Council leaders: the importance of being more than earnest

Oscar Wilde’s imperious Lady Bracknell, being both fictional and approaching her 20th decade, was rather ruled out from chairing the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry, despite her familiarity with certainly the posher parts of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. We can surmise, though, her views on being earnest as a quality in political leaders: important, yes; sufficient, no.

We can also imagine her pronouncement to Jack Worthing, discovered as a parentless infant in a handbag in a London railway station cloakroom. For K & C council to lose one leader, whose chief merits seemed to be earnestness plus length of council service, may be regarded as a misfortune; to replace him with another, with apparently even fewer compelling qualifications, looks like carelessness.

The council’s early failures even to recognise the scale and nature of the crisis it faced have been well aired, including in these columns, culminating in the peremptory, and probably costly, dismissal of the council’s Chief Executive by Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid. Almost inevitably, though, further heads seemed bound to – and continue to – roll, first being that of the Leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown. 30-plus years as a K & C councillor, council leader for four, former cabinet member for leisure services, he lacked, unfortunately, first-hand familiarity with tower block building regulations, polyethylene-filled aluminium panel cladding, and all the other techie stuff on which the nation’s chat show presenters are now such aggressive authorities.

But Paget-Brown was visibly there, soon after the fire, being earnest and contrite. Unlike his deputy, who had (and, according to the council’s evidently traumatised website, still had, three weeks after his resignation) “specific responsibility for promoting better housing for residents”. Despite having overseen the Grenfell Tower refurbishment and prettification, at the crucial time he appeared to keep even his earnestness to himself.

In accordance with our rather flexible notions of electoral accountability, the resignation of both senior politicians was deemed necessary, if not in any practical way beneficial. Hence the election as new council leader of Elizabeth Campbell – from one of the more affluent areas in the south of the borough, a cabinet member at the time of the fire, and who couldn’t remember, when first asked, exactly whether or not she’d ever entered a residential tower block.

Like her predecessor, Campbell was hugely apologetic and earnest. But her media performances did seem to highlight the basic question of what we can reasonably expect of our councils’ elected representatives – as opposed to their paid, trained, specialist and supposedly expert officers – in our ever-larger scale, overstretched, underfunded, centrally dominated, under-respected system of so-called local government.

Kensington & Chelsea is, excepting the City of London, the smallest London borough by population. Yet its councillors, like Campbell and Paget-Brown – and obviously even more so those of our over 120 larger urban authorities – have somehow to attempt personally to represent and respond to the needs of between, on average, four times as many residents (Belgium, Spain) and over 20 times (France) as their counterparts in other major Western European countries.

Faced with a technical and human disaster on the scale of Grenfell Tower, could any elected local political leader(s) have the combination of personal attributes, training and experience to be able to react meaningfully, and even conceivably make a substantive contribution to its prevention?

It’s largely a rhetorical question – but not entirely. For, almost by chance – well, in writing a paper for the recent IASIA-MENAPAR Conference in Ramallah – I came across one who might have fitted K & C’s recent personal and political requirements remarkably closely. I refer to the recently elected mayor of the Palestinian West Bank town of Azzun – similar in area to K & C, but with a much smaller population, and a necessarily circuitous two-hour road journey north west of Jerusalem.

The new mayor is considerably younger than K & C’s leaders, but compensates with a CV they – and possibly even some officers – would have given much for in recent days: an electrical engineering degree, work as a contracting engineer in Jericho and as a supervisory engineer for CHF (Cooperative Housing Foundation) International, interspersed with volunteer social work back in Azzun. Oh yes, and I nearly forgot, Mayor Yusra Mohammed Badwan is a woman: a 25-year old, hijab-wearing Muslim woman, whose Arabic would also have come in handy, given its reputation as Kensington’s second language.

Badwan is, of course, highly unusual, but not unique. Palestine’s conservative and patriarchal culture makes for an even more male-dominated and sexist local government environment than that in England and Wales pilloried in this month’s Fawcett Society’s Local Government Commission report. Yet, against the odds, it has produced some exceptional women mayors – and certainly more than resulted from our own metro-mayoral elections (which formed half the focus of my conference paper: ‘If Palestine can elect women mayors, why do English city regions find it so hard?’).

