Council officers as local democracy makers

Philip Lloyd-Williams

To what extent does the lack of training and development of senior officers at local councils impact on the practice of local democracy? Can ‘democracy’ even be taught? It’s a question that has been with me for a while. I have no answers but can offer some personal reflections following research I undertook into the role of senior officers in managing local democracy. From personal knowledge I knew that Chief Executives and Directors of local authorities advised, negotiated and shaped not only the delivery of services but also how citizens engaged with their Councils. As a result, I saw them as what I termed Local Democracy Makers as they held a position of influence and authority which could impact democratic practice – so I decided to have a more detailed look.

Much has changed in local government in the last 20 years. We now have Executive decision making structures with fewer Councillors being involved as decision makers. Commonly services are delivered in partnership or from commissioned providers, often on long term contracts with opaque accountability arrangements. However, what is often mentioned when local government is discussed is the challenge of engaging and connecting with communities, inspiring interest in elections, bucking the trend of low turnout for voting and the senior age profile of Councillors. Securing the democratic mandate and involvement (however it is defined or described) is still considered an integral part of local government. Thus, local democracy is of importance and how it is then shaped, moulded and operated matters. The senior officers as Local Democracy Makers have a powerful and authoritative position in the organisation of local government to have a material bearing on the way local democracy is discharged locally.

Senior officers are well versed and often highly trained in management but there is little training or teaching in the management of political relationships or local Democracy. It’s mostly ‘on the job training’ which in turn influences how the senior officers behave as Local Democracy Makers. I interviewed and observed senior officers interacting with the politicians and I discovered that, unsurprisingly, their own world view of politics, localities and democracy would inform how they enabled and restricted local democracy. Often, the heavy hand of regulation, managerialism, audit and the management of risk would result in a narrow view of how local decisions should be informed by local people. Other elites had several deep political scars that made them suspicious of allowing a more deliberative democratic practice. For certain, the push to achieve a good ranking in performance, financial management and consumer reputation has the effect of marginalising the place of local democracy. Perhaps such findings are to be expected, but when they have an impact on how democracy is practiced it becomes more acute.

So, are we doing enough to raise awareness of the impacts of management arrangements on democratic practice? My research tells me that not enough discussion, debate and possibly training is given to the principles of local democracy in the management and administration of local services. It suggests to me that too much emphasis is placed on the ‘management’ abilities and not enough of the importance of democracy. Like it or not, senior officers in local government act as Local Democracy Makers and we need to actively support them in this role.


Philip’s doctorate from the University of Aston was on the role of local authority officials as ‘makers of democracy’. His career has given him extensive experience of working with elected representatives in local government as a Solicitor. He is an INLOGOV Associate Member and contributes to its Management Development programmes.

Reflections on the paradoxes of public sector leadership development

Ian Briggs

The question of how we play a part in encouraging future generations of leaders has never really been more acute than at the present. The question has been around for quite a while now but perhaps never really satisfactorily answered. Some years ago a PhD study looked at the career paths of Local Authority Chief Executives and the startling conclusion appeared to be that actually wanting to be a chief executive was the only real common feature.

Clearly having the drive and the will as well as a fair modicum of talent was also pretty crucial, but how do talented people accrue the required characteristics needed to get into those positions? How do people learn to be good leaders and from where do they form their ideas about what constitutes an effective leader? Higher education clearly plays a key role in supporting this, and those that sponsor career-minded individuals to study expect us to support the way they form their ideas about effective leadership – but we have a problem.

Some pretty uncomfortable issues are in the ether arising from the Mid Staffordshire Hospital debacle, where managers may have been more focused upon targets and less attenuated to the needs of patients; and from some councils who feel that top managers are an expense and offer little value added to the way that complex organisations function. So the whole question is: what attributes do we need to acquire in order to be able to sit at (or close to) the top of public sector organisations in the future?

We are on the eve of commencing a new round of the Local Government Graduate Programme and we should remember the LGA in their wisdom resource this programme to reinforce the supply side of the equation to add to the talent pool – and very laudable it is. Yet it is easy to detect that these younger individuals as well as some of our postgraduate students are often a bit reluctant to play by the rules that the current power elite want to impose on them.

