Facing the Future

Professor John Stewart.

To face the future is no easy task for local government. There are deep uncertainties in society challenging government generally. The unknown impact of continuing austerity, the revitalising of the economy   barely begun, the neglected issues of climate change and growing inequality all demand a response from government in what could be an increasingly troubled society.  These uncertainties make it impossible to specify with any confidence the policies required so government needs to develop a capacity for learning with the public and for using that learning in action.

The role of local government is crucial. One does not learn easily from the uniformity of centralism except sometimes that a mistake has been made everywhere. One does not learn of society generally in the enclosed villages of Whitehall and Westminster. It is the diversity that comes from local choice and the potential for public involvement  in those choices that should provide learning for the whole of government in dealing with the uncertainties of the present and the future.

The future may be unpredictable but local government can build resilience for the challenges ahead. Local authorities can best prepare for the future by rediscovering and reasserting those principles of local government; collective choice based on representative democracy and justified by public accountability.

Representative democracy has to be strengthened for current times. Participatory democracy can be a means of strengthening representative democracy but that requires understanding of the relationship between them. Advocates of participatory democracy and community involvement too often neglect the need for strong representative democracy as if the principles of representation and participation are opposed. A complex and changing society requires representative democracy to achieve accountable and effective government.

Effective representation requires new modes of interaction between the council and public and between councillors and citizens. Councils and councillors should develop new approaches to interaction with citizens enabling learning, explaining listening and hearing. Participation supports and informs representative democracy but the public rarely speaks with one voice and there will always be voices unexpressed. The task of the councillor and council is to seek out and balance differing views through political judgment.

Local government should recognise its task is to sustain the public domain in which the public interest is sought through collective choice for which councils and councillors are accountable to the public as citizens. There is a dangerous fallacy that local government and public services should be managed in the same way as the private sector. Managing for public accountability differs fundamentally from the market accountability dominant in the private sector. Many of local government’s relationships with the public are not with customers. Local authorities at times have to inspect, regulate, refuse a service, even enforce and compel and prosecute in pursuit of the public good. The public are citizens whose views are entitled to be heard even when they are not customers. Local government has to balance needs, demands and interests in ways beyond the scope of the private sector. The management of scarce resources is at the heart of local government. The private sector provides no guidance since price is its dominant means of rationing. Local government can learn from the private sector where tasks and conditions are the same, but where they differ, then the private sector has much to learn if they operate in the public domain. In the public domain, politicisation trumps privatisation.

A new emphasis is placed on choice in public services and that is taken to mean individual choice. Local government can enable or deny individual choice but should recognise individual choice has limits. Many choices are not individual choices but collective choices. Policies are decided, parks planned, buildings designed, planning decisions enforced and budgets adopted on the basis of collective choice. The challenge is to increase the capacity of local government to make collective choices well, by strengthening representative democracy and public accountability.

The era of uncertainties requires local authorities not to deny their principles by adopting a private sector model but to work out how those principles can be strengthened so that they can best face and meet the challenges of the future.



John Stewart is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Birmingham. His is a former Director of INLOGOV and Head of the School of Public Policy. He has written widely and lectured to many officers and councillors on the politics and management of local government, on the case for local government and on public management generally. In 2007 the Society of Local Government Chief Executives gave him the inaugural Presidents Award for an outstanding contribution to local government.

Having a holiday may deliver more than you expect!

Ian Briggs

“It is surprising what a holiday can do for you” started the telephone conversation with a senior manager this week. Expecting the usual stories of chaos and entropy usually associated with such exchanges when the top boss reappears to take up the helm – it was a pleasure to find the reaction was indeed quite the opposite. There were stories of people who when faced with having to resolve complex issues when the boss was away – of doing things of their own accord that led to citizens and residents feeling that their local council had served them well.  He went on to tell me of the organisation became unintentionally decentralised – no Chief executive, no councillors around and even fewer senior managers leading to willing staff taking on issues and problems and seeking to resolve them with no one to seek permission from to actually do things.

It is this unintentional decentralisation that creates a condition not too dissimilar from what Ori Brafman was pointing to in the seminal book of 2006: “The Starfish and the Spider: The unstoppable power of the leaderless organisation”. Despite having the usual resilience plan and senior people being ‘on call’ during the holiday period there were numerous occasions when the chain of command was broken and the choice was either to do nothing or to do something. That staff chose to do something was clearly leading to residents and citizens feeling that their council was serving them well. What Brafman made as an acute observation was that if a spider losses a limb it is doomed – it has a centralised neural system that at best copes with disadvantage but at its worst leads to death; a starfish on the other hand has a decentralised neural system and adapts to attack and challenge.

