Only a Georgian Devolution Revolution, but maybe Catherine wasn’t completely wrong

Chris Game

If, like Catherine Staite, you’re Director of an organisation and you risk entitling even an ironic blog: “Oh dear, … I’m wrong again!”, you must at least secretly hope that your underlings will be tripping over themselves to assure you that of course you’re not, either before or now.

If so, two months must seem a disconcertingly long wait, but my personal excuse is that I was waiting for a suitable peg on which to hang my grovel. Let us give thanks, then, for last week’s Conservative Party conference. Even before Chancellor George Osborne’s rabbit-out-of-hat business rates announcement, it had amply validated Catherine’s concern about the party political primacy of the Government’s whole devolution policy. And its timing also offered a useful opportunity for an update on devolution developments since my own last blog on the topic some of which, I wondered, might have prompted her to modify her earlier pessimism.

Recapping briefly: Catherine’s blog was about how neither of the two key opportunities for local government that she hoped for from the Government’s Devolution/Combined Authority agenda – the development of a sufficiently sizable scale of operation to enable the delivery of ‘big ticket change’ (her business jargon, I’m afraid), and “to improve collaboration by drawing in reluctant partners” – looked, at least in late July, like being significantly realised.  Her vision of “a range of CAs operating at different scales and across varied geographies, receiving different devolution deals”, she felt, was proving to be self-delusion.

Her reasons included: George Osborne’s fixation with his Northern Powerhouse and metro mayors, and relative unconcern with counties and sub-regions; central government’s lack of either commitment or capacity to deliver effective devolution deals on any scale; and the sheer difficulty facing diverse and traditionally self-sufficient local authorities trying to develop convincing collaborative devolution bids within a ludicrously short time-frame.

The Treasury’s early September deadline was tough. Moreover, dictated by November’s Spending Review, it seemed to reinforce Labour sceptics’ suspicions of the Government’s whole strategy being more about the devolution of cuts than of powers, or, in the neat Newcastle version, passing the buck without the bucks. It was noticeable, however, that even some of those issuing such warnings, like Oldham Council leader Jim McMahon, were equally insistent that councils should still take “every bit of power from the Tories that we can. We have a responsibility to. It is our duty.”

For their part, ministers, or their civil servants, spent pre-conference week frantically negotiating, in order to maximize the political capital involved in such devolution giveaways by announcing at least one big one at the ideally located Manchester event. Cornwall’s (non-mayoral) settlement, rightly headline-making back in July, was politically now history, and it seemed the North East were being groomed as conference darlings. But then Sheffield City Region came up fast on the inside and breasted the tape on the Friday, before conference delegates had even convened.

Last year, the four South Yorkshire met boroughs comprising the CA were openly opposed to an elected mayor – and openly disappointed with the consequential paucity of their December ‘devo-lite’ deal.  Since then, though, the addition of five Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire districts as non-constituent members, the General Election outcome, and the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill had changed minds. Having accepted an elected mayor as the non-negotiable price of a worthwhile devolution deal, the region is for the moment head of the Manchester-chasing pack.

If the Bill weren’t sufficient confirmation that an elected mayor is indeed the price, regardless of anything electors themselves might have to say, this new agreement is peppered with references to the functions for which “the directly elected Mayor of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority” will be responsible, and of course accountable. These include strategic planning and the region’s transport budget – with the delivery of a ‘smart ticketing’ service – while at CA level council leaders will get access to funding of £30 million a year for 30 years to boost local growth and invest in local manufacturing and innovation. From what I could tell, the Sheffield leaders got at least close to their bid document ‘offer’, which brings me to the second part of this blog.

Given the tight deadline and the known difficulty some aspiring CAs faced even agreeing their full memberships, the total of 38 “landmark devolution bids” seemed to impress others as well as, very obviously, the Government itself.  The 38 included three from Scotland, one from Wales, and some constituting ‘expressions of interest’, rather than definite bids or, as DCLG Permanent Secretary Melanie Dawes put it, “offers that cannot be refused”. Several were manifestly eleventh-hour concoctions and/or overlapping, including no fewer than five from Yorkshire.  So, while the modesty was disarming, it was hardly news when Grant Thornton’s timely survey found “around 1 in 5” of their interviewed local government leaders conceding that their devolution proposals were “fairly” or “very weak” (p.41). Even so, in this age of adjectival inflation, it seems all 38 must be referred to, irrespective of rationale or content, as ‘landmark’ proposals (LPs), just as Manchester’s deals are always ‘ground-breaking’, and all working class electors patronised as ‘hard-working families’.