This can be contrasted with an event at a recent gathering of senior leaders where the issue of ‘networking’ became the hot topic of conversation. Being in contact with a group of likeminded, like placed people with similar challenges and problems was near universally reported to be a key feature of their role. They were asked to explore this in a little more depth and offer the criteria they would apply to the question of “what does having a good network actually look like”? The top three were:

1. Something that looked a little like benchmarking – are my ideas and interpretations of the problems the same as others who occupy similar roles, a kind of support for innovative thinking
2. Gaining early warning of emergent good and innovative practice (mildly surprising that was second)
3. Most interesting was the potential advance warning of possible career openings if I ‘fell foul’ of my current employer!

I am not suggesting that this was a totally representative group and that everyone identified with this last point. It did cause the most debate and even alarm in some, but where those with the most positional power are acting so defensively and needing others who would help them get out of a career fix suggests that younger talented people have some sizable hurdles to overcome if they are to be seen and valued as potential successors. The group were challenged as to who had potential future leaders in their networks and few immediately reported that they had – they did see it as a vital part of their roles to talent spot, but what kind of talent were they spotting? Most saw this issue as something that was separate to having a good and effective network and more a part of the job of being at the top!

All this suggests that we are facing a clash between an increasingly defensive power elite with a new generation who are more reluctant to accept the old traditions and thinking. This presents teachers and facilitators of advanced leadership development with a big problem. Should we focus our study on today’s senior people to try and distil out a model that shows clearly what is needed to perform at the top, or should we look to develop more sophisticated approaches to support development where the talented form their own models of effective leadership to prepare them for when they are ready to enter the realms of the new power elite? We favour the latter approach and whilst it is important to offer key messages from the history of leadership research, space must also be found for these proto leaders to shape their own thinking and become aware of what drives them to seek greater responsibility and accountability.

For the last two years we have asked groups of postgraduate students to explore their personal implicit models of being an effective leader. We have offered them a template from wider research into implicit leadership theory (ILT) and some interesting findings are emerging. At the top of the list is a powerful rejection of forming ‘power distance’ between them and others, they are possibly more comfortable with uncertainty and they seek to be part of something that is more collective and socially shared than just wishing to be part of a like minded group. If this is true then we can perhaps be comforted by the fact that future leaders may start from a position of wishing to be embedded within an organisation rather than sitting on top of it and that they could create new organisational forms that are more fluid and representative of wider society. If so, this can only be good for our public services and our traditions of local democracy.

Let’s hope this is true and it comes to pass that future leaders will be significantly different from the leaders we currently have – however please note we still have some fantastic leaders today – not all are putting energy into defending their roles, but the reported level of pressure we are placing on top leaders is unsustainable and something is bound to break. Can we as developers, teachers and facilitators help to overcome the very real pressures of being socialised into a role that causes people to perform outside of their own values system? If we can, then we must help those who are on career trajectories to the top to resist the processes of socialisation to become the new old guard.

In the 1960’s, Alvin Toffler took a leaf from the works of Isaac Asimov and suggested that there is a ‘ghost in every machine’ – organisations are so complex and powerful that they can twist people to behave in a way that they have vowed never to do. The story centres around a young employee in a fictitious future organisation who is treated miserably by his boss, he is psychologically abused and bullied and vows that if he ever achieves promotion he will not behave in the same way as a boss himself. Yes, you have guessed right – he does become his boss in time.

A more detailed account of trends in leadership learning can be found in Briggs, I and Raine, J.W. (forthcoming) Rethinking leadership learning in postgraduate public management programmes. Teaching and Public Administration.


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.

Happy Anniversary, Greens – especially from local government

Chris Game

An unambiguously positive title, I trust you’ll agree – not least because I plan to stick a gentle boot in later on. We must start, though, with full credit where it’s due. This weekend, the Green Party of England and Wales celebrates its 40th anniversary – a remarkable achievement indeed for a party that, in its own folklore anyway, owes its origins to a guy in Coventry picking up a Playboy magazine.

