Five Lessons in Leadership From London's Camden Council

Leadership in Action Reflective Output - Summer 2022
Five Lessons in Leadership From London's Camden Council
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“Not for self but for all.” - London Borough of Camden Motto

This summer I had the privilege of conducting my Leadership in Action project with the London Borough of Camden’s Inclusive Economy Service, which falls under the Council’s Supporting Communities directorate. The Inclusive Economy service aims to change how the economy grows so that it works better for all residents and businesses in the borough, focusing on ground-up participation and ensuring that no one is left behind. During my time at Camden Council, I engaged and supported with a wide range of the Service’s projects to get a feel for how change is effectuated through a combination of top-down and bottom-up efforts. Over my six weeks there, I witnessed eye-opening approaches to leadership and governance. Here are the highlights:

Change occurs at multiple levels.
Effective leadership is not just through top-down directives and policies, but also through research-informed ideation and ground-level engagement with people. Currently in the process of developing an Evening and Night-Time Economy (ENTE) strategy, the Council has been engaging with the Mayor of London’s Night Czar and 24 Hour London Team to determine high-level policy objectives. At the same time, much of the work I contributed to was the planning and documentation for a planned citizen engagement process to engage borough residents and in turn inform policy priorities. There is thus an inherent recognition that as well-reasoned a strategy may be, it needs to have ground-level practicality and acceptance to ensure success.

Employing a needs-first approach to leadership has a lasting impact.
In order to impact people’s lives in a highly effective, sustainable manner, understanding and truly listening to their needs is essential. This approach of human-centred design is central to much of Camden Council’s work, notably in the context of the Digital Inclusion Project pilot which I worked on evaluating. The pilot tested out a form of Universal Basic Services through the provision of laptops, Internet access, and digital skills to 100 residents in the borough to support their employment journey. We conducted semi-structured interviews with a sample of ten pilot participants, using the qualitative data and themes generated to evaluate the pilot’s success and identify areas of improvement. By putting the voices of residents first and using them to steer decision-making, policymakers also gain the trust of the individuals depending on them.

You are only as strong as your weakest link; the most vulnerable must be most supported.
Camden’s philosophy underscores that economic growth isn’t just for the few, but for the many; everyone deserves to benefit from large-scale growth instead of being pushed further out as a result, hence it’s important to elevate those at the fringes. I found this particularly significant when working on the Knowledge Quarter 2050 strategy and participating in discussions around how local residents, especially in areas such as Somers Town which is directly adjacent to Kings Cross and Euston, are not prospering despite the rapid development in the surrounding area. Directed effort is being made to ensure that the knowledge economy being fostered is intentionally inclusive, with the local authority serving as the facilitator between the public and private.

There is no inclusion without self-awareness.
Recognising knowledge gaps and blindspots is essential to having conversations that are both holistic and realistic. This goes hand in hand with a needs first approach; without an understanding of the perspectives a conversation lacks, it is difficult to fully meet the needs being addressed. In short, knowing what you don’t (and can’t) know is just as important as what you do. As someone from a minority background myself, I appreciated and learned from Camden’s prioritisation of local and diverse knowledge, reflected in their participatory planning approach.

Strive for a culture of passion and commitment.
The overwhelmingly positive attitude of the people I was working with spoke volumes about the difference that can make when approaching social impact-driven work. The culture of inclusivity and camaraderie with which staff members work to improve the quality of life of borough residents meant that everyday conversations, meetings and socials were awe-inspiring. Collective leadership gains impetus when fueled by a passion for the cause, translating directly from work culture into social impact. This atmosphere defined my experience with Camden Council; it kept me going and was a reminder of the values that are the backbone of leadership and social change. 

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