79 – The local government reading test. Would you pass it?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          710 words

books 2

Image from a friend – some books it wouldn’t hurt everyone in local government to read.

I am a reader, as are most people posting on this site. This has been identified as an annoying trait. I can testify to that. I am convinced that, unfortunately, it makes people feel insecure and inferior when you actively read and try to talk to them about what you are learning. Thank goodness for blogs. Over the years I have developed a reading test. This is how it goes.

When I start at a new organisation or someone new starts at the organisation I work at, I make a point of having a chat and saying hello. I am not highly extroverted but I like to make people feel welcome and to build a working relationship as soon as I can. When I get to know them, especially if they are in top management, I try to find out what their interests are and establish an intellectual connection. This is when the test starts.

I may lend them a book. This is the big test. It will be a book related to their interests or responsibilities that they say they are interested to read. So far, no one has said no (everyone wants to look like a reader). Then I wait. If they start to read the book and ring me up or come to see me to discuss it, they get 10/10. If they hang on to it until I ask how they are finding it (which I do after 6 or 8 weeks) and they make a rapid attempt to flick through it before handing it back, they get 5/10. If I get it back unread and unflicked – 0/10.

If I don’t lend a book, I will send an article or two. This is a lesser test. I often try something topical from Harvard Business Review. Again I wait. When I see them in a week or two I will ask what they thought about it. If they have read it and can talk about the contents, they get 10/10. If they say they have read it but don’t remember anything from it – 5/10 (semblance of effort points only). If they can’t remember receiving it – 0/10. Sometimes, the article test follows the book test. Points lost on one test can be picked up on the other.

In parallel I usually send some e-newsletters or e-articles on topics of interest. Some are meant to be provocative – a little nudge out of their comfort zone. This usually gets a response. I don’t do it to be annoying, rather it is an attempt to push the relationship to a new level where we are learning together. For this test, an unprompted read earns 10/10. A prompted read is 5/10. Ignoring the e-newsletter or article (and me) earns 0/10.

So how do most people rate? Very few will read a book. Most try. The average book test score is about 5/10. More will read an article. After all, it usually has pictures and not many pages. Here the average score is more like 7.5/10. I find that the e-newsletter and articles test gets the best results. The average is more like 9/10.

I think that this indicates that people in local government are reluctant readers. If it is quick and easy and can be done at work (i.e. read an e-newsletter on the computer or their tablet) they are more likely to do it. If it has to be done at home (i.e the book) expect the reading material to sit on their bedside table for a long time. After all, what recognition do you get for self reflection, professional learning and coming up with new ideas? Not much. Mostly it is just annoying (as noted earlier) but it can also be threatening.

Collaborative reading can be a great way to build a strong working relationship, reflect on practice together, and find new ways of doing things. It can also be a career limiting move of you are seen as someone who is theoretical and too preoccupied with ideas – top management always seem to assume that this comes at the expense of doing. It is as if people can’t ‘think and do’ in local government.

My advice is to think seriously before doing the reading test.