Local government: keepers of the moral compass?

Catherine Staite

Barry Quirk’s excellent article in the Local Government Chronicle highlighted the often overlooked role of local government as the guardian of public ethics.

Public ethics happen in the space where the state, in all its manifestations, civil society and the individual meet.  That space is highly contested and consequently difficult to navigate. We need a very good moral compass to find the right course through all the arguments, often fuelled by ignorance and blurred by misunderstanding, about who takes precedence – the majority or the minority? As we attempt to protect minorities are we inadvertently discriminating against them by failing to hold them to account?

There are no easy answers but examples like the child sexual exploitation in Rotherham highlight what happens when local government and its partners mislay their collective moral compass and lose their way.

What causes such failures? The fragmented nature of local government is both a blessing and a curse.  Councils are so different: their geographies, challenges, politics, culture and finances vary much more than the many over-simplified, generic journalistic, references to ‘town halls’ would suggest. The blessings stem from local knowledge, closeness to communities and relative agility – at least compared to national bodies. The curses lie in cultural isolation.

There is a lot of collaboration, integration and sharing of best practice and new ideas across the local government family but there is also quite a lot of  inward looking, ‘not invented here syndrome’ as well.  It is in that self-referential, parochial, isolation that the moral compass can be lost without anyone noticing. That isn’t a problem which is confined to local government – the ‘institutional racism’ of the Metropolitan Police and the unspeakable cruelty of Mid Staffordshire demonstrate how the lack of a moral compass can lead to the normalisation of moral and ethical failure.

So how do organizations maintain their moral compasses in good working order? It’s far too easy to place our faith in that mythical answer to all our problems: ‘leadership’.  All good leaders know that they are nothing without good followers. Old fashioned heroic leadership required unquestioning followers and that is a recipe for disaster. The most vulnerable leader is the one whom to whom nobody dare say ‘you are wrong’. Good followers are not sheep, they are engaged and challenging – not least because they know so much about what is good and bad in their organisation.  Good leaders and good organisations treasure and reward good followers.

Is external scrutiny the answer? The Audit Commission became a bit of a bête noir for local government before its demise but some of that reaction was generated by it doing its job well and challenging bad practice and groupthink.  It will certainly be re-invented at some form in the future because of a growing recognition of the need for positive and supportive external challenge. The Local Government Association makes a good fist of sharing good practice and its peer reviews offer some gentle challenge to those who invite it but it is a political organization and it’s not its job to be both advocate and enforcer.

One of the consequences of the Scottish Referendum is a reinvigorated debate about devolution in England.  As you’d expect, this has quickly resolved itself into discussions about structures and institutions but those discussion are missing the point. Successful devolution requires the explicit transfer of both powers and duties and one of those duties is responsibility for the moral compass.  The need for effective local guardians of public ethics has never been greater.

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.

Under what conditions are decisions best made? Football managers and the public sector

Ian Briggs

I am not much of a football follower, but I am becoming increasingly bemused by the fascination for premiership clubs in becoming so closely associated with their managers. You can hardly fail to notice that the headlines stories on the back pages of newspapers concentrate a great deal on the relative merits of the approaches taken by the current crop of managers. Am I alone in thinking that they get more attention now than the players?

Their very personalities are so great that they now appear to be at least as important as the club itself. Success or failure on the pitch is often put down to the decisions of the manager and less on the relative performance of the players. Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United and Jose Mourinho becoming so much intertwined with Chelsea has got me thinking about our assumption that consensual decision-making is an absolute necessity within the public services – when compared to the unilateral decisions made by football club managers that are viewed as key factors in match results.

The committee system that we have lived within in local government for so many years, albeit often under a charismatic chairperson, is the very embodiment of consensual decision-making. A problem is placed within the political arena and through open discussion and challenge a decision is arrived at that is seen to be within some level of agreement and indeed consensus to be an appropriate means of doing business. For quite some time we have concentrated upon inter-agency partnership working where bringing together expertise from a range of organisations implies that the benefits of consensual decision-making are a necessity to cope with the complexity of delivering public services.

So, whilst on the one hand we have an acceptance of bringing together a group to concentrate on an issue of public interest either within management teams, committees or a partnership, on the other hand we are experimenting with non-consensual decision-making of certain prominent leaders in public life. Witness the debate over the relative merits of executive Mayors in local government (at best an unresolved argument) and the singular independent role of Police and Crime Commissioners as examples.

