Elected Mayors and Combined Authorities: the exchange of power and influence

Catherine Staite

The West Midlands Combined Authority is consulting on the way in which power will be distributed between the CA and the new, directly elected mayor, who’ll be in post from May 2017.

The current proposals, which are pretty much in-line with those being consulted on in Greater Manchester and the Sheffield City Region, are that the mayor will have the powers delegated by central government, that the Leaders of the councils that comprise the Combined Authority will be part of the mayor’s cabinet, thereby retaining significant control over the powers they’ve already pooled and there’ll be some joint areas of responsibility.

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Glass ceilings and Tokyo’s new woman governor

Chris Game

Give an academic a metaphor and they’re – start as you mean to go on – like a pig in clover. They’ll squeeze it till its pips squeak. Take the glass ceiling – which, certainly when first launched, seemed an OK metaphor for the unacknowledged barrier(s) to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities.

But then we had glass cliffs and glass escalators, and not even glass, but solid, ledges – and I rather lost interest. So I’m back to glass ceilings, the big difficulty with which, it always seemed to me, comes when you start celebrating their shattering. Because – as any schoolboy cricket enthusiast learns early, if expensively – cracked or even smithereened glass is very easily replaceable, possibly even by something more resilient.

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Tough Luck or Rough Justice?

John W. Raine

Why don’t more motorists who are unsuccessful in challenging Council-Imposed Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) take their cases further to independent adjudication at the Traffic Penalty Tribunal?

Probably most readers of the paragraphs below will, at some time or other, have had the misfortune to incur a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) for a parking or a ‘moving traffic’ contravention (e.g. driving in a bus lane); and will have experienced the feelings of frustration and self-reproach (at being caught out) and exasperation, and not a little anger, (at the seeming intransigence of the council in persisting in enforcing the penalty charge, despite the written explanations and apologies proffered in mitigation).

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Lords a leaping….to the rescue?

Anthony Mason

A series of significant defeats by the House of Lords to the Housing and Planning Bill may give some comfort to households at the very bottom of the housing ladder

Catherine Staite doesn’t hold back in her criticism of the centralising tendencies of UK governments – of all political hues.  And, as might be expected from a pragmatic academic, she excoriates government for making policy with no apparent reference to evidence.  Her most recent blog on these linked subjects (one of many) also brings local government into the line of fire.

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What should Local Gov be doing next digitally?

Sarah Lay

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to take part in an event for managers from three Nottinghamshire district councils. It was one part of a longer programme of talks and workshops for them as they explored different areas of organisational process and strategic direction.

Hosted by Dr Stephen Jeffares, a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Birmingham my part was to be interviewed about all things digital and share some of my experience and thoughts with the group.

I really enjoyed the chat and talking not only about my most recent work at Nottinghamshire County Council on Digital First but further back over the 12 years I’ve been in local government, further back to the other experience of working online in private sector and as a regular user, and also to the founding and growth of LocalGov Digital.

There were lots of good questions from the group about situations they could see or had experienced in their own organisations and there was one question which really got me thinking: if back in 2008/2009 I was working at getting local authorities to recognise they should and could use social media and that’s now happening, what is it I’m tell councils they should be doing next, digitally?

There was a slightly flippant reply from me that councils while better at social media (and I include other areas of digital engagement in this term, such as email and text message) still weren’t making the most of it, generally, and certainly not keeping pace with the expectations of the public in this area. If they had started using it, they were still falling back to broadcast mode on many occasions, and it was a rare example indeed that had moved toward an fully integrated use of social media; in my view they are often using the technology as an informing tool but were not valuing the conversation for intelligence and influence. And just for clarity – when I talk of intelligence and influence I mean not manipulation but rather then leaving ego and ‘authority’ at the log-in and taking the relevant and appropriate place in online communities.

In terms of what I thought they should be looking to next – well, again, a lot of the ideas and statements of the last 12 years still stand summarised as: build better public services, stop doing the wrong digital things in a fairly average way.

But, again, this is flippant of me. What does that really mean? Well, at the time I said something about how councils need to stop thinking of digital as a presentation layer and move toward service design where digital is one, albeit quite powerful, means of delivery. I think local government needs to stop seeing digital as a prettier web page that will magically mean channel shift occurs and start to understand something more fundamental, more difficult – that harsh times and a changed world need radical redesign of services. They need to challenge themselves, or be challenged, to design better public services from the inside out.

So, that’s the what I think. The how?  Well it starts with not containing digital to a ‘digital team’ but seeing service design as a wider activity. It’s something that needs to take in procurement, and contracting, and IT, and HR, and leadership, and the community, and the service. It needs to be co-produced – not just tested with real users. We need to learn that services built in silos are experienced in bits – and this is never going to be best for the user, and if it’s not best for them it won’t unlock the things the organisation wants; savings and satisfaction.

