Saturday, January 17, 2015

What's in a name? The saga of East Coast Council

Who Wants Change

Northern Ireland is undergoing a revamp of local government. There will be fewer local councils - not that the country is getting smaller - but local government is paradoxically becoming both smaller (there will be fewer of them) - yet bigger (they will have more staff and more powers and functions).

This is all with the stated aim of saving money. Yet anybody who has been through a 'change management' process in a large organisation will know full well how expensive these processes can be. They take a long time, there's the inevitable drop in confidence among customers/the public, productivity reduces, staff morale is usually damaged, scepticism sets in, there are redundancy packages to negotiate, legal fees escalate - and of course there's the consultants fees to pay for all of the 'fresh thinking' that has to be bought in from outside.

One of the challenges is what to call these newly-merged Councils.

Sometimes they naturally belong together as logical areas - but, as in the case of the area where I live - two councils based in two towns which in themselves are very different from each other and even rivals of one another, are being pushed together.

Ards Borough Council (based in Newtownards) and North Down Borough Council (based in Bangor). The towns have been rivals for centuries, I would suggest going back at least as far as 1606 with Hamilton's Bangor and Montgomery's Ards competing with one another, and their respective Royal Town Charters which were granted by King James VI & I in 1613. And before them, maybe even the monks and friars of Ards Priory and Bangor Abbey might have been trying to out-do each other. In the late 1500s the whole area was marked on maps as The Ardes. By 1906 the whole area was within the Parliamentary constituency of North Down - one of four constituencies in County Down which were (you guessed it) North, South, East and West.

Where this rivalry has got to is no agreement on the name for the newly-merged Council. Some combination of the two previous names has always seemed logical to me. But the word on the street is that the North Down contingent wouldn't support "Ards and North Down Borough Council" and the Ards contingent wouldn't support "North Down and Ards Borough Council". The resultant stalemate has brought about a name which was narrowly approved by the Council members - 'East Coast Council' - but which the public has reacted very badly to and which has attracted a lot of negative press coverage. People power has mobilised itself to vocally object. It's a bad start for the new organisation.

I wasn't involved in the project but I know many of the people who were - councillors, Council officers, and also consultant team. They all asked me for input and I gave it - informally and also formally. Naming something is really tough, but in a climate of enforced merger and perceived loss of identity it's even harder for the consultant team to navigate the storms. But not using a placename in the Council name seems daft - East Coast of where exactly? We holidayed in East Yorkshire last summer, and their coast is magnificent. Google "East Coast Council" and you'll end up in Yorkshire, in Suffolk and even Singapore. My kids tell me in American rap music there is an East Coast v West Coast rivalry. East Coast could be anywhere.

And so the name becomes a vanity exercise. Somebody wanted the merged Council to be creative and new. Which in itself is a positive objective. Where it all went wrong is that the name's not where to do that - choose a simple, trustable, distinct name - and let the creativity show by being creative in the marketing, the events, the way the organisation goes about its business. Be creative in how you operate - don't think a fancy new name will overcome perceived failings in product or service. To quote an old song - It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it, and that's what gets results.

'East Coast Council" has now backtracked and, rather than scrap the name outright, have now done what they probably should have done in the first place, and have put the name out to public consultation. They have a shortlist of six:

• Ards North Down • East Coast • North County Down • North Down and Ards • Loughlands • Peninsula.

I will always go for a combination of the two - either Ards & North Down or North Down & Ards. Go alphabetical or toss a coin. Just get on with it. Local government shoulcn't be 'exciting' - it should be reliable and trustworthy, and in tune with the public they are meant to serve. Want to be creative? Then do something imaginative - reduce bureaucracy, get better at serving your customers, keep the place spotlessly clean, get sensible and efficient planning policies, support small business - do things that help people!

It's easy to kick the consultancy team. But they didn't write the brief or set the terms of the contract or allocate the budget. Implementing the new name - whatever it is - on everything from leisure centres and bin lorries and car park tickets and signs - will cost far more than their 'naming process' fee will be. Everybody wants change, nobody wants to change or reveal the actual cost of it.