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.

The New Virtual Town Hall

Ian Briggs

They wear tweeds, ride fold up bicycles and have a strange obsession with bandstands, they are often viewed as being at the fringes of society – a minority interest group with a small but powerfully loyal following – they are those who hold dear to their hearts that our 19th century heritage should never be lost. They value the majesty of the Town Hall as a Victorian edifice that spoke of the power of the elected (or in most cases the appointed) in society – have they lost sight of the importance of downsizing public organisations, ensuring that we have a quasi retail approach to services and that we should administer them from anodyne, faceless replicants of a local branch of an insurance company?

Certainly for many within cities and towns the structures that spoke so loudly of the power of the local community served not just to reinforce the civic dignity of the individuals who were called upon to govern but also were – and perhaps still are important icons of civic place and power. True, they are a huge burden to the local purse but at a time of dwindling concern for the council (mindful of a story told a few days ago of a recent election in a ward where only 16 people bothered to vote) we perhaps need a kind of iconography to remind us all that choice and voice at a local level is so profoundly different from the way we have our political views represented at a national level that we need to have some physical representation of the distinctiveness of local democratic place.

All this came out in a conversation with a senior member at this week’s LGA conference here in Birmingham. How he was so troubled by the ‘Moulton fold up bike brigade’ (MFBB) who were repeatedly making his life such a misery with their expertise in the preservation of the civic heritage and their near obsessive persistence that large amounts of expenditure must be made to keep the Town Hall in the condition that our forefathers wished it to be in irrespective of the impact upon other services that he was genuinely afraid for his seat!  However, if we cannot afford the physical iconography can it be replaced with a virtual one? This became an interesting question – opportunities offered by social networking when exploited with care and sensitivity could perhaps replace or compound the iconography of the traditional approach to ‘civicness’? As we are developing our understanding of the community leadership role of councillors should we be thinking more about the overall impact of placing the locally elected in a virtual space as well as a physical space? These are skills that councillors are now just beginning to develop – they understand that their role extends beyond the importance of effective problem centred decision making to being the custodian of the local narrative. In the past the narrative has for many places been the Town Hall representing the power of civic dignity and profound distinctiveness of place. The contemporary narrative is one of connectedness, blending historical tradition with the requirement to maintain and better local conditions so the ‘MFBB’ of the future will look upon our ipads, tweets and blogs as worthy of preservation as much as the Victorian edifices are valued by some today. Watch out – it will happen.

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.

The 21st Century Chief Executive

Councillor Graham Chapman

It’s not only clothes and pop music which are subject to the vacillations of fashion. They affect the more mundane world of local government too. Elected mayors for example are a fashion of the ‘naughties’, when larger-than-life bankers, entrepreneurs, football managers, celebrities of all types were supposed to provide solutions to a whole range of problems by dint of pure charisma and personality.  Even the staid role of the chief executive is subject to fashion.

The traditional function of the chief executive with a legal background overseeing due process and formal decision making, gave way in the 80s to the more managerial approach, and perhaps was the heyday for the role. In the 90s and early 2000s it took another turn. Under the cover of the CPA and star ratings, where the chief executive was given a far more important role by the inspectors than the leader, and encouraged by SOLACE and the Blair Government, the ‘personality’ Chief Executive emerged. It was thankfully not totally pervasive but frequent enough to create conflict with the role of the elected members, and to increase chief executive remuneration in some cases to a point of embarrassment.  We are now going through a counter-revolution, partly because a minority of chief executives overplayed their hands, partly because of the recent antagonism whipped up against the public sector and because chief executives, as some of the most highly paid public servants, are an easy target. The counter-revolution now questions the need for the role at all and a number of authorities have abolished it, or are in the process of doing so.

