Crossing the divide
13 October, 2005

Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Municipal Journal

In the world of office politics – especially in the public sector – there are a few universal truths that emerge from time to time. One is that there will always be tensions between those who direct change and those who implement it. The relationship between political leadership and senior officers can sometimes depend on the comparative strengths of an elected mandate versus a permanent specialist expertise. In central government there are, in theory, long-standing conventions to determine how decisions are taken and implemented, though the temptation for caricature can be overwhelming. In one episode of ‘Yes Minister’ these tensions boiled over into a classic case of civil-service speak…

Sir Humphrey: “Minister, I have something to say to you which you may not like to hear.”
Jim Hacker: “Why should today be any different?”
Sir Humphrey: “Minister, the traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the ministerial incumbent from the administrative minutiae by devolving the managerial functions to those whose experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their political overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted position.”
Jim Hacker: “I wonder what made you think I didn’t want to hear that?”

Dysfunctional relationships between civil servants and Ministers can result in catastrophe – most visibly by the resignation of a crest-fallen politician. But sometimes a breakdown in relations results in circumstances where staff can feel fearful of garish behaviour from their decision-maker, or on the other hand where teams are left without direction or with conflicting priorities.

The same is true in our local authorities. In local government, the relationship between Council Leader and Chief Executive is of central importance to the health of the organisation as a whole. If the leadership feels unable to direct the machine so that they can fulfil their commitment to local electors, then frustrations will build and build. Conversely, if the chief executive is unable to communicate problems and issues clearly to their political head, then difficulties will go unresolved and will compound.

Healthy relationships are borne out of trust in the professionalism of leading officers and out of clarity and maturity from political leaders. This trust requires deep reserves of patience and charismatic diplomacy on the part of a modern chief executive, because the recruitment process for local political leaders does not exactly guarantee high standards of management capability! Successful chief executives are respected across the political divide within authorities, and cultivating that respect is important for maintaining independence and also for the shrewd anticipation of changes in political complexion. How best to succeed? An ability to listen and act decisively, an ability to empathise with political priorities, and an ability to challenge and pose alternative options in a non-confrontational manner are all key skills.

The changing nature of local government means that leader and chief executive need to lash themselves to the mast of public policy development, always looking ahead jointly at opportunities for inward investment, both from public and private sources. Team building internally becomes especially important, so that the councillor leadership team can mesh successfully with senior management.

In an age where bridges with other agencies and Local Area Agreements are all the rage, a dynamic leader and chief exec partnership should be team building externally as well, proactively knocking on the door of leading local firms and public bodies. The unique democratic mandate of local authorities means that the top team should not just focus on council service issues, but on providing a lead to a whole city or district. The days when chief executives took a behind the scenes role are over – a trusting partnership between political leader and senior manager should see politicians relaxed about leading officers in the public arena.

Coping with crises and emergency situations are circumstances where local leadership can come to the fore, and in recent times we can all see how this can work well or fail badly. As a former Cabinet Office Minister who had responsibility for civil contingencies at the time of September 11th 2001 I know that preparedness at the top of an organisation – including political leaders – is worth emphasising and thinking through and rehearsing.

We know that CPA success has always focused on how well the centre of a council functions and quite right too – the bigger picture matters in any public sector organisation, and good working relationships, sharing problems and discussing innovative ideas, are symptoms of wider organisational achievement. So when the next opportunity for building bridges between leaders and officers presents itself, grasp that chance, or the curse of ‘Yes Minister’ may well be nearer than you think.