Tony Miller – a great public servant

Over the months I have written about many people whose resilience, intelligence, quirkiness or ordinariness tell us a story about public service – the best and the worst of it. At the core of all these tales is a belief that in working to improve people’s lives we owe it to each other to be as imaginative, as innovative, as humane and just as brilliant as we can. To engage with the world to make it a better place and, let’s face it, brighter, sunnier and more fun to be alive.

This month in Brighton there is a hole in the city and in our public service after the death of a splendid, funny, clever and original man who exemplified all those values and entirely unpredictably became the deputy chief executive of the Council. Tony Miller was not your usual council officer – and I mean no disrespect to the many brilliant people who are. But if I tell you that on the road to being a senior executive he started one of the first listings magazines in the country, owned two second hand book shops, promoted the Real Sounds of Africa before any journalist minted the phrase ‘world music’, was an early champion of Norman Cook in the Housemartins days, probably managed the Levellers (no-one can quite remember) and even, in what seems prehistory when I was a starting out as a comic, was my first agent, you’ll begin to see the idiosyncrasy of his journey.

He was physically slight, freckled, verging on the ginger and radiated a sardonic warmth that gave his sense of humour a wryness and a dryness. When people die at 53 of a horrible illness, the temptation to find some kind of consolation through hagiography is very strong. But with Tony there is no lie to the sheer volume of praise heaped on his memory by those he touched and those he worked with.

His values flowed from his politics. But although he was a Labour man through and through he was peculiarly un-tribal. He talked the language of true politics which, at its very best, is when you can find some common expression between people. What do I mean? I mean that when devising a citywide campaign on diversity, he didn’t ask me or some other predictable representative of a strand of diversity to chair it. Instead he invented what he called “The Supporters Club” and asked the managing director of the Football Team to chair it. This put a rather different spin on the notion of diversity.

He was always finding ways of knitting together the story of our community. He saw the possibility in the Millennium bid for city status for people to coalesce around their pride in the city. One of his greatest friends and colleagues who worked with him every day summed it up as his ability to talk to two different people of opposing views and yet get them to agree on a course of action that satisfied them both. And then, always his first love, to get a good media story out it. If public service is going to improve the city, why keep it to yourself? That is real politics and is founded on an underlying optimism that even opponents can discover shared values and on the basis of what they do have in common commit to the public good.

He also never took the obvious angle. He was a great promoter. He never lost the PT Barnum instinct that once made him put on a Real Sounds poster “one of the greatest live acts of all time”. So to promote environmental change, long before David Cameron got on his bike, he invented a campaign called Nine Lives in which, on line, nine people in Brighton recorded video diaries of their lives as they changed them to become more sustainable. They became the city’s poster citizens of greening and it won many, many awards for originality in a public service campaign.

He just didn’t do things as other people did. He spoke a language rooted in a wide experience of the world. He respected the processes of local government, but they never limited him. His examples of strategy came from his bike ride to work or his young son on the tennis court. He never drowned the human purpose of what needed to be done in the soulless language of official jargon or mumbo-jumbo. He never lost an outsider’s humility in the way that he saw the world. He was a terrific public servant and we miss him dreadfully.

published in The Guardian 21.03.07

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