My view is that chief executives are essential. A good chief executive provides continuity and integrity to the local government system, and a healthy counterpoint to political decision making. The system is part of a British tradition of local government which, being British, we do not appreciate sufficiently.  But if the role is to be accepted, de facto it does need to rid itself of some of the fashions it has been subject to and it needs to establish a set of core principles. The best, perhaps the only, set available has been devised by Roger Taylor, former chief executive of Manchester and Birmingham.  The principles should be of particular interest to the more buccaneering breed of chief executives who see themselves as more important than their members.

So here they are in précis in Roger Taylor’s own words.

1. However powerful a chief executive may seem, his/her success is always dependent upon gaining and maintaining high levels of political confidence and approval.

2. Chief executives need to develop a clear sense of the corporate  which is informed by, and contributes to, the politics of place

3. However difficult it may be for the political leadership at the time, it is vital that chief executives can demonstrate a clear moral and ethical compass and foundation to their work.

4. Chief executives are at the nexus between the democratically elected council and it’s paid servants. While they will be the leaders to the paid service, they can never allow themselves to become partisan.

5. Chief Executives must always avoid being “the story”. Some of the best chief executives are those who eschew the limelight and concentrate on the affairs of the council.

6. How well chief executives are likely to ‘gel’ with officer colleagues will always be less important than their intellectual capacity and ability to explain complex things clearly.

7. Chief executives need to have, and to demonstrate, the political skills to manage effectively in the spaces between leadership and opposition councillors.

8. Competent chief executives never need fear the working communications between their colleagues and the political leadership.

9. Chief executives need to have some empathy with the complexities and the arduous nature of leadership in the Council.

10. Chief executives who work with a political faction and against the leadership should never be trusted, especially by the political faction they work with.

11. Chief executives need always to bear in mind that neither the conferences nor the special roles pay the salary.  Chief executives constantly need to bear in mind what their day job is.

12. The heart of any relationship between leader and chief executive has to be trust, truth and tolerance.  It should never be an intimate friendship but it should always have with it an informality and an appreciation of each other’s company.

13. Leaders should have a clear idea about what they want chief executives to achieve and they should be able to rely on objective and independent support for the negotiation of these objectives and subsequent review of the chief executive’s performance.

To summarise: I have little doubt that the move to abolish the role of chief executive will turn out to be the most ephemeral of the fads and that those authorities trying to survive without one will return to the fold. However, it does not mean that the role does not need shoring up and insulating from the sum of the political and, often self-induced, managerial opportunism to which is has been subject. Roger Taylor’s list of dos and don’ts is a good start.

Graham Chapman is the Deputy Leader of Nottingham City Council, and the Portfolio Holder for Economic Development, Resources and Regeneration.  He is a Councillor for Aspley Ward.

A ‘no’ vote for city mayors does not have to shut down discussion on how local political leadership can be strengthened

Dr. Karin Bottom

Last week, ten English cities voted on whether  to alter the dynamics of leadership in their authorities and replace the current leader and cabinet formula with that of elected mayor, deputy and cabinet.  The rejection was almost unanimous, only Bristol registered a yes vote – but with a majority of less than seven per cent – and more than 60% of voters in Coventry, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield and Wakefield   prioritised the status quo above change.   To some this outcome was a surprise, yet  polls prior to the referenda were inconclusive at best and taken in conjunction with the uncertainty surrounding elected mayors, it is hardly surprising that the majority of the electorate chose to stay at home or vote no, average turnout being recorded at a particularly  low 32 per cent.

With a focus on what the office of mayor could do to regenerate cities  and enhance local democracy,  ‘yes’ campaigns were beset with problems from the  start, not least for the reason that pre election, the role of the elected mayor was to be broadly similar to that of council leader: specifics were to be negotiated after taking office and worryingly for some, a substantial amount of the role’s leverage would be the product of personality and an ability to maximise what are often termed as ‘soft’  powers.  Compounding these factors, the office’s confinement to cities – as opposed to regions – suggested that capacity for real change was somewhat more limited than proponents suggested.