Palestinian%20mayors.jpg

They include Janet Mikhail, a Roman Catholic, who in 2005 assembled a remarkable ‘Ramallah for All’ Christian-Islamist coalition to defeat Fatah, the dominant West Bank party, in the Palestine National Authority’s administrative capital. And, more recently, Vera Baboun, a former university professor, who was the (necessarily Christian) Mayor of Bethlehem until her also multi-faith independent alliance was defeated in this May’s elections, incidentally depriving her of the thrill of hosting President Donald Trump on his first overseas jaunt.

But back to Badwan, clearly undaunted by her new role: “mayors have many tasks – developing the town by organising housing projects, establishing public facilities such as parks and libraries, paving roads, improving services such as sanitation and water, and making sure residential neighbourhoods stay clean.”

Her biggest and permanent challenge, though, is “the Israeli occupation”. Like so much of the West Bank which under the 1993 Oslo Accords was to be “gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction”, Azzun has been under full Israeli military and civil control – or, as Badwan puts it, “Israeli siege” – throughout her life.

It’s a different sort of torment from Grenfell Tower, but, as was depressingly illustrated in the recent Commons debate, social media users can be careless of such subtle details. So, if your Arabic is up to it, check out Azzun municipality’s Facebook page, and you may still find: “Are there no men left in Azzun? Why did you accept a woman? The great town of Azzun has become a joke.”  And from another charmer: “A people that has allowed a woman to rule will never succeed”.

 

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Interested in contributing to the INLOGOV Blog?

Do you have insight into the workings of local government you’d love to share? Maybe you’ve just completed some research on local government or you work for a local government and want to offer a perspective you think others might find interesting. Maybe you want to respond to something you’ve read on this blog.

We’re inviting contributions to the INLOGOV blog, so if you want to get your opinion out there just get in touch. Send a few words with your idea for a blog post to M.W.Lempriere@bham.ac.uk and we can go from there.

We accept posts on a range of things. It could be to highlight new research, express an opinion on contemporary developments or to inform emerging or existing debates. The only thing we ask is that it’s linked in some way to the workings of local government, wherever in the world that might be.
You are free to adopt any style you wish, but I can offer a number of pointers that have been shown to increase the impact of our posts:

Be concise: make a simple argument or highlight an issue of important in 400-800 words. Try and summarise your ideas in a couple of short sentences near the state of the piece and stay on point throughout.

Be relevant: Connect your blog to a current academic debate and/or recent new story. Use hyperlinks to reference articles and news items that support your line of argument.

Be impactful: Avoid jargon and write for a non-specialist audience. Use a provocative or through provoking title. Try and convey energy and enthusiasm, as if presenting your case to someone in the room. If possible, accompany your blog with a photo or image.

Be proud: Draw on your professional/academic expertise. Include a (max 50 words) biography and author photo when you send your post. Promote your post through your own professional network, including social media.

We look forward to hearing your suggestions!

Governance and accountability: from dull subject to hot topic

Catherine Staite
Accountability is the lifeblood of good governance.  Good leaders understand that they are responsible for the well-being of others, that they need to explain their actions, really listen to those on whom those actions have an impact and act swiftly to put things right if they go wrong.  They know that the higher the level of vulnerability of the people they serve, the higher the duty of care – to serve the powerless and not to demean or demonize them. Good leaders would say that none of that needs to be said because governance and accountability are written through their everyday working lives like lettering through rock. That may be true of good leaders but it isn’t true of everyone.

There are so many flaws in our fragmented systems of governance that it can be very hard to understand who really is accountable when things go wrong.  There has been much focus recently on the negative impacts of privatising regulatory services but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Just think about the outsourcing of benefits assessment to a demonstrably incompetent company, the divestment of social housing from councils, the purchaser/provider split in health and the structural, professional, financial and organisational chasms between health and social care.  All of those exercises in fragmentation result in the people all these different services serve falling through those cracks without ever understanding who is responsible for their suffering. Homelessness is a classic example of this phenomenon. Failure compounds failure and more energy is expended  on shunting the blame than on solving the problems.