The dilemma he now faced was how to keep this going? “My job” he said, “was to have overall responsibility to ensure that we had capacity to do things” – the mechanism being one of clear accountability, hierarchy and transparent systems. This ensures that when things go wrong I can see who is responsible and put it right ensuring that it never happens again. But – it does happen again – that is the problem.  Perhaps now the issue was about how to make the organisation ‘intentionally decentralised’ to be more of a starfish than a spider. The environment in which we operate expects us to be spiders – to have a centralised neurological system – the councillors want this and do Whitehall. Perhaps even the citizens expect it – to have a head to chop off in the event of major problems. However, the recent evidence does suggest that Brafman may have been right – he was clearly onto something in that hierarchy gets in the way.

Until the next holiday then – it may deliver more than an aching credit card and relaxed state of mind.

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.

Police and Crime Commissioner elections – where the 18.5% turnout figure came from

Chris Game

Getting exciting, isn’t it? Just 78 days and 21 hours (at the time of typing) till polling stations open for the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections on 15th November. At least, that’s what Birmingham City Council newsroom’s dedicated website says –   It’s been running for nearly three weeks now and, given the dearth of information emanating from the Government, is well worth a visit.

It particularly is if you happen to be planning to set your alarm for polling day. There’s a competing countdown clock on the Get Out and Vote! website, set up to boost the participation of British Muslims in our national life, but it’s set 12 hours behind the Council’s, which, even allowing for the extra hour at the end of British Summer Time, seems odd. Unless it’s a tactic aimed at generating a last-minute voting surge and repeating the queuing embarrassment caused at several polling stations at the General Election. 

If so, I fear it’s seriously misconceived.  Voting, let alone queuing, seems likely to be at a premium. A couple of weeks ago, we heard an embarrassed, and embarrassing, Nick Herbert, Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, repeatedly refuse to tell the BBC Today programme’s Evan Davis whether a turnout as low as 15% would be acceptable for this radical and controversial innovation. Evidently it would – any turnout at all, in the Minister’s view, representing greater democratic legitimacy than the present system of appointed police authorities. 

Davis’ 15% seemed to be plucked from the proverbial thin air, but we now have something apparently much more authoritative. The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) have done some sums and are asserting that the PCC elections “are set to have the lowest voter turnout of modern times – projected at 18.5%”. Brilliant – not ‘under 20%’, or 19%, or ‘around 18%’, but an eye-catchingly precise 18.5%. And, judging from the frequency with which the projection has been quoted, it’s worked – even though none of the mentions I’ve seen either explain or question just how the categorical claim was arrived at. I’m trusting, dear readers, that you may be a tad more curious.

In fact, the methodology is disarmingly simple: you think of a baseline number, then subtract stuff from it. The baseline figure chosen by the ERS is 34%, on the grounds that “recent local election turnouts are in this region”.  Surprisingly, considering how fundamental it is to the whole exercise, there is no further justification, yet it is certainly questionable. 

One difficulty is that the ‘region’ in which recent local turnouts have fallen is actually rather large. This year was calamitous – a 32% turnout in the English local elections taken as a whole.  It was also, however, the lowest overall percentage for 12 years.

Last year’s picture was significantly different. The overall average turnout across English authorities was around 43%, comprising all metropolitan boroughs (38%), and most of the unitaries (41%) and shire districts (44%). Birmingham and Coventry, 28.4% and 27% this year, both managed 37% in 2011, and these disparities between the two years were not exceptional.

I’m not suggesting that 2011 was more typical than 2012. Part of the reason it was ‘good’ was that it was the year in our four-year electoral cycle when the ‘all-out’ district and unitary councils are elected, and they consistently produce higher turnouts than those electing their members one-third at a time. All the English councils voting in 2012 elect by thirds, have elections in three years out of four, and, perhaps not surprisingly, have relatively lower turnouts.

All I suggest, then, is that 2012 was not typical, at least of the past decade. Yet, in choosing 34% as a baseline, ERS have picked a figure that, while 2% higher than 2012, is at least 2% and generally around 4% lower than any other aggregate figure in the past 10 years.

The remainder of the ERS projection involves estimating the percentage drop in turnout likely to be caused by three additional turnout variables, and subtracting these estimates from the 34% baseline.

