Win ,lose or draw

The local elections have come and gone but win, lose or draw does it really matter to local government officers? After all, it is central government that makes the polices and controls the purse strings.

Senior managers in local government are, of course, politically neutral, although this doesn't mean they don't have preferences. They would never say who they want to win but who wins makes a big difference to the chief executive, directors and assistant directors.

Their preferences are not, however, determined by their own voting habits, nor by party polices, but by the style of management adopted by the party leaders. Traditionally, the Conservatives have adopted a "hands off" approach, the leader and cabinet deal with the policy and strategy and leave the day to day running of directorates to senior managers.

Labour are traditionally more "hands on", they want to get involved and know the detail. The Liberals are, as usual, a combination of both styles.  A coalition can be an officer's nightmare with no-one in overall charge, no agreement on direction, prolonged negotiations and messy compromises – but most of all having to brief three times on everything and having to keep the trust of three leaders who don't trust each other.

How officers brief their cabinet member prior to committee or cabinet meetings illustrates the different styles.

The hands off style simply requires officers to provide their reports and recommendations in advance of a meeting between the cabinet member and director. The cabinet member will have read the reports and will use the meeting to ask any points of clarification and to agree the order of reports. Reports that appear early in a meeting get most discussion latter reports are often nodded through as the meeting has spent its energy. 

The hands on style is characterised by a long line of chairs outside the cabinet members' office on which sit officers. These officers are the authors of reports and each one in turn must present their report to the cabinet member in the presence of the director. Questioning is extensive and not always relevant because the detail is explored and related issues are pursued. This meeting takes considerably longer.

Surprisingly, the hands on cabinet members are not better briefed due to the fact that they are overwhelmed by the detail and  accept they cannot retain the information for the meeting. As a result, a number of managers are asked to attend the meeting to present their reports.

Or at least that is how it used to be. Things change when those who have been out of office for a long time get in and want to change things but perhaps lack the expertise that comes with being in power for years.

The sense of urgency is particularly strong in those who have the ideological zeal and fear they may only have a short window of opportunity before the electoral pendulum swings the other way and their majority disappears.

This has been the situation for many northern authorities. So the "hands offs" have become more "hands on" as they suspect officers of dragging their feet, protecting their empires and not sharing members' enthusiasm for outsourcing services, cutting management posts and reducing support to managers. Or, as members see it, reducing bureaucracy, increasing efficiency and doing good deals with the private sector.

There are plenty of officers in these authorities who would complain that major decisions involving considerable financial and operational risk have been rushed through as a result of ideological zeal. The desire to have the lowest community charger, the most services outsourced or the most efficient services (cheapest) lead to steamrollering debate and silencing officers.  No wonder some officers had a preference for a change.

Blair McPherson is author of 'Equipping managers for an uncertain future' published by Russell House


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