These LPs were not public documents, and it was up to CAs themselves to release whatever details they wished. Any comprehensive comparison, therefore, has been impossible. Nevertheless, some attempted to do the best they could, perhaps most notably the Local Government Chroniclewhose analysis of 26 of the relatively more detailed English bids is summarized here in slightly amended and more easily comparable form.

CA devolution bids (2) (1)

Bid proposals were coded into 18 policy areas, including ‘Fiscal powers’, plus the expressed readiness to consider an elected mayor. This latter was obviously unnecessary for Greater London and Greater Manchester, vital for the other metropolitan/city regional CAs – the more so after Osborne’s announcement that they alone will be able to raise business rates and levy a dedicated infrastructure tax – but interesting too in the bids involving counties.

Catherine referred somewhat sceptically to what Treasury officials reportedly envisaged as an at least three-county ‘East Midlands Powerhouse’. In the end, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire agreed to submit a joint 19-authority D2N2 bid based on their two-county LEP, and there is talk, though not in the bid document itself, of an elected CA mayor.  However, Leicestershire stuck with its single-county, but also LEP-based, bid,  and, perhaps predictably, Leicester City mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, has advised against another for the CA.

Whether these and the other county- and county/unitary-based bids will be judged to have, in Catherine’s phrase, “ticked all the boxes”, or at least a sufficient number of them, remains to be seen. Both East Midlands documents, and particularly the former, seem to me to constitute substantial and substantiated ‘offers’, the more persuasive in their having clearly emanated from directly relevant LEP and SEP (Strategic Economic Plan, not Someone Else’s Problem) experience and the partnership working involved, and the same could reasonably be expected of other such bids.

Moreover, even if boxes do remain unticked – and here I think Catherine may have been wrong – the signs are that it’s NOT “too late now”, particularly for these acknowledgedly more difficult multi- and cross-county arrangements.

Anyway, it’s the number, composition and comprehensiveness of some of these county- and county/unitary-based bids that I thought might possibly have prompted Catherine to wonder if she hadn’t slightly rushed to judgement and written off her hopes over-hastily. So I tried categorizing the 28 English non-city region bids (all those on the DCLG list, including Cornwall, not just those in the LGC list). It was obviously based in some cases on minimal knowledge and arbitrary judgements – particularly where whole-county LEPs are involved – but it provided a very rough statistical confirmation of what Catherine feared and what in the circumstances was only to be expected: that the bulk and probably a majority of these non-metropolitan bids – 15 of the 28, by my reckoning – would come from single counties.

The explanations will vary, but many will centre on the sheer shortage of time. Some took seriously ministers’ message about 5 September being the deadline for councils wanting to develop plans based on an existing or fairly solidly agreed Combined Authority with an elected mayor. Most counties, even more than most urban authorities, don’t want mayors, so why rush? But then over the summer the ministerial line changed to one of trying to drum up as many bids, or even expressions of interest, as possible – too late, though, for most counties, even if they’d wished, to respond other than individually.

Given a more generous time frame, and taking account of reported earlier discussions, it seems likely that at least some of, say, Norfolk and Suffolk, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire, Wiltshire (and Swindon), might have followed the D2N2 route and produced the joint, rather than individual authority, bids that the Treasury apparently favours. Which suggests that some may yet do so, and personally I’m particularly hoping the Oxon/Bucks/Northants combo progresses beyond its ‘England’s Economic Heartland’ transport alliance, thereby enabling me to note their questionable grasp of anatomy, with Bucks certainly appearing considerably closer to Gall-bladder-land.

Other existing multi-county bids, in addition to D2N2, include Surrey, West and East Sussex and Heart of the South West (aka Devon and Somerset), plus four that I categorized as primarily LEP-based: Cheshire and Warrington, the North East, Tees Valley, and West of England.

This left me with a motley group of 6, comprising Swindon, which may at some point resolve its ‘misunderstanding’ with LEP partners Wiltshire, Telford & Wrekin, which has since applied to become a non-constituent member of the West Midlands CA, and the shambles of Yorkshire, which would take a substantial blog on its own.