First of the three is the fact that the PCC elections will take place in cheerless November, rather than what in most years ought to be the lustier month of May. Voter turnout in council by-elections has been shown to be statistically related to the number of hours polling stations are open in daylight, and therefore to sunset times. Studying over 4,000 by-elections held between 1983 and 1999, Professors Rallings and Thrasher of Plymouth University’s Local Elections Centre found a 6.6% average difference between turnouts in May by-elections (38.1%) and those in November (31.5%). Call it 6%, and the 34% drops down to 28%.

Secondly, there is the Government’s refusal to allocate state funding for mailshots, as in parliamentary elections, in which information about each candidate is posted out to voters. At up to £35 million it would be too expensive, say ministers. Instead, there will be an information pack from the Electoral Commission to all households, explaining about the elections, and a single national website, giving details of all candidates that will be posted free to those electors motivated to request them.


There is parliamentary election evidence that turnout can be boosted by up to a third when candidates receive mailings both from sitting MPs and their main challengers. There are no free mailings in local elections, so it could be argued that this factor has already been allowed for in choosing a local turnout figure for a baseline. The ERS, however, think it needs to be further adjusted, by a rather arbitrary 5.5% – so we’re down now to 22.5%.


Finally, there’s the absence of party political broadcasts. Derided as they often justifiably are, PPBs have been shown to be at least as effective as local campaigns in getting a party’s less committed supporters to drag their indolent butts along to the polling station. There will be no such mobiliser this time, but the effect is hard even to begin to estimate, so let’s just say a further 4% off the baseline. And so, ladies and gentlemen, we’re left with a projected turnout of 18.5%. It’s not rocket science, hardly even political science, but could you do any better?




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.

Whose budget is it – the mayor’s or the council’s?

Chris Game

Earlier in the year, during the mayoral referendum debates, I remember using the example of North Tyneside to illustrate how the constant attempts to compare our elected mayors with those in the US were seriously misleading, as ours had and would have considerably more constrained powers than their American counterparts.

Budget-setting was one example I had in mind.  Technically it’s a ‘co-decision’ power shared with the full council, which, if it can assemble a two-thirds majority, can amend or reject an elected mayor’s proposed budget and the council’s other policy framework documents.  That’s what happened this year in three existing mayoral authorities – Hartlepool, North Tyneside and Doncaster – but whether all the voting councillors grasped fully the process they were engaged in seems unlikely.

Hartlepool’s mayor is Stuart Drummond, erstwhile football mascot, but elected three times now as an Independent against all other parties.  He’s never had a majority of supporters on the council, but, with a cross-party cabinet, has managed to govern effectively and generally peaceably.  Not this year, though.

Labour cabinet members, having agreed a budget containing proposals that included the controversial privatisation of the council’s IT services, were evidently pressured by their party colleagues and failed to attend, and therefore vote in, the relevant full council meeting.  The mayor lost his budget, was saddled with Labour’s alternative, and, not surprisingly, removed the mutineers from his cabinet.

North Tyneside’s mayor is Conservative Linda Arkley.  She governs with an entirely Conservative cabinet, although her party is and was in a minority on the council.  In fact, back in March, Labour (34) and the Lib Dems (6) could muster, just, the two-thirds of votes necessary on the 60-seat council to reject her budget – which they did.

The mayor, therefore, was forced to accept a budget containing the opposition parties’ alternative proposals.  These included scrapping above-inflation increases in fees for allotments, sports facilities and bowling greens, and freezing the price of school dinners and meals-on-wheels, but also measures delivering savings aimed at obviating the need for the mayor’s mass outsourcing strategy: axing the post of chief executive, asking high-earning staff to accept a voluntary 10% pay cut, and all council staff to take a one-hour reduction in working hours.

It’s at this point that understandable confusion can arise, even among councillors, over the respective roles and powers of mayor and council.  Indeed, ‘whose budget is it?’ is one of the many issues that could usefully have been addressed in the public information campaign that ministers ought to have seen as their responsibility to mount in the run up to the mayoral referendums.

‘The budget’ in this context means the key figures proposed, in a mayoral authority, by the mayor and cabinet: revenue expenditure for the coming year on various services and projects, and sources of income to cover this expenditure, including the real biggie, the level of council tax.  The full council’s role is to approve the mayor’s framework or, with the requisite two-thirds majority, substitute an agreed alternative.  Even in the latter circumstances, though, implementation of the budget is the mayor’s job – necessarily, as the framers of the Local Government Act 2000 saw it in their guidance to local authorities.