That might lead us to believe that all we need to do to put things right is tidy up a bit and then create a couple more regulatory bodies, et voila, job done.  That has always appealed to me; I do love a tidy structure. But even as I crave order, I know that we’ll never achieve it. The reality is that systems, structures and processes in both the public and private sectors are complex and messy and doubly so where sectors intersect, as in public transport or primary care. If we tidy up in one place, we’ll create knock-on messiness somewhere else.  We’d do better to focus on the people in the system – on developing their skills and strengthening their values so they understand the real importance of good governance and the critical role of accountability.

The key to future good governance and accountability lies in the way in which we recruit, train, develop, manage and lead our 21st century public servants.  That is also true of our democratic representatives. A democratic mandate alone does not confer wisdom or effectiveness.  Yet, most councils have cut their staff and member development budgets to the bone, as development is a luxury and not a vital necessity.

We all the see the necessity of the maintenance and repair of our cars, our computers and our washing machines. The maintenance and good governance of our organisations is even more important.  Mechanical failures can cause many problems but the failure of organisations destroys lives.

Catherine Staite 02

Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands.  As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association  and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.

What’s it like studying at INLOGOV?

Drs. Max Lempriere, Abena Dadze-Arthur and Karin Bottom

It is perhaps a little cliché to say that there’s never been a better time to study public management, whether in the context of local government or otherwise. The fact that local government has undergone significant reform over the years – a process that shows little sign of abating – is well known. Indeed, the political world is shifting before our eyes into something new, some would say exciting and certainly worthy of study. Clichés abound, life as a student of public management and local governance certainly won’t be dull.

Avoiding cliché then, perhaps its more apt to say that there’s never been a better time to study at The University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV). The University’s reputation is well recognized; it was 2013-2014 University of the Year, sits 13th in the 2017 Guardian University Guide and is among the top 100 best Universities in the world. As the UK’s leading centre for the study of local government and strategic public management, INLOGOV is well placed to make sense of what looks to many to be a chaotic system. Our research directly informs contemporary debates and legislative activity and the work we do with local authorities across the world is highly respected.

What is it like to study here, though? We offer a number of courses, taught by some of the leading authorities in the field, all of which are specifically designed to further your career in public administration, wherever in the world you choose to work. Whether you’re interested in a Masters degree, Postgraduate Diploma or Postgraduate Certificate and can commit full time or part time, we offer courses in Public Management, Public Service Commissioning and Social Research. It doesn’t even matter if you’re unable to physically come to the Birmingham campus; whilst INLOGOV offers courses in the form of a traditional brick-and-mortar degree, whereby students attend classes on campus, it also offers an internationally acclaimed Masters of Public Administration (MPA) online degree, whereby students do all their classroom activities outside the traditional classroom, at a distance from the University of Birmingham, and supported by technology-based tools.

For those looking for a more focused, research driven learning experience you can choose instead to undertake doctoral research, whether as part of an integrated learning package with a focus on public policy or a traditional research-driven doctorate (offered both on campus and through distance learning). Have a look at our website for an outline of our research interests.

In both the on-campus and distance learning courses, our students are very mixed in terms of their age, where they come from, and their experience of the public sector.  Typically, in INLOGOV’s master courses, students with backgrounds as mid-career public servants are rubbing shoulders with course participants who just graduated from their undergraduate studies.  For example, a fifty-eight-year-old minister in Jamaica’s government took our Masters in Public Administration a 25 year old who recently completed his undergraduate studies in social care in China.  This makes for a fantastic learning community, where the pedagogical focus remains on the learners and how they connect their varied experiences of public management to the theoretical concepts explored during the course.

In both our on-campus and online courses, we use high-quality learning resources, which also feature animated videos and interactive diagrams and theoretical models.  Mindful of the international nature of the student group who register for our masters programmes, we always add new literature on international public management and governance in the reading lists; we include a variety of contemporary case studies and examples of public management from around the world; we ask students to watch a series of short, BBC-documentary-style videos featuring practitioners and researchers from across the globe who discuss their particular experiences of public management and governance in their respective home countries; and we use an array of photo images to portray global diversity in public service delivery.

Although we use the same high-quality and interactive learning resources for on-campus and distance learning courses, there are of course important differences in terms of the learning environment, which meet different student needs.  Campus-based classes require students to attend classes in person and at specific times.  Online classes are free from the constraints of space, pace and time, and give students the flexibility to do their work in their own time and at their own pace, but require students to be very self-motivated, disciplined and comfortable with working independently.