This blog, already over-long, I’ll bring to a close with two very brief conclusions. One, to date, both the Chancellor’s business rate plans and his devolution deals balance too calculatedly their freedoms and checks to constitute, outside the heady excitement of a party conference, a ‘Devolution Revolution’. Two, given what we know of local government’s initial positive response to the Government’s devo agenda and that the door seems definitely still open, I’d suggest Catherine’s early optimism has certainly not yet proved entirely misplaced.

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.

The LGC100: what it does and doesn’t measure

Chris Game

I used, years ago, to have a whole Pol Sci 1 lecture about power and influence, their similarities and differences. By one of life’s synchronicities, I’ve been reminded of it twice in the past week. Don’t go – I’m not about to disinter it, although I will share the six-word summary that I could, if really pushed, get it down to: Power’s a tool, Influence a skill.

Actually, I will elaborate a bit, at least to the 16-word précis: I is a form of P, but P can be exercised through means other than I. Power, in other words, trumps influence, as was demonstrated in Wednesday evening’s feverish purchasing of high-price London homes following George Osborne’s introduction of stamp duty bands.

To adapt my lecture illustration: estate agents spent possibly months trying to influence wavering purchasers’ views of the great bargain their £2 million Myleene Klass garage/apartment would represent; then along comes George and suddenly the hesitants are desperate to exchange contracts by midnight and save themselves (I think) £55,000. The Chancellor had the power to change the whole deal – as could the garage owners, had they decided to drop their price. The estate agent – yes, I can feel your pity – has, at most, influence.

Power is supposedly sexy – period, and certainly sexier than influence, which is why magazines with circulation-boosting ‘Top 100’ lists will generally try for ‘Most Powerful’, even if they have to resort to sophistry. Forbes, the US business magazine, does both the World’s Most Powerful People: Putin, Obama, Xi Jinping, Pope Francis, Angela Merkel; and Most Powerful Women: Merkel, Janet Yellen (Chair, Federal Reserve), Melinda Gates, Dilma Rousseff (President, Brazil).

I’ve no argument with any of these. The Putin vs. Obama thing’s interesting, but, if you annexe Crimea and do a $70 billion gas pipeline deal with China – well, for me that’s right up there with banded stamp duty. But then at 17 in the Women’s list there’s Beyoncé Knowles, personification of the power vs. influence problem.

Sure, have her No.1 in Forbes’ Celebrity 100 List. I’d even grudgingly accept her heading Time magazine’s 100 Most Influentials, or, to be accurate, being their Top Titan – Time fudging its listing by grouping its 100 into Titans, Pioneers, Artists, Leaders and Icons, presumably to avoid, say, Miley Cyrus embarrassingly outranking Pope Francis.

But, whatever Titans are/do, Beyoncé sings, and, even if she does release her songs exclusively on iTunes, that’s essentially popularity, not power. It’s the same with cats. The cat food Friskies’ Most Influential Cat on the Internet – ‘Grumpy Cat’ (aka Tardar Sauce, and apparently it’s feline dwarfism, not perpetual pet petulance) – has 250,000 followers, which is also popularity and could even be influence, but it ain’t power.

Which brings us to the LGC100, the Local Government Chronicle’s periodic listing and ranking of the most influential people in local government – and in which we at INLOGOV have the pleasant responsibility to declare an interest, in all senses.

The LGC100 obviously differs from the Friskies 50 index, but there are similarities. First big difference is the complete absence of cats from even the long list. Second, selection is by a nine-judge panel, with “vast experience across the sector” – apart, apparently, from that of being elected members. Third, it’s forward-looking: those most likely to exert influence over the sector in the next 12 months.

Yes, the big similarity with the Friskies 50 is that it’s very definitely about influence, in the sense that I’ve been trying to suggest, rather than power. Out of hopefully excusable exuberance, INLOGOV’s official announcement stated that our Director, Catherine Staite, had been ranked the 45th “most powerful” person in the world of local government, which wasn’t the actual citation and, given that world’s diverse and highly political character, risked being potentially misleading – prompting this intendedly explanatory blog.

As I see it, LGC could have taken the sophists’ soft option, have pretended theirs is a Power Index, but, like Time, with separate groupings for mayors and council leaders, chief execs, national politicians, civil servants and officials, consultants, commentators, etc. Which would have risked being little more interesting than the proverbial wet weekend in Wigan – which, I’d better emphasise, isn’t boring at all, and moreover has a still comparatively rare female CE in Donna Hall (No 55).

Instead, they’ve taken the braver and inevitably more provocative path of having a single sector-wide set of reputational rankings, and it behoves us to recognise that those rankings are assessments of likely future influence, and not of current or recent power.