“Once the budget has been adopted, the executive will need to be able to respond quickly to changing circumstances, which might require reallocation of funds from one service to another.  A local authority’s financial regulations will need, therefore, to allow the executive to reallocate monies within the budget [or] take any decision contrary to or not wholly in accordance with the budget, providing that any additional costs incurred can be offset by additional income, contingency funds, or savings from elsewhere within the budgetary allocations“.

The phraseology may sound sloppy, but it does indicate where the 2000 Act intended to draw the line between the mayor/executive and the full council.  The full council’s role is to make financial provision for the spending proposed in the budget, not to determine, let alone micro-manage, its content.

When the Act forbids the mayor/executive from acting “contrary to, or not wholly in accordance with, the budget“, it should be taken as referring to the total budgetary allocation, not to any detailed items.  Spending contrary to the budget is OK, providing it can be covered within the agreed total.  Logically, therefore, not spending on something specified in the budget must also be OK.

This latter situation is what they’ve been arguing about in Doncaster, and, if the role division in the 2000 Act wasn’t previously clear enough, we now, following a constitutionally significant Administrative Court case concerning the town’s libraries, have it on judicial authority.

Doncaster’s elected mayor is Peter Davies, an English Democrat, who chairs a Conservative-Lib Dem cabinet in a 64-member council, 50 of whom are Labour.  Arithmetically it’s not a formula for unalloyed harmony, and there isn’t much, especially where libraries are concerned.

Despite reportedly never having borrowed a public library book himself, the mayor’s library strategy aims to improve the town’s service: better stocked libraries opening for longer hours, in improved buildings in convenient locations – but just not so many of them and more reliant on volunteers.  That’s the problem – the closures, two of which had already happened.

The mayor’s draft budget incorporated the library proposals and was approved by 43 to 6 in full council, but with a significant amendment, allocating funds to re-open the closed libraries and retain the staff required to run the 12 others.  The mayor, however, stuck with his strategy.  There were no re-openings, and a local resident, back by the Save Our Libraries campaign, applied successfully for judicial review.

The review itself, though, was less successful, except in the cause of constitutional clarification.  The pleasingly named Judge Gary Hickinbottom doesn’t do nuance: “It would be a remarkable invasion of the executive function of the Mayor if, as part of the budgetary process, the full Council could interfere and reverse such an executive decision by amending the budget to give, not only an allocation of funds for the library service, but a direction that funds must be spent and spent precisely in accordance with the direction that they have made“.

Back in North Tyneside, the council’s Labour-Lib Dem majority – now four-fifths following the May elections – must feel similarly thwarted.  The invitations to those earning over £50,000 to accept a voluntary pay cut were more and less politely declined, and – surprise, surprise! – the unions weren’t terribly keen on the reduced working hours for all staff, so that too bit the dust.

Now the Council has announced the outcome of the key partner procurement phase of the mayor’s Change, Efficiency and Improvement – or mass outsourcing – programme.  Two hefty blocks of services – a Business Package, comprising finance, procurement, revenues and benefits, ICT, customer services, and human resources – and a Technical Package, comprising property services, planning, engineering, consumer protection, and environmental health – have been let respectively to Balfour Beatty and Capita Symonds on potentially 15-year contracts.

Coming within days of Local Government Association Chairman Sir Merrick Cockell‘s warning to councils of the dangers of having a blind faith in the virtues of outsourcing, and of becoming commissioners rather than providers of services, Mayor Arkley’s announcement might have been better timed.  But, as they say, that’s for another day.  The subject here is not what mayors do, but the incontrovertible legality with which they do it.


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.

The LGA are Right – In the Team Benchmarking Stakes, Residents’ Panels Don’t Even Medal

Credit where it’s due – in this case to the Local Government Association’s recent decision that data gathered from local residents’ panels about their views of and satisfaction with their councils cannot be used for benchmarking purposes. The ruling could have come sooner and will be criticised by some of the LGA’s own member authorities, but it is surely right. The reverse decision would have damaged the interests of local government in general, and ultimately would have done no favours either for those critics’ own authorities. 

The decision and the story behind it are largely technical – about the different methodologies used to measure residents’ perceptions of their councils’ performance – which is perhaps why it has received less attention than it deserves as one of the more important current developments in our local government world. It stems from the Coalition’s move away from central targets and assessments – generally welcomed but also coinciding with local authorities having to operate on ever tighter budgets.

