21st Century Councillor – some thoughts on future skills and roles

By Michael Hyatt, previously of Shropshire Council and soon to be made Research Fellow at University of Chester @michaeljhyatt

The excellent thinkers and bloggers @mangancatherine and @DrCNeedham at Inlogov’s thought provoking 21st Century Public Servant project have asked for contributions about what sorts of skills will be needed by councillors in the future. In particular, they’re asking questions about how councillors and officers can work more effectively in an ‘experimental and reflective’ way, and use social media to more effectively complement other forms of engagement.

Having worked in the past few years with OPM on the very successful Unlocking community capacity project in Shropshire (which supported councillors to think afresh about their roles), and, variously, with elected members at neighbourhood, parish, district, county and unitary in executive, scrutiny and community roles, I’ve been giving this tricky question some initial thought.

Firstly, it seems to me that national (or rather English) policy on leadership and democracy within local government is pulling in at least two (possibly contradictory) directions and has been for at least 15 or so years.

On the one hand there’s a strand that emphasises the almost heroic, but certainly the individual and charasmatic role of the directly elected mayor. Here the stated intentions are often portrayed in strident tones as ‘cutting through the red-tape’, ‘banging heads together’ and ‘giving strong leadership’. In its most recent incarnation, the Northern Powerhouse, this aspect of leadership policy (supported by both major UK-wide parties) emphasises the importance of a single individual ‘holding the reins’ of power that are currently diffused across a range of organisations. George Osborne, as reported in the Birmingham Mail about negotiations in the West Midlands summarised his argument for this kind of leadership as,

“Obviously, and this is a point I made to the council leaders today, if you go to the full model of total control over transport, then there’s got to be some accountability. Local people who pay their taxes need to make sure that they can hold power to account and they know who carries the can if things go wrong.

“And in every other major western country the best model for doing that has been to have an elected mayor. London has had one for 20 years and now Greater Manchester is choosing to have one so if you want to go for the full model with all or many of the local decisions taken here, then you have got to have some accountabilty and some democracy. The mayor model works best.”

On the other hand though, there have been a succession of UK policy initiatives – including Total Place and Community Budgets which have emphasised a more nuanced, complex approach to leadership of place. These, starting back in 2008 with the Leadership Centre’s Calling Cumbria (pdf)  (on which I worked), have tried to position the role of elected members in a more networked, less hierarchical relationship with other key local agencies.

Although clearly divergent in many key aspects of their approach, both strands of national policy (focusing on the individual, and on the network) have, at times, had a turbulent relationship with the conventional elected member role. Both have also had an interesting and not necessarily consistent impact on relationships with communities and citizens too. It’s these tensions and impacts I’d like to focus on in the rest of this blog because I think they point to some of the skills that I think are going to be key for the next twenty or so years.

Taking the individual ‘heroic leader’ strand first, I think the challenge is going to be how to successfully blend the desire (at national and individual levels) for clear-sighted, highly-visible leadership with the need and ability to listen and respond. How can leaders be seen to listen, reflect, negotiate and adapt their policies to respond to other voices without appearing ‘weak’ or ‘flip-flop’? How will they work effectively with other elected representatives? How, at a time of ever increasing globalisation – economically, socially, environmentally – is it possible for single individuals to demonstrate credible authority and mastery of their brief whilst also engendering effective democracy of the people, by the people?

One of the key skills here, for me, is going to be the ability to sustain an effective discussion and dialogue with the electorate that goes way beyond the electoral cycle. I’m concerned that the mayoral model encourages us to think ‘our’ job as voters is done at the ballot box, then it’s ‘over to you’. This doesn’t seem to be a model that resonates at all well with Millennial Generation. As the Roosevelt Institute in America observes;

“Millennials don’t want a government that just talks at them. They want to build it together”,

“We [Millennials] want to build systems that meet us where we are, that is, in community-based service projects, where we see things directly change as a result of our voices, ideas, and action. In short, we need complementary systems that create the sort of direct connection not found in our representative democracy.”

How leaders reconcile this rather existential tension is, I think, extremely significant. If mayors (or similar) are to be successful additions to UK governance, we need to reflect on international examples of how they have been supported to reach out and engage in this kind of activist way, complementing (and thereby ultimately shoring up) representative democracy. How can we support mayors to engage with much more locally identified representatives? Without this effort, I fear that in many places, local democracy will increasingly become hollowed out and thus even less relevant to significant sectors of the population.

In situations without mayors, or more generally, wherever mayors inevitably have to work with a range of organisations they don’t directly control, how can we support those we elect to work in a nuanced and networked environment? Here again, I think one of the key skills is going to need to be that rare combination of self-confidence with just the right dose of humility. Networked leaders are going to need to recognise and value other perspectives and assimilate and synthesise evidence from an increasingly massive pool of insight.

To work effectively within this complexity, representatives are going to need to be masters of communication, with highly tuned antenna enabling them to listen in to conversations (not always directed to them) but also able to filter out the noise that comes from a world where we’ve all become our own broadcasters. This is going to need some sophisticated mastery of social media that goes beyond, but learns from both the potential and the pitfalls of Clicktivism. It’s going to need to be a kind of leadership which can recognise significant insights from social media but which can deploy some traditional political skills – in mobilising, empowering and giving a voice to social movements – in new ways, to turn ‘clicks’ into action and change.

For me, this is also going to have to come back to a perpetual paradox at the heart of local leadership – namely the balance of potentially sharing aspects of organisational power with others in order to gain much more system-wide influence. The best local leaders I’ve worked with have always ‘got’ this paradox instinctively. They’ve recognised that leadership styles need to flex with the environment in which they operate to be most effective.

Crucially though, leadership in this kind of networked environment also needs to be able to demonstrate clarity about where power and influence lies, and how the electorate can engage effectively with those sources of power. In another American example, the Commonsense Action blog, a bipartisan initiative run by Millennials across campuses in the USA, Nikki Hager, a senior Political Science and Economics Major at University of Tulsa said,

Oklahoma democracy is indeed broken. Voter turnout remains abysmally low. Young people especially are largely left out of the political process. Politics are dominated not by innovation and compromise but by partisan gridlock and stagnation.

How 21st Century Councillors are going to effectively navigate a path between ‘heroic’ but potentially disengaged leadership on the one hand, and ‘networked’ but quite possibly gridlocked and stagnated leadership on the other? This is really the central challenge for me.

I do remain optimistic and convinced that this issue – at the heart of democratic renewal – is now entering a new and exciting phase however. Tony Blair, in his latest intervention in the Labour Leadership elections, in Sunday’s Observer, concluded that the success of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign was, for his generation, almost inexplicable and part of ‘something much bigger in politics’, ‘transformative’ and giving ‘people like me a lot of thinking to do’…

“Because it is a vast wave of feeling against the unfairness of globalisation, against elites, against the humdrum navigation of decision-making in an imperfect world”

This phrase – the ‘humdrum navigation of decision making in an imperfect world’ makes a fascinating coda to this debate. To outsiders (and let’s face it some insiders too), much of local government remains ‘humdrum’ and somewhat impenetrable to navigate. Yet it’s dealing with issues – the environment, contested resources, key local facilities, future lives – which are central to most people’s day-to-day concerns. How can 21 Century Councillors overcome the traditional (often unfair) municipal stereotypes to become authentic, effective, engaged and networked representatives of their communities?

If national political figures are recognising (although confused by) the wildly divergent signals their electorates are sending about disatisfaction with aspects of the conventional political ‘system’ / ‘elite’, then maybe it’s time local government, with its proven ability to innovate and experiment, puts into practice some radical new approaches.

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