When things go wrong we may want to have a ‘head to roll’; if a football club is not winning then the supporters call for the sacking of the manager – even in some cases hiring aeroplanes to fly over the football ground with messages flapping from their tails to that effect. How different is this to occasional lurid tabloid newspaper headlines calling for the removal of a senior manager or politician if there is perceived poor performance in a public sector organisation. In some cases they could perhaps do the honourable thin and fall on their swords if the consequence of a bad decision (even if it is a decision they have merely endorsed rather than made themselves) has challenging or inappropriate and unintended consequences. All this leads to a gradual shift towards the public needing to have a strong, singular individual making decisions – eschewing consensus.

So under what conditions are decisions best made? In open, consensual arenas (even if committees often operate behind closed doors) or through a singular, individual focal point around a decision as in the case of football club managers?

Since Rittel and Webber formally described wicked problems in the early 1970s, we have debated what they mean for those who are in public management and leadership and are facing issues where there is little agreement over the exact nature of the problem. This has opened up much debate on the benefit of bringing together a wide range of stakeholders to focus their attention upon complex problems – and let’s face it, the list of these things seems to be growing! Is it because we see more and more ‘wicked’ issues and we have a relative lack of success in solving them that we are now becoming drawn towards a less consensual form of decision-making?

In his highly provocative book If Mayors Rules the World, Benjamin R. Barber offers the view that large nation-states with complex democratic consensual decision-making processes are poorly placed to deal with the complex and wicked issues faced today. If we were to place decision-making and leadership into the hands of one individual then the scope for clear direction setting and making brave and original decisions may increase and therefore be favourable to placing decisions in the hands of committees and stakeholder groups which often lead to stasis, mass avoidance and confusion. The subtext here is that we need to place a higher value on charismatic and visionary leadership; however, have not some of the most dangerous individuals in history conformed to this typology? As I am no student of football neither am I a student of history, but when Europe was a collection of small nation and city states this did seem to lead to war and violent competition!

To complicate matters a little further we might have degrees of consensuality in decision-making. Last week after the second reading of the hybrid bill for HS2, Parliament endorse the decision to press ahead with the project. Having all party agreement is important on a problem that has wicked characteristics such as this one. The next stage could be to ‘sell’ the decision to the public and the wider stakeholder community on the basis that it is a better decision because it has this degree of consensus. HS2 could be seen as valid in the public eye as it has this right level of political and stakeholder consensus, while it we had a football club style manager making the decision alone on HS2 there would be uproar.

So where does this leave us? Are we exploring the limits of consensual decision-making? The advent of new governance arrangements in health is perhaps a good current example of where through bringing together groups of stakeholders an assumption is made that the consensual approach to decision-making is most appropriate. However, the dynamics of bringing together multiple parties has disadvantages as well as assumed benefits. Successive studies suggest that when things get complicated (for this read ‘wicked’) and more and more perspectives and opinions are introduced into groups, then the more likely it is that an incidence of ‘multiple-uncertainty’ will occur. In short, there are too many holes in the process of deciding for any potential solution to fall into and be subsequently forgotten.

To avoid this inefficiency, decisions could be placed in the hands of one responsible and accountable person. The football team has not lost because the specialist coach who deals with the players in attacking roles has not done their job properly, nor is it because the players on the opposing side were better on the day. It is because the one individual at the top of the pecking order has failed to apply the correct strategy and not motivated the players well enough to win. In the post-match review, conducted usually in the full glare of the media spotlight, it is the manager who gets it in the neck because his (and remember it usually is a ‘his’) decisions were not deployed effectively during the game. On the specific issue of gender, it is worth noting that there are multiple studies which suggest that most women will be more effective than men in complex situation as they display a preference for consensual decision-making.

So, should we be concerned about whether decisions are best made in consensual or non-consensual arenas? Are we right to assume that the most effective way of leading through wicked decision is through strong individualised leadership that downplays where other stakeholders have differing ideas and preferences for solutions? In the end it may not matter and ultimately be down purely to contingency and circumstances – in some circumstances we must take others with us and in differing circumstances we need to have stand out leadership that prospers or fails on the basis that they deploy non-consensual decision-making and have the robustness and capacity to live with the public ridicule and criticism that this can bring. But we do seem to have conflicting approaches: local democracy was founded upon an add mixture of the checks and balances of consensual devision-making, yet we seem to be seeking new heroes and heroines. The committee was the place for shared and distributed responsibility, but remember that even a committee has a chairperson – their role might not be to just endorse the decision the majority comes to but also to create the conditions that are required to make a good decision.