The biennial Best Value User Satisfaction/Place surveys undertaken separately but coordinatedly by all English authorities between 2000 and 2008, coupled with the accompanying Ipsos MORI analyses, provided better information on the user’s perspective of council services than was available in Comprehensive Performance Assessments, and also allowed robust comparisons of perception-based performance indicators (PIs) across authorities.

Then in 2010 all this infrastructure was swept away. Now, supplanting CPA’s successor, Comprehensive Area Assessment, we have sector-led improvement and peer challenge, and, seeking to fill the gap left by the scrapping of the Place Survey, there is Local Government Inform (LG Inform) – a new online LGA service intended to give local authorities and eventually the public easy access to resident satisfaction data about councils and their areas, and to enable comparisons with other councils.

The comparison part is crucial. A resuscitated BV-style centrally driven survey is out, on both political and financial grounds. But some standardisation of methodologies and questions, as formerly ensured by the DCLG, is clearly necessary. The LGA and London Councils therefore commissioned Ipsos MORI to undertake a review and develop a set of questions – on residents’ satisfaction and their views of crime and community cohesion – which, as with the BVPI questions, councils could slot into their own local surveys, thereby producing a sufficiently consistent and methodologically robust subset of data for comparative and benchmarking purposes.

The review was a useful document, explaining and illustrating the key issues of data collection methods, sampling and question design with welcome clarity. Its core was naturally the presentation of the set of 12 recommended questions and advice on their usage and analysis, but the preceding technical review also contained plenty of useful dos and don’ts.

The questions were divided into three tiers: a core benchmarking set, which should be a priority for all councils, worded identically, and ideally opening the survey; a second tier, also recommended for benchmarking, and a likely priority for most councils; and a third tier of more detailed questions, of interest to probably only some councils. The three core and three second-tier questions are:

  • Overall, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your local area as a place to live
  • Overall, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the way [name of council] runs things?
  • To what extent do you agree or disagree that [name of council] provides value for money?
  • Overall, how well informed do you think [name of council] keeps residents about the  services and benefits it provides?
  • How strongly do you feel you belong to your local area?
  • How safe or unsafe do you feel when outside in your local area after dark? / How safe or unsafe do you feel when outside in your local area during the day?

As every survey researcher will tell you, though, who and how you ask are at least as important as what. Different modes of data collection will produce different responses, even to identically worded questions. For example, satisfaction ratings tend to be higher in face-to-face interviews than in self-completed postal questionnaires, and higher still in volunteer telephone interviews. Asking about satisfaction with the council before a question about value for money will produce higher ratings than the reverse order. Which means that, for benchmarking purposes, comparisons should be limited to results generated by the same methods, or at least methods in which the respondent’s experience is essentially the same.

Statistically, the gold-standard survey design is that used by the early Best Value surveys: face-to-face interviews with random samples of preferably at least 1,000 respondents, drawn from a robust sampling frame – nowadays the Royal Mail’s Postcode Address File – in which every household or person in the target population has an equal, random, and known probability of selection, and results can be generalised to the total population with calculable degrees of confidence.

But, as with Olympic medals, silver and bronze standards are also very acceptable, and, under specified conditions, smaller sample sizes, rigorously drawn quota samples (with face-to-face or telephone interviews), and self-completed postal or online questionnaires (with random samples) may all pass muster for benchmarking purposes.

The fundamental condition, stripped of its details, has already been noted: for inter-authority comparisons and benchmarking, compare only ‘like-for-like’ data, collected by the same method – which means that LG Inform will require detailed reporting of sampling and data gathering methods when authorities come to upload their data.

Which brings us to residents’ and users’ panels – on which Ipsos MORI’s professional advice is unambiguous and emphatic: NO!  In themselves, they’re absolutely tickety-boo. They’re an easy and efficient consultative tool for, say, testing prospective policy initiatives, or tracking attitude changes over time. But, even if panel members are recruited to represent proportionately the council’s population, they will be volunteers, rather than a statistically selected sample, and their responses should not therefore be compared with data systematically collected from another council’s genuinely random survey.

It’s the same point that the Scottish Government was attempting to make last week over same sex marriage. Responses to a consultation exercise, no matter how numerous or passionate, are not the same as the results of statistically representative sample surveys: not worse, or better, simply different.

Understanding residents’ or users’ views and how they compare with those in similar or neighbouring council areas is a vital part of local authority performance management. But cutting corners in order to make such comparisons at precisely the time when the sector is endeavouring to demonstrate its ability to manage and improve itself would be a seriously false economy – maybe not as daft as drug-cheating in the quest of a medal, but still a really, really bad idea.

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.