracy rather than worry about winning a contest of electoral democracy every few years….

  4. John, Carl, Mike

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    My post was pretty well recieved by many and was certainly the most popular of all the odd bits I have done here and there.

    I think it is a pretty raw piece and full of holes, to degree, which makes your varying perspectives and insights all the more intriguing to me. I’ve had a couple of further insights via email from those involved with big change management programmes, where they agree with parts of what I say in prinicple, but constructively critiscise where entrepreneur elemements fit into ‘organisational change timescales’.

    I will take your thoughts and comments along with the others I have received, and consider the post in a more practical way, as to where it might ‘safely’ be implemented within an ongoing change programme.

    Further thoughts, of course, are always welcome.


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