Analysis in the aftermath of the referenda suggests that a number of factors contributed to the ‘no’ votes but it  is clear that the overriding sentiments within the electorate were uncertainty and confusion.  Voters were unsure about what they were being asked to endorse or reject and some argue that this explains why the   ‘no’ campaigns were particularly successful at tapping into and harnessing public sentiment.  Taken in the context of austerity, ongoing public service cuts and a generalised dissatisfaction with the political class, it is easy to speculate and suggest that the electorate was unenthusiastic about electing more politicians, especially when the nature of the role was unclear and guidelines for removing poorly performing mayors were minimal to say the very least: to many the office seemed nothing other than a risky and unnecessary expense.

Yet, the results on May 3rd should not shut down discussion on local political leadership. The mayoral model may have been rejected but the issue has not gone away; arguments for stronger more visible city leadership persist and the government has made it clear that it now sees the move towards elected mayors as incremental, cumulative and progressive: in this sense the debate continues.  Yet, now it might be useful to shift the focus somewhat and think about how leadership can be nurtured and maximised in the 339 non mayoral authorities in England because there is nothing to suggest that the qualities which comprise strong leadership sit only within the purview of  an elected mayor.  While  Joe Anderson and Ian Stewart take up their new mayoral posts  in Liverpool and Salford, they do so alongside 124 other English authorities which also underwent some form of political reconfiguration last week: it will be interesting to see  whether  the issues which catalysed the mayoral referenda will impact on future leadership dynamics in those local  authorities.

Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory.  She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.

Getting It Right for Victims of Crime

Professor John W. Raine

In January the Coalition Government announced its proposal to transfer funding of Victim Support, the national charity that provides support to victims of crime, to the soon-to-be-elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for each force area of England and Wales.  The idea of ‘local commissioning’, of course, fits well with the wider ‘localism’ agenda but has raised fears of inconsistency in service provision (especially if PCCs choose to spend their money on more electorally attractive issues), of lower professional standards (through fragmentation of training) and increased administrative costs (with forty two local management structures rather than one national one).  Unsurprisingly, Victim Support is strongly opposed to the proposals.

However, there is a strong case to be made for a mix of both national and local commissioning.  National commissioning by the Ministry of Justice (of a universal support service for victims and witnesses) is vital to the maintenance of existing high standards.  In this respect, Victim Support is best placed to provide the service – having all the experience and the systems infrastructure in place for receiving referrals from the police of all reported crimes and making contact to offer support.  But there is much to be gained by also empowering local Police and Crime Commissioners to ‘top up’ this national base-line service by procuring services at the local level tailored to area-specific needs, for example, in crime hot-spots, and in localities beset by certain offences, such hate crime.

Most important, it is to be born in mind that a significant proportion of crime goes unreported to the police and therefore there are many victims of crime who se contact details are not known to Victim Support yet who would benefit from receiving support.  Domestic violence is particularly relevant here.  A recent ‘MumsNet’ poll of 1,600 users revealed that 83 per cent of women who had been victims of rape or serious sexual assault had not reported their victimisation to the police.

For this reason, ‘out-reach’ work in local communities needs to form a vital element of any comprehensive strategy for supporting victims, alongside national police referral systems to Victim Support.  Local commissioning by PCCs could help identify and meet particular local needs for support among victims who do not report to the police for whatever reason.

Recently, INLOGOV undertook evaluative research for Victim Support on a series of such ‘out-reach’ projects, some involving the establishment of community ‘drop-in centres’ (where no prior reporting or appointments are needed), and others deploying specialist workers in domestic violence and hate crime and operating in particularly disadvantaged neighbourhoods[1].  A key lesson from the research is that local commissioning of such community-based victim support services can usefully complement the national framework of provision from Victim Support in ‘getting it right for victims of crime’.

John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  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).

[1] The findings from this research are summarised in Raine JW, Merriam M, Beech A, and A Sanders (2012) ‘Reaching Out: Improving Access for Victims of Crime’, London: Victim Support.