The Coventrarian was Tony Whittaker, a solicitor and onetime Conservative councillor, and the story goes that his eye was caught and his political inspiration sparked not by Playmate of the Month, but by an interview with the American biologist, ecologist, and population alarmist, Paul Ehrlich. Now it so happens that 40 years ago I, like Professor Ehrlich, was working for Stanford University, California, and I remember distinctly that his Playboy interview had appeared some three years earlier, in 1970, shortly after the publication of his controversial book, The Population Bomb. I conclude, therefore, that either Whittaker was a serious Playboy collector and addict, or the Ehrlich interview played a somewhat less singular role in Green Party history than is sometimes suggested.

Whatever. What is indisputable is that Whittaker and some likeminded associates were alarmed by Ehrlich’s doom warnings of population growth threatening the Earth’s delicately balanced environment and ultimately human survival. Despairing of Britain’s existing political parties even seriously acknowledging the problem, they resolved, at a meeting on 23rd February 1973, to form a new one. Its initial name was simply People, but by the time of the two 1974 General Elections it had morphed into the People Movement – albeit a modest-sized one. Suffice to report that in February its six candidates’ combined 4,576 votes constituted statistically 0.0% of the total, and in October it was rather less successful.

Time for a more meaningful name, and in 1975 the Ecology Party was founded and almost straightaway won its first council seat, in Rother, East Sussex. It also acquired a high-profile spokesperson in (now Sir) Jonathon Porritt, and under his chairmanship election performance improved dramatically, membership rose to over 5,000, and it could lay genuine claim to be “the fourth party in UK politics, ahead of the National Front and Socialist Unity”.

By now, though, ‘Greenness’, previously associated largely with the Greenpeace environmental movement, was becoming more party politicised. Actual Green parties were emerging across Europe – Die Grünen in Germany, Les Verts in France – and in 1985, partly to avoid being outflanked, the Ecology Party underwent another name-change to the Green Party, initially UK-wide but since 1990 just of England and Wales, there being separate parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

By most measures of party vitality, the Greens’ record over the past quarter-century would be judged one of steady, if frustratingly gradual, progress. As shown in the graphs below (, in an era in which membership of most major parties in most western democracies has been declining, Green Party membership has grown more or less uninterruptedly from 5,000 in 1998 to a 2011 count of 12,800. Its parliamentary vote has increased at each election since 1997, and 2010 saw party leader, Caroline Lucas, returned as the first Green MP.

chris graph

Despite never again reaching its spectacular 15% vote share in the 1989 European Parliament elections, the party has had 2 MEPs since 1999 and has increased its vote at each five-yearly election since 1994. Three Greens were elected to the first London Assembly in 2000, and the party’s gradually increasing representation on principal councils is currently approaching 150. This includes running the unitary Brighton and Hove Council as a single-party minority administration, and Lancaster City Council as part of a Labour/Green coalition. And, at least as important as it must sometimes be irritating, it has received the double-edged compliment of seeing Green ideas and policies permeate, or blatantly appropriated by, the so-called mainstream parties.

There can be no serious doubting, then, that anniversary congratulations are well in order. There is, however, a ‘however’.  I note that the Greens, perhaps with their celebrations in mind, are again claiming to be the fourth party in UK politics – and, reluctant as I am to rain on the parade, I respectfully beg to differ. That reluctance is increased by the fact that a close INLOGOV colleague, Professor John Raine, somehow manages to double as an industrious Green councillor, and so it is with particular apologies to John that I suggest that the Greens’ bid for fourth party status, notwithstanding all that gradual progress, is probably less persuasive today than when it was originally made back in the 1980s.

It may be the party itself senses the holes in its case, for it talks of having “up to a million supporters in this country, and tens of millions across Europe” – John Vidal, The Guardian, 18 February 2013 – . Supporters are good, especially in large numbers, but they’re slippery customers – not reliably countable and cashable, like subscribing members, voters, or elected representatives. If your case rests on alleged supporters, it’s shaky.