I am a little shocked that as someone who has only a passing interest in football at best, I can now rattle off the names of managers and the clubs they lead. If top class football is a place where non-consensual decision-making is being played out with some success then we should step back and think about our approaches to open consensual decision-making in the world of public services. Would we be better served if we did have less of this and more of the singular, individualist decision-making here as well? My discomfort with this though of the potential benefits of the hero and heroine decision-makers who dismiss consensual mechanisms is equally by my bemusement at why I am interested in football after years of boredom with the game. But it seems that the football managers of today are at least asking questions of our understanding of the best approaches to decision-making in complex situation. Fancy a new job, Sir Alex?


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Building public trust in policing? The contribution of Police and Crime Commissioners, one year on

John Raine

The ‘Plebgate’ saga, which has now drawn apologies to Andrew Mitchell from three chief constables, has once again raised questions about police integrity and dented public trust and confidence in policing more generally. Building such trust was, of course, one of the Coalition Government’s arguments for introducing Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) – and, as the first anniversary of those elections is now close upon us; it seems timely to consider what difference PCCs have so far made.

It was, we all remember, an inauspicious start; with an embarrassingly low electoral turn-out (averaging less than 12 per cent) because of poor advance publicity on the new PCC role; failure to provide most voters with candidate election leaflets, and choice of a November polling date when no other local or national elections were taking place. Moreover, matters seemed to get worse in subsequent months with critical media headlines concerning the appointment of deputy commissioners and youth commissioners; reports of disagreements and discord with chief constables, and discontent over policy priorities and budget decisions.

But one year on, with PCCs becoming established in their roles, the picture has begun to look rather more settled. It is, for sure, too soon to assess the impacts – beneficial and otherwise – of the new police governance framework. But a recent round of ‘stock-take’ interviews with a small sample of PCCs (including Conservative, Labour and Independent office holders), has highlighted at least two key respects in which the directly-elected model of governance already seems distinctly different from the previous regime of Police Authorities.

First: the new PCCs are giving much more priority to public engagement – they are out and about on a near daily basis, presenting themselves and taking feedback at council meetings, in open public meetings, and indeed, in shopping precincts and market squares around their (very large) patches. They are also all actively exploiting the potential of Facebook, Twitter and other social media in reaching-out and communicating and handling considerably more direct correspondence (email and post) and telephone calls from citizens. Their public profile is already much higher than that of Police Authorities.

Second: there is a stronger sense of ‘local leadership’ to their work. The Home Office has admirably resisted the temptation to try to drive the new system and impose its own perspectives and priorities on PCCs. Although cuts in all police budgets have been driven by reductions in Home Office grants, Westminster and Whitehall have generally allowed PCCs to get on with the job locally as each considers best. As a result, there is more diversity between the PCCs with regard to their approach and priorities in the role than was previously apparent with Police Authorities.

Relationships and accountabilities with chief constables and with other criminal justice and local governance agencies are intriguingly variable, as each PCC brings their own personality and preferred style to the role. Indeed, it is clear that the different career backgrounds and experiences of each PCC are colouring and shaping their approach to the role and their priorities.

By the time of the next PCC elections – scheduled for May 2016 – it will be interesting to gauge the significance and durability of these early signs of change towards stronger democratic engagement and local accountability, and to see what, if any, are the implications for public trust and confidence in policing. At least a more lively public debate and much higher turn-out are surely to be expected next time.


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.

The managerial-political interface: strong relationships prosper in difficult times

Andrew Muter

The Chief Executive’s leadership position in Local Government operates in a different context to simple hierarchies. We all manage at the political interface – what some have termed a grey area between the hurly-burly of big P Politics and the general management of the organization. And the relationship at the core is that between the Leader and Chief Executive.

Much has been written and said about these relationships over the years. In particular, Simon Baddeley’s research has provided a fascinating insight into the way that Leaders and Chief Executives describe the way they work together. One of the recurring themes is the way that strong leadership relationships are under-pinned by shared reflections about the way the partnership works. It’s the ability to describe, express and check-back on what is happening that helps to define the relationship and build trust.

The Leader / Chief Executive relationship can come under the greatest of strain even in the best of times. Where trust hasn’t been built, or is undermined, the consequences are huge. So you might have expected that the impact of the harsh financial climate for local government over the last five years would have placed an increasing strain on that crucial interface between politics and the organization.

I doubt that the answer is so simple. In fact, it’s perhaps more likely that strong relationships will prosper in difficult times. The pressures of shrinking resources, transformational change and spiraling demand call for leaders to raise their games. This is a test for the relationship but it’s also an opportunity for synergistic co-leadership.

In our pre-recession world, the managerial-political interface was sometimes illustrated through the development of policies. The dividing line was that although the development and discussion of policies engaged senior managers and politicians, it was the politicians who decided. In today’s world, this may be no less true. But choices have narrowed and the pace and direction of change is relentless and unforgiving. Political and managerial careers may not have been planned around this destination, but we are where we are.

