The New Virtual Town Hall

Ian Briggs

They wear tweeds, ride fold up bicycles and have a strange obsession with bandstands, they are often viewed as being at the fringes of society – a minority interest group with a small but powerfully loyal following – they are those who hold dear to their hearts that our 19th century heritage should never be lost. They value the majesty of the Town Hall as a Victorian edifice that spoke of the power of the elected (or in most cases the appointed) in society – have they lost sight of the importance of downsizing public organisations, ensuring that we have a quasi retail approach to services and that we should administer them from anodyne, faceless replicants of a local branch of an insurance company?

Certainly for many within cities and towns the structures that spoke so loudly of the power of the local community served not just to reinforce the civic dignity of the individuals who were called upon to govern but also were – and perhaps still are important icons of civic place and power. True, they are a huge burden to the local purse but at a time of dwindling concern for the council (mindful of a story told a few days ago of a recent election in a ward where only 16 people bothered to vote) we perhaps need a kind of iconography to remind us all that choice and voice at a local level is so profoundly different from the way we have our political views represented at a national level that we need to have some physical representation of the distinctiveness of local democratic place.

All this came out in a conversation with a senior member at this week’s LGA conference here in Birmingham. How he was so troubled by the ‘Moulton fold up bike brigade’ (MFBB) who were repeatedly making his life such a misery with their expertise in the preservation of the civic heritage and their near obsessive persistence that large amounts of expenditure must be made to keep the Town Hall in the condition that our forefathers wished it to be in irrespective of the impact upon other services that he was genuinely afraid for his seat!  However, if we cannot afford the physical iconography can it be replaced with a virtual one? This became an interesting question – opportunities offered by social networking when exploited with care and sensitivity could perhaps replace or compound the iconography of the traditional approach to ‘civicness’? As we are developing our understanding of the community leadership role of councillors should we be thinking more about the overall impact of placing the locally elected in a virtual space as well as a physical space? These are skills that councillors are now just beginning to develop – they understand that their role extends beyond the importance of effective problem centred decision making to being the custodian of the local narrative. In the past the narrative has for many places been the Town Hall representing the power of civic dignity and profound distinctiveness of place. The contemporary narrative is one of connectedness, blending historical tradition with the requirement to maintain and better local conditions so the ‘MFBB’ of the future will look upon our ipads, tweets and blogs as worthy of preservation as much as the Victorian edifices are valued by some today. Watch out – it will happen.

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

The 21st Century Chief Executive

Councillor Graham Chapman

It’s not only clothes and pop music which are subject to the vacillations of fashion. They affect the more mundane world of local government too. Elected mayors for example are a fashion of the ‘naughties’, when larger-than-life bankers, entrepreneurs, football managers, celebrities of all types were supposed to provide solutions to a whole range of problems by dint of pure charisma and personality.  Even the staid role of the chief executive is subject to fashion.

The traditional function of the chief executive with a legal background overseeing due process and formal decision making, gave way in the 80s to the more managerial approach, and perhaps was the heyday for the role. In the 90s and early 2000s it took another turn. Under the cover of the CPA and star ratings, where the chief executive was given a far more important role by the inspectors than the leader, and encouraged by SOLACE and the Blair Government, the ‘personality’ Chief Executive emerged. It was thankfully not totally pervasive but frequent enough to create conflict with the role of the elected members, and to increase chief executive remuneration in some cases to a point of embarrassment.  We are now going through a counter-revolution, partly because a minority of chief executives overplayed their hands, partly because of the recent antagonism whipped up against the public sector and because chief executives, as some of the most highly paid public servants, are an easy target. The counter-revolution now questions the need for the role at all and a number of authorities have abolished it, or are in the process of doing so.

My view is that chief executives are essential. A good chief executive provides continuity and integrity to the local government system, and a healthy counterpoint to political decision making. The system is part of a British tradition of local government which, being British, we do not appreciate sufficiently.  But if the role is to be accepted, de facto it does need to rid itself of some of the fashions it has been subject to and it needs to establish a set of core principles. The best, perhaps the only, set available has been devised by Roger Taylor, former chief executive of Manchester and Birmingham.  The principles should be of particular interest to the more buccaneering breed of chief executives who see themselves as more important than their members.

So here they are in précis in Roger Taylor’s own words.

1. However powerful a chief executive may seem, his/her success is always dependent upon gaining and maintaining high levels of political confidence and approval.

2. Chief executives need to develop a clear sense of the corporate  which is informed by, and contributes to, the politics of place

3. However difficult it may be for the political leadership at the time, it is vital that chief executives can demonstrate a clear moral and ethical compass and foundation to their work.

4. Chief executives are at the nexus between the democratically elected council and it’s paid servants. While they will be the leaders to the paid service, they can never allow themselves to become partisan.

5. Chief Executives must always avoid being “the story”. Some of the best chief executives are those who eschew the limelight and concentrate on the affairs of the council.

6. How well chief executives are likely to ‘gel’ with officer colleagues will always be less important than their intellectual capacity and ability to explain complex things clearly.

7. Chief executives need to have, and to demonstrate, the political skills to manage effectively in the spaces between leadership and opposition councillors.

8. Competent chief executives never need fear the working communications between their colleagues and the political leadership.

9. Chief executives need to have some empathy with the complexities and the arduous nature of leadership in the Council.

10. Chief executives who work with a political faction and against the leadership should never be trusted, especially by the political faction they work with.

11. Chief executives need always to bear in mind that neither the conferences nor the special roles pay the salary.  Chief executives constantly need to bear in mind what their day job is.

12. The heart of any relationship between leader and chief executive has to be trust, truth and tolerance.  It should never be an intimate friendship but it should always have with it an informality and an appreciation of each other’s company.