A Green bid for fourth-party status based on the data in the accompanying table would rest to an extent on Caroline Lucas in the Commons, its sister-party members in the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly, and its record in successive Euro-elections, but above all on its local government representation – hugely exceeding that of UKIP, who have no more than three members on any single council.

No minor party does well out of first-past-the-post parliamentary elections, but, leaving Ms Lucas aside, UKIP in recent elections has fielded considerably more candidates and gained far more votes. In fact, in 2010 the BNP too fielded more candidates and won more votes. UKIP’s Euro record is also much the superior, its membership has consistently been and is today significantly higher, and, certainly at present, it’s closer in the opinion polls to challenging the Lib Dems than it is to being headed by the Greens.

I reckon therefore that, unless you give extra weighting to councillor representation – a pleasing idea, I grant you – UKIP’s case is overall the more persuasive, though definitely not as compelling as its website would have us believe, as, on the back of a few striking by-election results and opinion polls, it promotes itself as “the UK’s third political party – and the only one now offering a radical alternative”.

One final thought.  In preparing the above table it occurred to me that, depending on the criteria you use, there is arguably another candidate for the UK’s fourth largest party, and one almost certain to increase its visibility over the next few years: the Co-operative Party. We tend not to think of it as a party in its own right, but, apart from the minor snag of not fielding its own candidates in UK elections, it has all the other attributes of the legally separate party that it is: a leadership structure, membership subscriptions, local branches, an annual conference, and a distinguished history dating back to the First World War.

It is the political arm of the co-operative movement and since 1927 a sister party to Labour – the two parties working jointly to promote, among various shared aims, co-operative working and other forms of mutual organisation. This joint-working includes an electoral alliance, under which the parties put forward and partially fund the election expenses of ‘Labour and Co-operative Party’ candidates – 44 in the 2010 General Election, of whom 28 were elected, including Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls.

As the table shows, there are also Labour and Co-operative Peers, members of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and, says the party, “hundreds of councillors”, although the latter are difficult to count, as in multi-member wards the party must endorse all candidates before they are permitted to use the designation on ballot papers. Whatever the number, they are definitely increasing – including in the Greens’ proverbial backyard of Brighton and Hove, where Labour councillors became the first to change their name officially to the Labour and Co-operative Group. Others have followed suit, and, as Labour nationally and locally starts seriously embracing ideas of mutualism and co-operation, the sister party must be sensing something of a new dawn. So make the most of your 40th anniversary, Greens – only four years to the centenary of the Co-op Party.


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.

Horse-meat in beefburgers? Who says we are over-regulated?

John Raine

A recurrent theme of the political rhetoric from successive governments in recent times has been ‘deregulation’, ‘cutting bureaucracy and red-tape’.  Indeed the notions of ‘Smaller Government’ and of ‘curbing the nanny state’ have been key elements in the present Coalition Government’s programme since the outset in 2010.  But while perhaps politically canny to talk of ‘bonfires of regulations’ and sounding off about freeing individuals and businesses from the maize of red-tape and state bureaucracy, the reality, of course, is that governments mostly augment, rather than diminish, the ‘regulatory mountain’.  And why not?  After all, most of us would expect government to be acting in our collective interests to protect our health and wellbeing and to minimise our exposure to exploitation and harm.  The making and enforcement of regulations is something government must surely do in fulfilling its legitimate and important ‘guardian’ role.

The last few days have brought shocking reminders of the consequences of regulatory failure.  First the revelations of extraordinary lapses in public sector patient care and an awful catalogue of avoidable loss of life at Stafford hospital.  Now an unfolding saga of trading standards breaches and food safety concerns in the wake of the discovery of horse meat in some of our supposed beef products.  Exactly how long such fraud has been going on, and how widespread is the extent of contamination, remains to be seen.  But, understandably, questions are already being asked about the role of the regulators – in health care, trading standards and food safety, and both at national and local levels.  Could and should the malpractices have been identified earlier?  Are the inspection processes sufficiently robust and reliable?  At Stafford, we now know for sure that they were absolutely not; with the horsemeat scandal, we can presently only speculate, but given a scaling-down year-on-year in the intensity of regulatory inspection work generally, we might realistically suspect a similarly inadequate verdict.