If they were current power rankings, then, whatever we might think of him, Eric Pickles’ dramatic slide from 1 in 2011 to 15 would take some explaining – although it does remain noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, all previous listings have been headed by the senior local government minister: John Healey in 2007 and 2008, and Pickles in 2011. This time, the only minister in the top 10 is Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, at 7 [The PM and Chancellor are excluded from consideration, as is the Leader of the Opposition].

Second, Alexander’s relatively high position suggests Pickles’ fall can’t be attributed entirely to next May’s election, as he’s also adrift of Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt (11), and Greg Clark, Minister for Universities, Science and Cities (13), who may also have lost their ministerial red boxes before the year’s half through. A comparable consideration – imminent retirement – surely does, however, largely explain DCLG Permanent Secretary Sir Bob Kerslake’s apparently lowly 85. Incidentally, the actual local government minister, Kris Hopkins, may or may not be grateful that LGC have extended their list from 50 to 100, as his perceived future influence has him down at 93 – just below Watford elected mayor, Dorothy Thornhill (92), and just ahead of Nan Sloane, Director of The Centre for Women and Democracy (95).

I’ve now mentioned four ranked women and six men, and it would be good if that 40% female representation or the 40% in the top 10 were reflections of the list overall. They aren’t. There are 11 women in the top 50 and 21 in the full 100, which proportionately is lower than in either 2011 or 2008 – and, yes, I do know Doncaster’s CE, Jo Miller (27), and Centre for Cities’ Alex Jones (83) are women, while Localis’ Alex Thomson (54) is definitely male.

If those figures are disappointing, those for ethnic diversity are worse. An important new survey was published in September into the diversity of staff working in the top 5,000 leadership roles within the public and voluntary sectors. Conducted by a team headed by Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality & Human Rights Commission, the Green Park Public Service Leadership 5,000 survey found that ethnic diversity in local authority leadership is so low that it “almost defies analysis” – and that was before Lambeth CE Derrick Anderson announced his impending departure. Though obviously not itself a statistical exercise, the LGC100 reinforces that sad conclusion.

Important as that conclusion is, though, it would be wrong for this particular blog to end on anything but a more upbeat note. First, there’s the overall picture, with local government people not only heading the list – the Manchester City Council duo of Leader, Sir Richard Leese, and CE Sir Howard Bernstein – but comfortably outnumbering, as they jolly well should, national politicians and officials by 46 to 33. And, if you forget the messy election business and count members of the Upper House as politicians – Lords Adonis (26) and Shipley (69) – then they just pip officials by 40 to 39. No amount of fiddling, though, will prevent the biggest single group in the top 20 being, by a distance, national politicians.

Finally and closer to home, INLOGOV Director Catherine Staite’s 45th position is, by any standards, a proud achievement – for her and collectively for those academic and other Institute colleagues with whom she works (I can say that, being nowadays extremely semi-detached and, at least in that sense, no longer among that number). It doesn’t mean LGC panellists have judged her more powerful or important than, say, Birmingham City Council Leader, Sir Albert Bore (50), or London Mayor, Boris Johnson (57), or even former INLOGOV Director, Sir Michael Lyons (70), author of the recent Labour-commissioned Lyons Housing Review of the underlying causes of the housing crisis.

It does, on the other hand, seem to suggest that those panellists see INLOGOV as already, and perhaps increasingly, prominent in the local government world, and – particularly through collaborative work with other public sector and international organisations – like the recent 2020 Vision report with Grant Thornton, Exploring finance and policy futures for English local government – – an increasingly influential player.

Chris Game - picChris 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.

Preaching to the choir: reflections on key leadership skills for local authority chief executives – part 3: courage

Catherine Staite

Leadership is not a sprint – it’s a marathon. You are in it for the long haul and that is why courage is so important.

Maya Angelou argued that courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently and that is certainly evident in the role of chief executive. Not only do you need to keep yourself going through challenging times, you also need to be able to demonstrate courage to your staff and members. If you falter, so will they.

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Don’t make the mistake, though, of thinking that you have to go it alone. True, it can be lonely at the top and you can sometimes feel that you should keep your doubts, fears and frustrations to yourself. That’s a big mistake – and so many leaders make it. You are only human – very clever human, but human nonetheless.