13. Leaders should have a clear idea about what they want chief executives to achieve and they should be able to rely on objective and independent support for the negotiation of these objectives and subsequent review of the chief executive’s performance.

To summarise: I have little doubt that the move to abolish the role of chief executive will turn out to be the most ephemeral of the fads and that those authorities trying to survive without one will return to the fold. However, it does not mean that the role does not need shoring up and insulating from the sum of the political and, often self-induced, managerial opportunism to which is has been subject. Roger Taylor’s list of dos and don’ts is a good start.

Graham Chapman is the Deputy Leader of Nottingham City Council, and the Portfolio Holder for Economic Development, Resources and Regeneration.  He is a Councillor for Aspley Ward.

How Mayoral Recall Could, and Wouldn’t, Have Worked

Chris Game

We’ll never know, of course, whether a well publicised mayoral recall provision could have swung some of those lost referendums. My own view is that, with a half-decently organised Government-led Yes campaign – detailing the ‘city deals’ that mayoral cities could expect, and confirming that mayors elected by voters would be recallable by voters – several additional referendums, including Birmingham’s, were comfortably winnable. 

What is surely undeniable is that Ministers’ refusal even to address the issue of recall – to which the Government had been publicly, if reticently, committed since its January 2011 mayoral impact assessment – understandably increased people’s doubts about elected mayors and ultimately cost votes.

I’ve been wondering this past week – over the final stages of arguably the second most important US election this year – whether, if those mayoral referendums had been held just a month later, the topic might have forced itself on to our electoral agenda, and, if so, with what effect?

The election in question was only the third time in US history that a state Governor faced the prospect of being voted out of office in a recall election – and the first time ever that the defending Governor had won. That’s the statistical measure of what happened on Tuesday in the state of Wisconsin; its historical importance will be seen between now and the Presidential election on November 6th.

Scott Walker – the conservative Republican politician, not the “Make It Easy on Yourself” one – was elected Governor of Wisconsin in November 2010 on a platform of tax cuts for businesses and the well-off and wage cuts for public employees.  Inheriting a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit, he almost immediately unleashed the most politically inflammatory Budget Repair Bill imaginable.

Public employees’ wage increases were capped at the rate of inflation, their pension and health insurance contributions increased and the programmes cut. Above all, though, this was an attack on the Democratic Party through the public sector unions, who saw their incomes slashed and – going beyond any campaign pledges – their collective bargaining rights virtually abolished.

There were furious protests and demonstrations, occupations and sit-ins, negotiations and some amendments, major procedural delay, judicial review, and finally reference to the state Supreme Court. Eventually, however, the Bill was passed, and opponents turned their attentions to recall. 

Recall – enabling a citizens’ vote to remove and replace a public official before the end of their term of office – is almost as long established in the US as the other way of getting rid of them, through the more judicial route of impeachment. With 150 recall elections and 75 recalls across the country in 2011 – including, incidentally, two mayors – its deployment, particularly at local level, is widespread, but it is not universal, and removal of senior state officials through recall is exceptional.

Wisconsin is one of 19 states to permit recall elections for governors and other state officials, but in the hundred years pre-Walker the impact had been limited to a couple of state senators being recalled and a couple surviving recall elections. As for state governors, there had been just two gubernatorial recall elections in all US history – both lost by the incumbent, but neither, contrary to what might be imagined, having anything to do with corruption or personal misconduct.

North Dakota’s Governor Lynn Davis was held personally responsible for the savage agricultural depression of the early 1920s. More famously and somewhat similarly, Gray Davis in 2003 was blamed for California’s electricity shortage – created partly by market manipulation by energy companies like Enron – and the budget crisis that followed the burst of the dot-com bubble, and was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Recall procedures vary from state to state, although all involve gathering large numbers of signatures on a citizens’ petition. Wisconsin required signatures equalling 25% of the total votes cast for the office of governor at the last election – roughly 540,000 – to be collected within 60 days, which, when I first heard it, struck me as mountainous.

But what do I know? Wisconsinites, certainly when riled, and led by powerful public sector unions, can be a formidable force, and within just 30 days they were almost there, with over half a million names.  They eventually got to 900,000 – 23% of the state’s eligible voters and 46% of voters in the 2010 gubernatorial election. On the face of it, then, things looked tricky for Governor Walker – until you put the petitioners’ undoubtedly impressive organisation up against the sheer weight of the incumbent’s cash. 

Particularly since the Supreme Court’s historic ‘Citizens United’ decision in 2008, holding that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions, effective controls over campaign fund-raising in non-federal elections have been almost non-existent.

The two sides in the Wisconsin recall election are estimated to have raised $63 million, with Walker outspending his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor, Tom Barrett, by 7 to 1. In these quantities, money talks loud. As election day approached, the gap between the candidates grew and the final result saw Walker create history with an increased vote share of 53% to 46%.

But, if it was unfortunate for Barrett, also the defeated candidate in 2010, it’s potentially dire for President Obama, his economic policy, and re-election prospects. The public sector unions are vital both financially and organisationally to the Democrats in general and Obama in particular. In a state that voted Democrat in the last six presidential elections, Scott Walker took the unions and their members on, scythed them down, and survived. There are 28 other Republican governors out there, many just waiting for this sign.

As for the influence, if any, these extraordinary events might have had on UK public opinion and the mayoral referendums, I really have no idea. They’d have made it harder for Ministers to maintain their almost Trappist silence on the recall issue, but at the same time would presumably have encouraged the idea that elected mayors would Americanise our politics, which is neither accurate nor, judging from this instance, an altogether edifying prospect. The one certainty is that this is definitely not the last we’ll hear on the subject. Whether in relation to MPs, mayors or police commissioners, recall ain’t going to go away.

Chris 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.