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Networking or hierarchies? The future is here to stay

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

Today’s top swipe at the government (always the deserving source of a good moan) came from the Solent, where council leaders expressed disappointment over a minister’s communication - or lack of it.

Having been told second-hand in a letter to their local MP that their devolution bid had failed, leaders of Portsmouth and Southampton city councils and Isle of Wight Council said they felt “disappointed” that Jake Berry, the minister responsible for devolution, had failed to inform them directly.

The three authorities submitted a proposal to establish a combined authority with an elected mayor two years ago, but councillors said the bid hadn’t been supported by local MPs and the government couldn’t risk losing their votes.

Portsmouth City Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson (Lib Dem) said it was “beyond disappointing” that the government had responded “without even the courtesy of notifying the three councils that submitted it”.

And while the reason for the decision may have been purely political, the means in which it was communicated can be seen as indicative of a wider problem related to the government’s operating culture.

Whitehall’s culture of hierarchy, ever resistant to change and insistent on top-down communication, had left out local politicians and created another instance of the government not living up to the expectations of today’s hyper-connected world.

John Kotter, leadership professor at the Harvard Business School, even argues that this opposition to change is a natural result of the culture of hierarchy.

“[Hierarchy] strives to eliminate anomaly, standardise processes, solve short-term problems, and achieve stopwatch efficiency within its current mode of operating,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review.


In his new book Breaking the News, Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian, argues the internet has irreversibly shifted society towards a belief in networks over hierarchies.

Rusbridger, also the current chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, details how media organisations were among the first industries to experience this cultural change, as social media broke the hierarchical, top-down model of paper newspapers and replaced them with a more reactive form of news that was based on networks.

(Not that paper newspapers are anywhere near dead. This jumped-up millennial reporter still reads his magazine subscriptions in paper form.)

Piali Das Gupta, head of policy at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, agrees that organisational change is coming, but believes that it is “not only technology that is driving” it.

“The issues we are dealing with are increasingly complex and call for public servants to mobilise responses across systems rather than from within single organisations,” she said.

“Systems only work effectively if they connect at every level so there is a growing imperative to replace the old ‘top-down’ and ‘command and control’ styles of leading with models that emphasise dispersed leadership and empowerment.”

For chief executives that want to learn more in this particular area, Ms Das Gupta recommended Solace’s Ignite programme, with its training on effective leadership styles for now and the future.


That shift, from paper-based hierarchies to digital networks, is playing out everywhere else in society yet Whitehall, which clings on to the ministerial red boxes full of paper documents, now increasingly feels out of joint with the rest of the world.

Take, for example, the widespread derision focused at chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss, minutes after she claimed on Monday that the government is “not making cuts to local authorities”. In an inversion of the old adage, the truth (that there was a 49% reduction in central funding between 2010-11 and 2017-18, according to the National Audit Office) had already circled the world several times by the time the government propaganda machine had even got its trousers on.

Yet there does now appear a recognition in local government management that this cultural change should be recognised.

For instance, the Local Digital Declaration, launched by local government minister Rishi Sunak in July, gives principles on what good digital transformation looks like. Principles such as an “open culture” that “values, incentivises and expects” digital ways of working from every staff member. Or, in other words, networks over hierarchies.

Several former civil servants have, while commending several councils for their approach to digitalisation, also laughed at the idea that it could work for central government, however. Remember again that ministers still receive their reports in paper form, delivered in red suitcases instead of encrypted emails.

But change is here to stay. Martin Reeves, chief executive of Coventry City Council, explained in an interview with LGC last week, why and how this will happen.

Another person who is looking to the future of management systems is Amanda Staincliffe, interim head of employee experience at Homes England.

In a recent blog, Ms Staincliffe detailed how her department is pushing to drive “real organisation-wide change”, in recognition of  the “inefficiency of our tools and inconsistency of our approach”.

The team’s answer is that “ the best results come from working in multidisciplinary and blended teams”. Networks, not hierarchies.

Pialia Das Gupta argues that this attitude to change is a sign of good leadership, which at its heart is “really about culture change”.

“As is true of any moment of transition, there will be some people who feel that councils are not adapting quickly enough, and others who are worried that they are moving too fast,” she said.

“The responsibility of senior officers is to move at pace but ensure that each step is secure and sustainable.”

Change is coming, and in many ways is already here. The security and sustainability of the future of local government lies in the recognition of this change that is to come.

by Robert Cusack, reporter



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