That relationship between Leaders and Chief Executives has been tested in this grave new world. Local government’s performance in handling the reductions in finance, showing that we are fleet of foot in comparison with almost every other area of public service, suggests that we might be optimistic about the resilience of our political and managerial leaders.

In a recent meeting I watched a Leader and Chief Executive of another council explaining how they were planning to deal with the challenges ahead. Their explanation was clear, compelling and seamless. The tone and content of their sentences melded with one another into a seamless narrative. They had not rehearsed their approach – they had lived it, breathed it.

In time, we may have a new academic analysis which sheds light on the stresses and strains of leadership during the austerity years. Here’s hoping it shines a light on strong and successful leadership relationships forged in the heat of battle.


Andrew Muter is the Chief Executive of Newark and Sherwood District Council.

Relational leadership, group dynamics and personal identity

Kim Ryley

There is a general consensus from researchers that many of the skills and behaviours of leadership can be learned and acquired. But recent research in the United States and Britain, on the particular challenges facing public sector leaders over the next ten years, has revealed not only the need for a new skills set, but also the importance of these being underpinned by a particular personal mindset and attributes. Indeed, these explicit values, attitudes and behaviours appear essential to operating effectively in the emerging new environment – not least in generating the support and loyalty of others that will be necessary to shape the development of that environment.

It is already clear that the leaders of our public services must prepare for the future on the basis of dramatic, fundamental and irreversible change. The complexity, scale and speed of this paradigm shift requires an unusual degree of adaptability, tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity, and the courage and resilience to take responsibility for inventing the future without the benefit of any clear blueprint to follow. The adaptive challenges involved in this are not the same as previous technical problems – they cannot be fixed by experts!

In this context, leadership is not simply about creating shared intellectual understanding. Rather it is about engendering the trust necessary to persuade and motivate people to let go of what is now expendable. Overcoming the emotional resistance involved in this is about overtly challenging the beliefs, identities and feelings that will obstruct the extensive innovation necessary to thrive in the “new normal”. That is why leadership of change is so difficult – it threatens people’s sense of professional identity and self worth.

Fundamentally, the new leadership approach is about changing behaviour, through the distribution and acceptance of loss, so that people can, themselves, make the changes necessary to adapt to the new reality that is now emerging. Whole system leadership of “place” in local public services means acting in conjunction with politicians, partners, staff and local communities to create cohesion around what needs to be done, through shared identity and purpose, and a new sense of reciprocity or “neighbourliness”.

Tomorrow’s public sector leaders will be those who feel compelled to connect with others, As well as being politically astute, they will understand the dynamics of power, be able to read other people’s behaviour, and have the credibility to secure co-operation beyond their formal authority, Like a good Buddhist, their role will be to break through the illusion of constancy by inviting uncertainty, to challenge the status quo – and to change behaviour. But, doing this will depend on them being able to demonstrate that they live the values that drive them.

The changing views of local authority leadership emerging from research surveys of council chief executives by SOLACE in the UK, and of city managers by IMCA in the United States, rate highly the ability to manage complex inter-relationships and inter-dependencies. Indeed, performance is likely to be evaluated increasingly in terms of expert use of the enabling skills necessary to create new alliances, as well as to facilitate and operate in (formal and informal) networks. These include conflict management, negotiation, problem solving and communication. The challenge for leaders in this collaborative context is to be both authoritative and participative.

What the new research also shows, however, is that successful leadership in this context will depend on behaviour and individual attributes which engage and instil confidence in potential collaborators. These attributes include being:

  • Open Minded
  • Flexible
  • Positive
  • Patient
  • Persistent
  • Decisive
  • Risk taking
  • Reflective
  • Accessible
  • Accountable
  • Friendly
  • Trustworthy
  • Unselfish
  • Honest
  • Respectful
  • Empathic
  • Attuned to others
  • Ethical
  • Committed/Passionate
  • Consistent

For leaders of complex social systems, relationships and relatedness will be primary, all else will be derivative. The new research has illustrated what skills public sector leaders need in future to be effective. But it shows also that they are extremely unlikely to actually be effective unless they also pay attention to how they exercise those new skills – and keep their attitudes and behaviours under constant observation, as others will.


Kim Ryley is a recent Past President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and a Trustee of the Leadership Centre. He has 14 years experience as a Chief Executive in four upper tier local authorities. Kim is currently a freelance Leadership Development Consultant and Director of Torque Leadership Associates Ltd.