That scaling-down trend – affecting both national regulatory bodies (e.g. the Health and Safety Executive, the Food Standards Agency and the Environment Agency), and local authority regulatory departments (e.g. for Trading Standards and Environmental Health) alike, has inevitably been fuelled by financial austerity and public sector budgetary parsimony.  But it has also been justified (at least internally by the regulatory organisations themselves) by developments in risk assessment that have claimed legitimacy for more targeted inspection programmes.  In essence, they have supported a shift from universally-applied regimes to approaches that focus on those particular activities and businesses where the consequences of serious harm (when things to go wrong) are greatest and/or where the track-record of compliance has been least impressive.

Rational-sounding though the idea of such risk-based regulation might sound, the recent scandals clearly bring into question their reliability in providing the level of public protection we might expect.  Indeed, because of the scaling-down of inspection regimes, increasingly it seems, regulatory interventions depend less on the watchful eye of the inspector and much more on public reporting of problems or whistle-blowing. More and more, they follow, rather than anticipate, the harms that the regulatory regimes were originally instituted to prevent.

And there is a growing body of research to evidence and substantiate all this.  Our own research (Raine and Lloyd, 2013), for example, conducted over the past three years on regulatory processes in local authorities of England and Wales, revealed a considerable transformation away from generally frequent, intensive and more or less universal inspection visits to local businesses to a regime that, for the vast majority of firms, is now characterised by infrequency, light-touch and selectivity.  Indeed, our research also identified a significant shift from ‘inspection visits’ as the prime mode of regulatory oversight to ‘self-assessment/self-regulation’ – something that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the business sector in the UK has long advocated.  Now, rather than the routine six-monthly, annual or biennial inspection, the typical business might perhaps expect to receive an occasional ‘self-completion/self-assessment questionnaire’ probably less frequently than annually – the value of which, in any case, would leave much to the conscientiousness and integrity of the respondent.

Even such ‘paper-based’ approaches to regulatory oversight seem, according to our research findings to be on the wane because of budgetary pressures.  In the case, for example, of trading standards in one rural county that we looked at, the use of self-assessment questionnaires (that had been in use for some time for all businesses categorised as “low risk”) was suddenly cut in 2008 to apply to new businesses only – meaning that, since that year, less than seventy returns per year have been received from the county’s portfolio of several thousand businesses.

Moreover, the reality of this less intense form of regulatory oversight was only reinforced in findings from a survey we undertook of a sample of businesses in the same county, and from which we found that hardly more than a third of retail businesses (34 per cent) recalled contact with a Trading Standards official in the previous three years.

Of course such results tell us very little about the actual consequences (or key outcomes) of such scaling-down in regulatory inspection work – for example of the extent of non-compliance, loss of protection or harm caused.  However, local regulators themselves reported to us on a sizeable increase in the incidence of ‘prima facie’ criminal breaches of Fair Trading legislation (by both “low and medium” risk businesses) over the same three year period, something they regarded to be a direct consequence of the lower-key regulatory approach.  With reduced levels of face-to-face contact with businesses, they pointed out, there is simply less opportunity for regulators to observe the problems first-hand, to explain the importance of compliance with standards or to reinforce messages verbally to business managers about the potential consequences.

Might Stafford and the horsemeat scandals be just the tip of an iceberg?  How concerned should we be about the scaling-down, if not abandonment of traditionally intensive regulatory inspection regimes?  Probably there will be a range of views on such questions.  But we surely can’t have it both ways; we can’t on the one hand grumble about ‘elf-n-safety’ red-tape and layers of governmental regulatory bureaucracy while, on the other, being shocked at further accounts, when finally uncovered, of abuses of standards, breaches of rules, injuries and worse.