Not only do you need support, you also need someone to tell you when you are wrong. If you isolate yourself in your leadership castle, you could be very wrong without knowing it. There’s a saying that ‘a lawyer who acts for himself has a fool for a client’ and that is just as true of chief executives who only take their own advice. You need a critical friend you can turn to, someone who will help you focus, learn from your mistakes and laugh about the sometimes crazy world that you inhabit.

Some chief executives have really strong relationships with their Leaders and each can be a good critical friend to the other. For others, their Leader is the source of many of their troubles. They definitely need to go elsewhere for support.

You need all your energy to be a strong and courageous leader, so don’t waste energy on what you can’t change. Do let go of the past. Only look back to learn from your mistakes, not to wallow in nostalgia for a misremembered past. Times may seem particularly hard –but then they always do when you are living through them. As Heraclitus said, the only thing that is constant is change. I observe the very different ways that chief executives respond to change, from seeing it as a threat to greeting it as an opportunity. The best at using the prevailing challenges of austerity to make the sort of bold changes that would never have been possible in times of plety.

Focus on building a better future for your Council and the people you all serve. To do that you should keep searching for better ways of doing things. Support your staff to do that now and they’ll carry on doing it when you are no longer there. The more talent you can develop in others, the more support you can draw on now and the better the legacy of your leadership.


Catherine Staite
Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Achieving better outcomes for the troubled family of local government

In this debate, Simon Parker (NLGN), Catherine Staite (INLOGOV) and Tony Bovaird (INLOGOV) agree that the current state of UK local government is unsustainable – but see different routes to rescuing a sustainable future.

Simon Parker

The UK is currently renegotiating its social contract. You could be forgiven for not having noticed. After all, our national politicians don’t really want to talk about it. But at the local level this debate is impossible to avoid: councils will either have to invent the next generation of government or find themselves one nostril above the waterline.

So far, so consensual. The big challenge lies in whether and how a positive kind of change might happen, and this is perhaps where recent work on the future of local government differs most strikingly. The more hopeful scenarios in INLOGOV’s recent report with Grant Thornton (2020 Vision: Exploring finance and policy future for English local government) rely heavily on changes from Westminster. They ask for a major recalibration of the central/local relationship as the only way to preserve local public services.

This is a risky strategy. It is far from clear that any government in 2015 is really prepared to take the kind of radical action that would be necessary to put local services on a sustainable footing.

How would a new localist settlement reach the political agenda? Do we really believe the English question is a powerful-enough driver, especially when the agenda has been shunted into either the watery promise of a constitutional convention or English votes for English laws?

Isn’t more incremental muddle still the likeliest outcome? It would have been interesting to see INLOGOV’s report puzzle this one through in more detail.

This is not a counsel of despair. My own recent work is optimistic about the potential for a combination of incremental national change combined with rapidly accelerated local innovation to drive the creation of a new way of doing local government. I don’t pretend this will happen evenly across the country. Innovation never does, especially in a society where resources and opportunity are so unequally distributed.

But we only need a few authorities to make the breakthrough to a new mode of operating so they can show others the way. Waiting for the centre is far riskier.

Simon Parker is director of NLGN. He started his career in journalism and has since worked in management consultancy, lobbying and research, most recently as a fellow at the Institute for Government. Simon has published widely on public service reform in the UK and internationally.

Tony Bovaird

The 2020 Vision report suggests that only ‘disruptive innovation’ can save the English local government system. However, it also gives plenty of evidence that neither central government nor most local authorities are likely to be keen on disruptive innovation in practice – and some local authorities wishing to espouse it may turn out to be no good at it. The report also stresses (p.32) that ‘any new system is likely to fail if it is imposed upon a local government sector which does not agree with its broad outline’.

So disruptive change is needed, is likely to be resisted and cannot successfully be imposed externally. This is a bleak picture. However, there appears to me to be one get-out available – giving real ‘localists’ their head.

The whole point of local government is that it should be locally different, so that it can be locally appropriate. ‘Locally appropriate’ carries a price, of course – it means that locally appropriate resources need to be available, in order that locally appropriate outcomes are achieved. This is the question that has to be solved in order that we have ‘locally different’ local government. Because we DON’T have ‘locally different, locally appropriate’ local government, it is no surprise that the public doesn’t know much about local government, nor care much, nor protest at the current evisceration of councils.