There is no ‘quick win’, or silver bullet, or any of those other buzz words for short cut.

What do I think council’s need to do next? Arguably what they should have long ago done – stop thinking about ‘doing digital’ and start thinking about ‘better services first, better digital delivery as an outcome.’

Much thanks to Dr Stephen Jeffares for inviting me to be interviewed and to the group for their time and questions!


Sarah Lay is the co-founder of LocalGov Digital.  You can find her on Twitter and find out more about her recent work with Nottinghamshire County Council on their blog.

This blog was first published on  www.sarahlay.com.

Time for an end to parent/child relationship with central government and sibling rivalry between local authorities

Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV

It is universally recognized that England has the most centralised government in the western world. This is the result of many years of effort on the part of successive Conservative, Labour and Coalition governments. Motivations have varied between different governments but some key drivers have operated for the past 30 years.

Ideologically motivated governments don’t like power to rest with anyone they can’t control, including other parties or dissident factions within their own party. Even when the centralising motivations are more benign, for example, the avoidance of ‘postcode lotteries’, the results are rarely better.

Self-belief trumps evidence and makes governments vulnerable to airport book management gurus. For example, ‘Nudge’ theory is not the magic key to changed behaviour and reduced demand for public services.  There is a wealth of evidence about how a variety of approaches, applied coherently and intelligently, can have a significant and lasting impact on behaviour. To understand that, politicians would either need to read more than one book on their holidays or commission some research.

Centralisation creates a trap for central government because, by controlling so many aspects of local services, they set themselves up to fail. If they claim the ability to solve all ills, they become responsible for all ills. Central governments make disastrous micromanagers in spite of misplaced confidence in their superior intellect and technocratic abilities. They may take a helicopter view of a complex system and believe that by tinkering with one part of the system they can resolve all the problems within the system. The result is inevitable; a myriad of unintended consequences that then drive more centralized tinkering.   The numerous attempts to integrate health and social care demonstrate how helicopter-height theory doesn’t survive contact with ground-level cultural, professional and financial realities.

Centralisation disempowers local government and reduces its ability to work innovatively and creatively with the wider local public sector, business and community partners. The apparent empowerment, purportedly offered by policy or statute, is continually undermined by the constraints of the parent/child relationship characterised by regulation (‘my house, my rules’) as well as messy and inequitable funding arrangements (‘no you may not have more pocket money’).

But are these long established patterns of structural, functional and psychological centralization about to change? Talk of devolution and financial independence may lead you to think so – but think again. The underpinning relationship is still parent/child, as highlighted recently by Analysis on Radio 4 .

Now, some local authorities are making matters worse by demonstrating plenty of dysfunctional behaviour of their own, in the form of sibling rivalry. The mantra, ‘its not fair’ is used by many local politicians – about the actions of the county, the neighbouring unitary or by the next door district. True, there is plenty of unfairness built into the system but there is no hope of resolving that while different parts of the sector are engaged in internecine battles that only result in more inequity, more vitriol and more hostile takeover bids driven by more by narrow interests than the creation of public value.

Many local authorities do demonstrate heroic and commendable behavior, collaborating and supporting each other. Even the best of them find it hard going in the face of so many systemic challenges. Local government is too complicated. There are too many local authorities, capacity is spread too thinly and the costs of democracy are too high. Piecemeal tinkering, in the form of small-scale reorganizations, minor changes to functions and governance, spin-offs and bolt-ons, have only made matters worse. This has been going on for so long that everyone now takes it all for granted – but it’s not inevitable. Some grown up actions would put local government on the road to adulthood and more in control of it’s own destiny.

  • Establish a cross party commission to review all the key drivers for financial and structural change in local government. Perhaps the LGA, SOLACE and CIPFA could work together to set up a commission.
  • Agree Terms of Reference – ideally to be driven by evidence and the public good and as bold, radical and creative in their recommendations as possible, to;
    • Design a new geography – that combines economies of scope and scale with recognizable places. It won’t be perfect because there are always borderlands but it will at least be underpinned by some design principles, as opposed to the current system which is the creature of a series of historical constructs and the intermittent application of political whims.
    • Design a new geometry – that enables local authorities to have much greater impact on all the ‘wicked’ issues – from low educational attainment to obesity – which are at the root of many of the relentless and unsustainable pressures on public services. This geometry could include flexible, integrated governance arrangements, ranging from large clusters of councils tackling the infrastructure challenges (let’s call them Combined Authorities), to neighbourhood level engagement which co-produces solutions to local issues.
    • Design a new funding model – with a system of income generation and redistribution, that combines maximum autonomy with maximum equity, agreed and managed by local government for local government.

If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got – a messy, sub-optimal system of local government riven by in-fighting and self-interest. If local government continues to divide itself, it will always be ruled by others.


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.