John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV.  He has been involved in criminal justice research, consultancy and teaching at Birmingham for some twenty-five years and has a strong track record of commissions for the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice on aspects of policy and practice within the criminal (and civil) justice sectors).

[i] Raine J W and H Lloyd (2013) Public Management Reform and the Regulation of Private Business: Risk-Driven, Customer-Centric and all Joined-Up? International Journal of Public Administration, forthcoming.

Prestatyn’s election farce and the busted petition process

Chris Game

Remember the 2000 US Presidential election, the seemingly endless Florida recounts, and how we mocked an electoral system that took 35 days to produce a winner?  Well, it’s now over eight times as long – 287 days and counting – since last May’s Welsh local elections. Yet, with a tad less riding on the result, one of the winning candidates in Denbighshire County Council’s Prestatyn North ward has still to take his seat. And if that doesn’t signify a busted system, utterly unfit for purpose, it’s hard to imagine what might.

It’s a story that started as mildly amusing, passed through farcical around October, and is now just an all-round total embarrassment. It’s most easily understood by seeing the election result as announced by the Returning Officer (RO), from which you may also be able to guess the problem.

prestatyn table

Source: Denbighshire County Council

Yes, one of the Conservative candidates and one of Labour’s have quite similar surnames, and, while many electors certainly will have split their three votes between candidates of different parties, a Labour-Conservative split result of these dimensions looks, to say the least, odd. It was. Without getting too nerdy, Pennington (Con) had been credited with a share of the votes of those who voted en bloc for all three Labour candidates, and Penlington (remember: L for Labour) with the rather smaller share of the ‘straight slate’ Conservative ballots. In electoral administration jargon, there was a screw-up.

At which point, I would say two things. First, such inept-but-innocent counting screw-ups happen more often, and with more significant consequences, than you might think. In Broxtowe (Notts) last year, the names of a Lib Dem husband and wife were transposed in copying them from the corresponding numbers list to the count summary sheet, and the wife was officially declared elected, despite polling 21 fewer votes than her now officially defeated husband.

Waltham Forest in 2010 managed a mix of Broxtowe and Prestatyn. In copying Labour’s en bloc votes, Labour’s three candidates each received 2,451 instead of 1,451 – sufficient to enable the party’s third-placed candidate to be elected, rather than the leading Lib Dem. And in a much publicised case in Birmingham’s Kingstanding ward in 2006, a BNP candidate was elected, having been gifted an extra 981 votes in a double-counting of all those ballot papers on which electors split their two votes between candidates of different parties.

With these Waltham Forest and Birmingham cases in mind, my second point is that the numbers of votes involved in these screw-ups can be not only large, but beyond the bounds of arithmetical possibility. The combined votes of all candidates – announced, it’s worth emphasising, by the ROs, after recounts rigorously scrutinised by candidates and agents of all parties – totalled respectively 1,397 and 2,367 more than would have been possible, even if every voter completing a ballot paper had used every vote available to them.

This is the bit that, to me anyway, passeth all understanding. Can candidates have so little idea of how the election’s gone that they’re not curious about why their vote is 50% higher than they might have expected? And how come none of these key actors involved in the counts could do even simple addition?

Whatever the explanation, once a candidate is declared elected, these essentially innocent administrative errors immediately become seriously costly. It might seem convenient, if an embarrassed RO were able publicly to admit that “Oops, I made a boo-boo. Can we all go back five minutes?”  Sadly, election law and convention decree that this is not on. In the UK the only way to challenge a declared result is legally, and expensively, for a miffed candidate or elector to issue an election petition within three weeks of the election, pay the £465 fee, and also ‘give security’ for all relevant costs arising – up to £5,000 in a parliamentary election, £2,500 in a local. No security, no petition.

Here’s where the trouble starts and where fundamental reform is decades overdue.  A robust procedure for challenging the result, whether on the grounds of innocent administrative error or deliberate fraudulent practice, is a vital part of any sound electoral system. It should have the attributes of ARTESSA, being accessible, rational, transparent, efficient, straightforward, swift and affordable. Our petition procedure today, little changed from that set out in the 1868 Parliamentary Elections Act to deal with bribery, treating, personation, undue influence and other corrupt practices, is none of these, as Prestatyn North’s hapless Paul Penlington is still discovering the hard way.