Wherever you choose to take your degree – and students take it far and wide, whether as public servants, journalists, consultants, academics and so on – a degree from INLOGOV will serve you well.

For more information on the courses we offer and to find out about upcoming open days (whether virtual or on campus) please visit http://www.inlogov.bham.ac.uk. Alternatively, to keep up to date with the latest research and discussions from the department check out our blog at www.inlogov.com or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter@INLOGOV.

 

lempriereMax is an INLOGOV Associate and has a PhD in political science from the University of Birmingham. He has taught for a number of years on many aspects of politics, public administration, research methods and academic skills. Prior to that he read political economy at the University of Birmingham and Stockholm University. His research interests include institutional theory, environmental politics, local government innovation and policy entrepreneurship.

abenaAbena has taught on a variety of INLOGOV courses on various aspects of public management and governance to a) international distance learners, who complete the programme wholly online; b) in-house local government participants, and c) ‘on-campus’ students comprising a mix of full-time and part-time-registered practitioner students Abena’s research mainly focuses on non-western and post-western public management approaches that are rooted in local subject positions, indigenous norms and values, locally embedded representational and performative practices, and mirror local history, culture, and religious or philosophical traditions, while promoting public engagement, accountability and effective public services.

bottom-karin-20151113Karin is INLOGOV’s Director of Teaching and Learning and directs INLOGOV’s MSc in Public Management and lectures on modules concerned with 1) party politics; democracy and  public management; 2) research methods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tale of Kensington’s Secret Cabinet

Philip Whiteman

Last week, I wrote about the potential scope for intervention measures by the Secretary of State against Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) following their authority’s inability to provide leadership after the Grenfell Fire Disaster.  The adverse publicity surrounding the authority and its handling of the crisis should have provided a wake-up call in terms of leadership and how it manages its relations with wider public.  So it was somewhat surprising that the Authority remains in hot water following an attempt to stop the public from attending a scheduled cabinet meeting, including a legal judgement overturning that ban and scorn from Downing Street.

As most monitoring officers and councillors will be aware, there are strict rules governing public attendance. So it is surprising that RKBC attempted to block public access.

Council meetings and committee meetings are formal events, not social occasions. They have a clear purpose – to make decisions – and are not just talking shops. Furthermore, they are public events; the meetings must be advertised and the press and public have a right to observe how the council operates. Exceptions are when sensitive issues are discussed (such as legal, contractual or staffing matters) and then the council can agree to exclude the press and public for just that item of business.  They are not to be closed to the public at a council leader or monitoring officer’s whim.

The rules governing public access are defined under Section 100(A)(4) of the Local Government Act 1972, which states that the public (including the press) may be excluded from Council meetings if exempt information relating to one of the following paragraphs of Schedule 12A to the Act is likely to be disclosed. Section 12A sets out the following matters which shall be considered as private:

  • Para 1 “Information relates to a particular employee, former employee, applicant to become an employee, office holder, former office holder or applicant to become an office holder.”
  • Para 3 “Information relates to a particular occupier or former occupier of, or applicant for, the Council’s accommodation.”
  • Para 4 “Information relates to a particular applicant for, recipient or former recipient of a service”.
  • Para 5 “Information relates to a particular applicant for, recipient or former recipient of financial assistance”.
  • Para 7 “Information relates to the financial or business affairs of a particular person.”
  • Para 8 “Information relates to the amount of expenditure proposed to be incurred under a particular contract for the acquisition of property, or the supply of goods or services.” (see footnote 1 below)
  • Para 9 “Information relates to terms proposed or to be proposed in the course of negotiations for a contract for acquisition or disposal of property, or the supply of goods or services.” (see footnote 2 below)
  • Para 10 “Information relates to the identity of the Council as offering a particular tender for a contract for supply of goods or services.”
  • Para 11 “Information relates to current or contemplated consultations or negotiations in connection with a labour relations matter arising between the Council and employees or office holders of the Council.” (see footnote 3 below)
  • Para 12 “Information relates to instructions to, or opinion of, Counsel and advice received, information obtained or action to be taken in connection with legal proceedings by or against the Council, or the determination of a matter affecting the Council
  • Para 13 “Information would reveal a proposed notice, order or direction under an enactment.” (see footnote 4 below)
  • Para 14 “Information relates to action taken, or to be taken, in connection with the prevention, investigation or prosecution of a crime.”
  • Para 15 “Information would reveal identity of a protected informant.”

