Doing Council business differently: Part 2 – Leadership

Not long ago, an Exeter city councillor on the Executive said to me that he might be called old-fashioned but he saw it as his job, having been elected, to take the right decisions as he saw them.  He was right: he is old-fashioned.

Whether councillors like it or not, the paternalistic or top-down model of local governance is no longer fit for purpose.  The stories in the Where We Are Now section of this blog demonstrate this.  Faced with sustained expenditure cuts imposed by a central government hostile to the concept of public services and the ever-increasing dominance of “out-sourced” services operated for private profit, local government needs more than ever to win the trust -and support – of its citizens and demonstrate its commitment to serving communities.

My previous post on Engagement sets out one key strand in the process of regaining trust.  But that is unlikely to happen without a change in the concept of leadership by councils.  In a book [1] that should be mandatory reading for all council leaderships – politicians and officers alike – Professor Robin Hambleton argues persuasively that the traditional “city boss” must be replaced by a leader who facilitates rather than dictates.  He argues for a form of leadership that is dispersed rather than centralised, mobilising talents and expertise outside the council to collaborate on developing and implementing a “place-based” vision.  He warns of the risks to cohesive and sustainable communities of the “place-less” organisations, such as national land developers, major retail chains and others whose loyalties are to themselves and their shareholders rather than to local residents, businesses and environments.  The Exeter City Council’s leadership’s enthusiasm for IKEA is likely to as misplaced as its belief in the private sector being the lynchpin of the bus station site redevelopment.

The World Bank and the European Network of Living Labs have collaborated on a guidebook [2] for city leaders who want to encourage innovation.  It recognises that technological change which is simply imposed from above will not generate the benefits sought by that change, and proposes forms of policy co-ownership in shaping the future.  In particular it foresees a model in which the nature of political trust changes, from a commitment to fulfilling promises (delivering policy objects) to a commitment to openness, transparency, inclusiveness and shared ownership (delivering policy processes).

All this is highly relevant to Exeter City Council’s ambition be in the vanguard of innovative cities.  The partnership with Exeter City Futures in delivering a transformation agenda is a hopeful beginning [3] but we have yet to see how it will play out.  Meanwhile, there is little evidence of the top-down approach being supplanted:  an emerging project tells us that the city’s mantra is “Exeter. Live Better”, though it’s not clear that those of us who live here wake up every morning reciting it; and – more seriously – the ruling group this month rushed through a decision to demolish a Council-owned sports facility and sell off the land – potentially including open green space – for housing without any pretence of public engagement [4].

Political leaders can lead.  But in 21st century democracies the divergence between leading and telling needs to grow more strongly than ever.  One of the most valuable forms of local political leadership is to lead on the identification of issues for debate, and perhaps even lead the debate itself.  Yet it has to be an inclusive debate, which shows the council is listening, responding and developing key policies and plans which are visibly shaped by that debate.

There are rumours of an impending change in the leadership of the Exeter City Council’s ruling group.  This is an opportunity for a transformation to a more inclusive and facilitative leadership style, and it isn’t tokenism to suggest that the most suitable new leaders reside within the group’s female membership.  Watch that space.

 

NOTES

[1] Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet, Robin Hambleton, Policy Press, 2015.

[2] Citizen-Driven Innovation: A guidebook for city mayors and public administrators. World Bank and the European Network of Living Labs, 2015. Available via http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/629961467999380675/Citizen-driven-innovation-a-guidebook-for-city-mayors-and-public-administrators

[3] See https://www.exetercityfutures.com/news/exeter-city-futures-strengthens-partnership-exeter-city-council/

[4] See https://exeter.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/sport-and-leisure/our-leisure-facilities/clifton-hill-sports-centre/

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