That there had been a substantial counting error was first realised apparently by the RO and Council Chief Executive. Labour, both candidate and party, were slow to protest – one suggested reason being that, without knowing the exact number of wrongly assigned votes, there was the real possibility of a correction letting in not Penlington, but the fourth-placed Mike German, a one-time Labour councillor before he defected to help form the Democratic Alliance of Wales – than whom even a usurping Conservative might be marginally preferable. Eventually, however, a petition was issued, to have the votes recounted and the result overturned.

Despite the Council having admitted from the outset its “fundamental error”, it still took until late July for the jury-less High Court to authorise a recount, and a further three months for that count to take place in, for some reason, London.  Unhurried, certainly, but only now does the tale become truly incredible.

The result of a recount can only be officially announced and accepted by a special two-judge election court, which took nearly a further three months to convene – again in London. Only on January 23rd, therefore, were the correct figures finally declared – Penlington 606, Pennington 341 – and the original result overturned.

You wouldn’t, by now, expect the ruling to come into effect immediately, and of course it didn’t.  The duly elected Councillor Penlington should, though, have taken his seat a week later – had former-Councillor Pennington not decided that the loss of his allowances would put his “livelihood at stake”, refused to give up his seat, and objected in writing to the court’s decision.  Incidentally, legal costs, awarded against the Returning Officer, were estimated at this point to have passed £20,000, with the clock presumably still ticking.

There is so much wrong here that, even given the space, it would be hard to know where to start: the time, the cost, the arcane and detrimental procedures, the irrationality and inflexibility? Why the great rush to issue a petition, when the judicial process meanders as it pleases? Why can one elector challenge a parliamentary election, while four are required for a local election? Why can’t a Returning Officer or a political party initiate a petition?  And so much more – most now thankfully documented in the Electoral Commission’s excellent report, Challenging Elections in the UK.

Prestatyn North may be just a quirky contemporary footnote, but it does illustrate one key aspect of the problem. The petition procedure was designed to deal with 19th Century corrupt practices in parliamentary elections. Its requirement today is to deal with 21st Century corrupt practices, and more frequently with innocent errors and administrative misjudgements, in local government elections – for which it is hopelessly ill-equipped.

There were 52 parliamentary petitions tried in 1868 alone, all dealing with alleged malpractice. Since 1929, however, there have been just 11, including six from Northern Ireland and three from the single constituency of Fermanagh & South Tyrone. They sometimes make headlines – the then Anthony Wedgwood Benn’s disqualification as a Peer in 1961, ex-Labour minister Phil Woolas’s disqualification in 2010 for making false statements about his Lib Dem opponent – but they’re rare.

Local government election petitions are not rare. Since 1997, at least 44 from principal councils have gone to trial, plenty more from town and parish councils, and still more have been withdrawn before trial, usually due to lack of funds. Of the 16 in the past five years, two (both subsequently withdrawn) claimed a candidate was disqualified to stand, and three alleged corrupt or illegal practices committed by or on behalf of a candidate.

The remaining 11 concerned actions by electoral officials: either administrative Prestatyn-type errors or process decisions causing the election not to have been conducted ‘substantially in accordance’ with the rules – actions, in short, wholly different from those with which petitions were designed to deal.  

The Law Commission has embarked on a comprehensive review of electoral law, aimed ambitiously at collating and reforming the existing morass of primary and secondary legislation into something more coherent, and conceivably even a single modular UK Electoral Act. It’s still in its early stages, and its members may hope that when they eventually reach ‘Challenging the election result’, they’ll be almost there. The sorry saga of Prestatyn should remind them that they won’t be.


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.