Under these rules, it is possible that the authority deemed paragraph 12 as grounds to restrict public access.  Yet, it is an authority that is facing an internal crisis as well as having to handle the aftermath of Britain’s most serious fire this century.  So it is possibly beggar’s belief that they attempted to exclude public access.

Not only are the public to be admitted to public council meetings unless exempted by Section 12A, but they are also subject to further restrictions on information they can withhold by means of The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements)(Meetings and Access to Information)(England) Regulations 2012.  The 2012 regulations created a presumption that all meetings of the executive, its committees and subcommittees are to be held in public (regulation 3) unless a narrowly defined legal exception applies. A meeting will only be held in private if confidential information would be disclosed, or a resolution has been passed to exclude the public because exempt information is likely is be disclosed, or a lawful power is used to exclude the public in order to maintain orderly conduct at the meeting (regulation 4).   In the past councils could cite political advice as justification for closing a meeting to the public and press, or state that decisions being made were not ‘key decisions’. The new regulations create a presumption that all meetings of the executive, its committees and subcommittees are to be held in public. Clearly, in the instance of any decision related to Grenfell, it would have to be regarded as a ‘key decision’.


Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies.  

The challenges of being part of the local government family

Catherine Staite

Local government is made up of very diverse institutions, in terms of size, tiers, geography, demography and politics. No two local authorities are the same, even those who seem similar in many ways. Each has a unique combination of history, cultures, structures, systems and relationships.  Each will have different strengths and weakness. Some councils are flourishing and others are floundering. Yet we often refer to ‘local government’ as if it was one thing, when it clearly is not.  Some of that sense of ‘family’ has its roots in long traditions of competitiveness and rivalry as well as cooperation and mutual support. Some can be traced back to the need to be united against the ‘common enemy’ – an over-centralised and capricious central government machine – regardless of any allegiance owed by local politicians to their party when in power.

Local government has occupied a rather eminent moral high ground in recent years.  Demonstrably the most efficient part of the public sector, it has remained remarkably resilient in the face of cuts which would have brought any other sector to its knees.  Many councils have used the pressure, generated by cuts in income from central government, to drive change, experimentation and innovation but others have not.  Some have become highly commercial, with varying degrees of success, while others seek to avoid all risk. Some have streamlined their corporate functions and outsourced support services, in order to be able to focus their remaining resources on frontline services.  Some have engaged communities to co-produce and maintain services which were previously the sole responsibility of the council, while others have simply cut non-statutory services. Some have developed excellent and productive working relationships between officers and members. Others are known for toxic and destructive internal and external relationships.  Some are supporting and developing their staff to be adaptable, flexible and resilient. Others have downgraded their officer leadership capacity and hollowed out their organisations to the point that they cannot respond to a crisis.

In spite of so much divergence in organisational structures, systems and behaviours, the sense of being part of a family remains.  Officers and members share ideas, through writing in the trade press, meeting, talking, arguing and sharing.  That level of interaction may mislead us into thinking we have a good picture of what is going on but since the demise of the Audit Commission, no-one has an overview of the state of local government, in all its rich political and organisational diversity.  Councils are quick to boast of their achievements, as evidenced by the burgeoning awards business, but very slow to admit to their failures. Its no-one’s job to counsel, warn or intervene when misguided choices have resulted in serious risks to the vulnerable.

As is the case with our own families, the notable failure of a family member reflects badly on all. Our first reactions may be to blame them and to disassociate ourselves from them. We may say, quite rightly, that councils are sovereign bodies. They make their choices and they take the consequences. What duties, then, do other councils owe them when bad choices bring disaster? Perhaps they owe them the duties we all owe to our own family members when they go astray: to challenge them to listen, to accept responsibility, to explain themselves, to put things right but above all to learn from their failures. We should support them if they are willing to come clean and share that learning so all can take heed. That way, perhaps, some small good can come out of catastrophic failure.

Catherine Staite 02Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands.  As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association  and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.