So, let’s design a pathway to ‘disruptive innovation’ that does not rely on policy wonks in Whitehall. Let’s give to local authorities wishing to be really ‘localist’ the right to a local tax (perhaps they should be allowed to choose local income tax, local sales tax or local mansion tax?). And let’s give them the right to pool their budgets with other local public service agencies, to share data with any other local public service agency and to use their budgets to take compulsory short-term leases (at low rents) on any properties (housing or commercial) in their area which have been empty for more than a year.

In this way, the full power of local resources (not just local council budgets) would become available to local government.

And how should these ‘really localist’ local authorities be chosen? Well, not by Whitehall, for sure. Nor by any central mechanism (such as the LGA nominating some of its members). No, let residents decide – any local authority should be allowed to go down this route if it gets support in a local referendum.

tony-bovaird-Cropped-110x146Tony 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.

Catherine Staite

We have a settlement which is the most centralised in the world. There are two sides to the balance of power between central and local government and two things have to change – local government needs to take back some powers, including over local taxation, but central government also needs to let go.

My heart lies with local government but my head observes that it has not yet made a compelling case for devolution – from the risk averse perspectives of Whitehall and central government. So what are the factors which would encourage and enable Whitehall to let go?

The first one must be demonstrable competence. Local government can make a good case that they are pretty good at what they do. Of course, bad things do happen and sometimes lessons aren’t learned, resulting in serial failures. These instances get into the news because they are so rare. All major failures involve other agencies but local government often ends up holding the blame instead of getting recognition for what it is very good at – holding the ring in a complex system of public services.

Sadly, the effective financial management, reliable service delivery and inspired leadership of place, which characterise the majority of local authorities, doesn’t make the news. You just don’t see ‘residents reasonably happy’ as a news headline but perhaps more public recognition by central government of local government’s competence would help to strengthen mutual trust.

The second one would be a coherent, agreed approach on the shape of local government in the future, but we are a long way from that. The competitive habits of some county councils – arguing that county unitaries are the only way forward for two-tier areas – have generated more heat than light as well as flying in the face of the evidence success of a number of long running collaborative arrangements between districts.

The process of agreeing the boundaries and then creating the 2009 unitaries was fraught, in several areas, with the worst sort of behaviour but Combined Authorities have now begun to demonstrate just what can be achieved when old rivalries are buried and everyone is focusing on the future not the past. This suggests that collaborative, rather than competitive approaches will deliver a brighter future for local government. That would be better for everyone, as counties seem to forget that, in a change to unitary status, they would also be abolished. In the elections following the creation of the 2009 unitaries, former district members did better than former county councillors.

The third useful thing would be democratic re-engagement. Of course, it is hard for members to engage with their residents when the residents can see quite clearly that most important things, like how much money the council has, are decided a long way away in Whitehall. That would change if we had some devolution but, in the meantime, there are a lot of things which could be done now. The profiles of elected members in terms of age, ethnicity and gender don’t match the communities they serve. This is the result of two significant failures, that of political parties to invest in the recruitment and development of excellent and diverse candidates and that of many members to adapt to the modern world. A lot of complex and challenging questions remain unanswered, including what level of allowances would enable someone who has not already retired on a good pension to become a member.

Members often resist becoming involved in development activities and using new technology, but unless they have the skills to become more strategic and make better use of their time, they’ll be presiding over the councils which are sliding from ‘a nostril above the water’ to being completely submerged.

Catherine StaiteCatherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Preaching to the choir: reflections on key leadership skills for local authority chief executives – part 2: charm

Catherine Staite

If Brian Tracy and Ron Arden are right when they say the deepest craving of human nature is the need to feel valued and valuable. The secret of charm is therefore simple: make others feel important – then charm must be a crucial attribute for leaders.

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Charm is shorthand for a sophisticated set of skills which enable you to make new connections and solve old problems. Charm is about much more than being nice in a superficial way – otherwise known as ‘smarm’. If you don’t have real charm then just be gruff and honest. Everyone will understand. Smarm, on the other hand, will simply breed distrust.

The truly charming have notable skills. They are interested in others. They pay them real attention and give them positive regard – as opposed to the barely controlled irritation demonstrated by some powerful people in their dealings with underlings. Even if they attempt to catch you with a bright idea when you are en route to the toilet, don’t snap – suggest they catch you on the way back, when you can give them your full attention. You need all the bright ideas you can get.