Keeping the door open to new ideas on leadership: Why the public sector may be leading the way

Ian Briggs

In 1981, Ralf Stogdill published with Bernie Bass a taxonomy of leadership research. To scholars of leadership this Magnus opus has performed two vital functions: firstly, it has been invaluable in keeping open cathedral doors in a gale;  and secondly as a work of undoubted scholarly value that it is has served to demonstrate how often confused and misplaced a great deal of leadership research in the past has been.

What is not always adequately reflected in the literature and in much of the teaching of leadership is that many of its core concepts are often based in the struggle to better understand how politicians operate.  This has, at times, been lost in translation when it is applied to occupational, industrial and military settings.

Until comparatively recent times much teaching and learning of leadership as a topic has been done through trying to better understand the key characteristics of those who in history have been seen to be successful. This has led to students digesting biographies of the ‘great and the good’ – even today in military settings it is not unusual to be encouraged to read about Alexander the Great and extrapolate from his great achievements how campaigns can be led today.

It is therefore hardly surprising that we are socialised into thinking that to be an effective leader one has to be ‘charismatic’ – this is a term that is loosely banded about to describe an engaging individual who can illicit the support and followership of others. And lest we forget there is still a huge industry out there promoting these ideas, which seem to remain highly attractive to current and budding politicians.

At the forefront of our current understanding of leadership practice, we find the words ‘transactional ‘and ‘transformational’ regularly appearing. In current lingua franca, transactional is taken to mean ‘poor’ and transformational is applied to those who are seen as being effective, ‘with it’ and engaged with current trends. However, many students of political science may recognise these terms as being applied to political leaders; where transactional political leadership is …”vote for me and I will make you better off through reduced taxes” and transformational is…”vote for me and I will do my level best to create a better, fairer world”. But returning to Stogdill’s great taxonomy we can also see that leadership as an issue, a topic and as a matter of scholarly understanding is defined by having sudden leaps of understanding with longer periods of plateaus and stagnation.

I think now we are potentially at a point where that next great leap of understanding is rapidly approaching – and it may be arising from the world of current politics and wider society. Recently we have seen a senior Minister avoiding a critical leadership issue – stating that the decision whether to allow the wearing of the hijab as a clinician or nurse should be a matter for local agreement. I thinkthat should be something where a politician can demonstrate clear leadership and stand in the ground where opinion is firmly divided. Is it ducking the issue to say this is a matter for local agreement, or it is a reflection of the changing expectations we have of those who we elect to stand in this ground?

As I write this I am preparing for some sensitive work that is attempting to reconcile differences of expectation where senior politicians are giving political oversight to what are referred to as megaprojects – think aircraft carriers, HS2, locating nuclear power generation sites and the like – many of these megaprojects being right at the heart of concern for local government and local people as well as parliamentarians. But it would seem that those drawn from professional sources that operate in the role of programme and project managers are at times failing to understand the political pressures placed upon elected representatives. Politicians, too, are failing to grasp the challenges inherent in megaprojects. What is abundantly clear is that whilst some see a leadership issue at the core of such challenges, there is not one clear off the shelf leadership model that fills the gap.

It is at that crucial, pivotal point where political aspiration comes into contact with managerial competence that we need to explore a new language of leadership. Perhaps both sides of the equation are doing what they should do; politicians are articulating social aspiration and managers and professionals are applying well known, tried and trusted mechanisms of project and programme management. However, they need a ‘Babel fish’ (with due respect to Douglas Adams and that most useful of all managerial textbooks – the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy) to fully understand each other and each other’s roles.

Perhaps we need to develop a new model of leadership, one where the long term success (or otherwise) of leadership can only be judged by those who will step into the shoes of the leaders of today, a model of leadership that accepts that quick wins are just not possible and that we have to encourage leaders to think beyond the immediacy of the delivery of milestones and concentrate upon how they pass on their leadership much like we as humans do when we pass on our DNA!

But Stogdill’s taxonomy reveals that where we have enjoyed in the past great leaps forward in our understanding of leadership, it seems to have corresponded well with periods of plenty and economic growth. If we are to face another six years of austerity the question remains: from where are the resources to come from to help us capitalise upon the learning we need to engage today? It could be that when the fourth edition of this taxonomy appears we will have a new chapter that offers clear explanations of the ‘pivotal role of leaders in meeting social expectation’ drawn from how we managed to deal with complex, wicked problems of new high speed rail, aircraft carriers for the new age, new environmentally friendly towns and how we managed to generate new sources of energy. But, unless someone throws a bit of money towards us to help research this phenomena then that chapter will take a little longer to write and the current edition will continue to hold open the cathedral door in a gale.


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.