Activating collective and individual co-production: Some policy implications

Tony Bovaird

Recently we have been publishing the findings of an in-depth statistical analysis of user and community co-production, based on responses to a survey of 5000 citizens in five EU countries in 2008, funded by the French Presidency of the EU. The design of this survey was informed by a series of focus groups and in-depth interviews in each of the five countries (conducted by the authors) with officers working in public services (in public, private and third sectors) and representatives of users and community groups. The findings from the qualitative element of this study were reported in Loeffler et al[i], while findings on collective co-production were published in Bovaird et al[ii] and on individual co-production in Parrado et al[iii].

The findings show that there are significant and intriguing differences between collective and individual co-production – for example, age is strongly positively correlated with individual co-production but negatively correlated (if not so strongly) with collective co-production. Again, woman are particularly likely to engage in individual co-production but gender is not related to collective co-production.

Does this matter? I think it does. Victor Pestoff has concluded that “services produced by a small group at the micro-level often imply more collective interaction than collective action”. This social interaction effect is particularly likely to promote the development of social capital, mutualism and reciprocity. He suggests that there are both individual and collective benefits found in collective self-help efforts that are not available to the single or solo individual volunteer and, by implication, to other ‘lone citizen co-producers’.

As interest in mobilising user and community co-production surges across OECD countries, this has important policy implications. If the public sector wishes to reap the potential benefits of collective co-production, then more imaginative and attractive ways will need to be found to convince a higher proportion of citizens to re-orient their co-production activities towards more collective action.

Three obvious avenues for policy development are suggested by our findings. First, our finding that younger people are more likely than older people to engage directly in collective co-production (although it is often masked for policy makers by the fact that they are much less likely to engage in individual co-production, the dominant form of co-production) suggests that programmes to increase collective co-production should be aimed at younger age groups and be very different in style and content from approaches which appeal to the majority of current co-producing citizens.  Second, our findings demonstrate positive effects on co-production from well-regarded government information and consultation – this gives encouraging weight to initiatives which seek to engage citizens positively in civic affairs.

However, we found that the most important correlate of collective co-production is self-efficacy (even more strongly than with individual co-production). Our variable here is essentially ‘political self-efficacy’ – the feeling that individual action can have an impact upon political and social change, so we used the question: “How much of difference do you believe ordinary citizens can make … (to improving community safety, the environment, and health)”.

Identifying policies and initiatives which reinforce self-efficacy is therefore potentially attractive. Parallels from recent research in private sector services suggest that feelings of self-efficacy are likely to be encouraged by customising services to fit the circumstances of individual service users and then helping them to visualise and rehearse what it would be like to do things more closely with others – very much the approach that the personalisation agenda in UK social services has been practising in recent years. Furthermore, those who already have a high sense of self-efficacy may be particularly effective as mentors to raise this sense in those they mentor, indicating the power of peer support.

Of course, policy will generally seek to activate both kinds of co-production. This research simply sounds a warning: Don’t assume that this can be done by a single approach – it will almost certainly require quite separate strategies for individual and collective co-production.


Tony Bovaird is Professor of Public Management and Policy at INLOGOV.  He worked in the UK Civil Service and several universities before moving to the University of Birmingham in 2006.  He recently led the UK contribution to an EU project on user and community co-production of public services in five European countries, and is currently directing a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council on using ‘nudge’ techniques to influence individual service co-producers to participate in community co-production.

[i] Elke Loeffler, Salvador Parrado, Tony Bovaird, and Gregg Van Ryzin (2008),  “If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together”: Citizens and the co-production of public services. Paris: French Ministry of the Treasury, Public Accounts and Civil Service, on behalf of the Presidency of the EU.

[ii] Tony Bovaird, Gregg G. Van Ryzin, Elke Loeffler and Salvador Parrado (2012), “Influences on collective co-production of public services: which citizens most participate in complex governance mechanisms?”, Paper presented to Seminar on Co-production: The State of the Art, Corvinus University, Budapest, 22-23 November.

[iii] Salvador Parrado, Gregg van Ryzin, Tony Bovaird and Elke Loeffler (2013), “Correlates of co-production: Evidence from a five-nation study of citizens”. International Public Management Journal (forthcoming).