Charming leaders also know how to listen, not just to what the people you lead are saying but what they perhaps feel they can’t say to you. A leader who doesn’t listen won’t have access to all the facts, no-one will tell them the unvarnished truth and they won’t hear when people are trying to tell them they may just be wrong. The failure to listen renders leaders about as effective – and as potentially dangerous – as a blindfolded driver. You may have had experience of a leader who doesn’t listen. Remember how awful that was and don’t case that level of distress to your staff.

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Charming leaders seek to bring people together and that has never been more important for local government. Albert Camus observed that charm is a way of getting the answer ‘yes’ without ever having asked a clear question. You need a lot of people to say ‘yes’ to a lot of things they may not necessarily like if you are going to effect real change.

There is so much good work going on around collaboration for the benefit of the people we all serve but there are still so many terrible instances of people in senior positions who perpetuate old feuds and personalize organizational battles, to the point where there is no way out for anyone. A history of corrosive, destructive pettiness endlessly repeats itself.

I am sometimes obliged to listen to a range of grievances going to back to 1974 and it’s no fun. The petty disputes I observe range from being mere energy vampires to the evidence of utter moral failure. Those disputes are about the past and you have to get beyond them – and encourage your members to do the same. You are leading in the present to build a better future and you’ll need all your energy and charm to do that. That behavior will shape your organizational culture and ripple through external relationships to the point where no-one can articulate or even want to remember why this country doesn’t co-operate with that district or vice versa. That will have an impact across your area and beyond – so your charm is a force for real good.

It’s amazing how pervasive and powerful an influence the chief executive and top team have on the culture of their council. When the people I pass in your corridors are smiling – in spite of all the challenges – I know their leaders have charm and their councils will survive and thrive.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Preaching to the choir: reflections on key leadership skills for local authority chief executives – part 1: creativity

Catherine Staite

I have called this blog series ‘preaching to the choir’ as it is dedicated to local authority chief executives and they already know a great deal about leadership. They wouldn’t survive and thrive in their posts if they didn’t.

They already know that heroic leadership is only useful in the case of fire and flood and that leadership of organisations in giving way to leadership of whole systems – which is a whole lot harder. Instead, I’d like to focus on three aspects of leadership which are talked about less often but are absolutely crucial to effective and sustainable leadership, in complex systems and in difficult times. They are: creativity, charm and courage.

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So what is creativity and why do leaders need it so much?

We hear a great deal about the need for change and innovation – which implies creativity. However, so much which is described as innovation is nothing of the sort. Adam Smith introduced us to lean thinking in The Wealth of Nations in 1776. The Hanseatic League demonstrated the benefits of collaboration and shared services in the 17th century. We could and should learn from the past, but too often old ideas are re-labelled and sold on as new, not as a coherent element of a new way of solving problems but as a ‘one size fits all’, ‘but this and all will be well’, single focus solution.

So if creativity isn’t just about endlessly recycling the ideas of previous eras, what is it? Steve Jobs said creativity is just connecting things. How simple, and how true.

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We are subject to constant but superficial change. The ink hasn’t dried on one paradigm before it’s shifted. But we’re in a time of evolution not revolution, no matter how apocalyptic the environment feels at times. Not withstanding the 24/7 networked digital revolution we all still meet in rooms – not cyberspace. Joseph Chamberlain could come back from the dead and find his way round Birmingham City Council. Not only is the décor much as he left it, members and officers are focusing on the successor problems to those that were the focus of his attention. Both he and they are attempting to achieve the same outcomes – better lives for the people of Birmingham.

We really need creativity – not to create a new universe but to unstick the current one. In mental health services in the 1990s we were innovating to create an integrated care system, including diverting mentally disordered offenders from inappropriate custody. The evidence was clear. Early diversion from the criminal justice system and multi-disciplinary support wrapped around the person saved a lot of money for services and a lot of damage for people with severe mental health problems who committed minor offences. 25 years later not much has changed. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because, in spite of the enthusiasm and commitment of the champions of change, episodic creativity and short term collaboration does not penetrate the roots of organizational silos and professional conservatism. As Albert Einstein said, we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

So what can leaders do to help convert short-term creativity into long-term benefits? According to Albert von Szent-Gyorgy, discovery consists of seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what nobody has thought. Leaders can make the space for creativity as well as bringing people together, allowing time, encouraging risk and forgiving failure. Creativity is often about seeing opportunities to bring together different ideas and new ways of thinking. Leaders can also help to embed new thinking by challenging some of the entrenched interests rather than colluding with those who say that change is ‘too difficult’. As Thomas Edison put it, with admirable brevity, there’s a better way to do it – find one.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.