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Catherine Staite: Understanding the officer-member relationship

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Political economist Max Weber argued relations between democracy and bureaucracy represent the “most profound source of tension” in society because, although democracy cannot exist without organisation, the reverse is not true. 

Catherine staite 02

Catherine Staite

Elected politicians must hold organisations and their officials to account.

The role of metro-mayor brings an extra dimension to an already complex political and managerial environment. The mayors will be working with combined authorities comprising sovereign local councils, each with their own leader and cabinet, as well as other partners. Those council leaders have previously been the most senior politicians in their own councils. They will now find themselves in a subordinate position to a metro-mayor, who may have less experience and who may also represent opposing political interests.

The introduction of the role of metro-mayor offers a number of exciting opportunities for major improvements but it has also generated a number of risks. The increased complexity of the political and managerial landscape is one of the most obvious risks.

Politically aware-politicaly unaware graphic

The powers of the mayors, comprising those delegated by central government and those passed on by the combined authorities, follow a similar pattern and are fairly limited. The convening power of the mayors, to bring people and agencies together and harness collective energy and resources, will be much more significant than their initial formal powers. The experience of earlier generations of elected mayors suggests the higher the level of public interest in the role, measured by voter turnout and the effectiveness of the mayor as a convenor, the more likely mayors are to garner new powers over time (Warwick Commission 2012).

US academic and former Kansas City mayor John Nalbandian observed how misunderstandings and conflict arise at the interface between politics and management because “councillors and officers are cast for different roles”. Problems between officers and members cannot be blamed solely on personalities, but have more to do with the different arenas in which each operates and the different motivations which help to shape their world views, as highlighted in the diagram below.

One of the key challenges of being a council leader or chief executive is that you are constantly required to see the world from the alternative viewpoint.

However, it’s important to remember those tensions and conflicts serve an important purpose. Political and managerial leadership should be collaborative but not collusive. Leaders, including mayors and chief executives, all need someone who can tell them when they are wrong. That will also be true for the relationships between the mayors and the combined authority chief executives and will apply to the relationships with the leaders of the member councils within the combined authority, in their roles as members of the mayors’ cabinets. The introduction of metro-mayors adds an additional element of complexity to the challenge of managing those tensions productively. It will require continual mediation and renegotiation to maintain a healthy balance between collaboration and mutual challenge.

Understanding mutual expectations

Politicians choose their chief executives and senior officers for their skills and expertise and the electorate chooses its members for their political allegiance and manifesto promises. The members of the political administration of each council, in turn, choose the council’s leader. By working together, chief executives and politicians create a shared political and managerial culture. The elected mayors’ expectations of their cabinet and officers will be shaped by the way in which the ambitions of each mayor, validated by their personal and direct democratic mandate, align with the current priorities of the combined authorities, encapsulated in their devo-deals, and those of each of the individual constituent and non-constituent councils.

Simon Baddeley and Kim James, in their 1987 paper Owl, Fox, Donkey or Sheep: Political Skills for Managers, describe four types of political behaviour, which are distinguished by varying degrees of integrity and politically awareness.

Politicians recognise the need for officers who will speak truth to power but they’d rather they weren’t smug and patronising when they did it

They use animal characteristics to describe the behaviours that help or hinder the effective mediation of the political and managerial interface. We may hope all senior political leaders and managers are ‘owls’ – both politically aware and acting with integrity – but those operating at the political and managerial interface have to be prepared to recognise ‘foxes’ and to limit the damage caused by compliant and naïve ‘sheep’ or self-serving and politically incompetent ‘donkeys’.

The mutual expectations of the desired behaviours and attributes of mayors, their political colleagues, the combined authority chief executives and those of their constituent councils will need to be understood and negotiated in each metro-mayoral area. We already know something about what politicians and chief executives in single authorities expect from each other and those expectations are likely to be similar in these new relationships.

The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers conducted an investigation into the attitudes of politicians and senior managers towards each other. They asked politicians what sort of officer leaders they wanted, and vice versa.

Senior politicians wanted officers who understand the problems, focus on solutions and outcomes rather than process, and who are not unduly influenced by professional and organisational rules.

They also value officers who actually understand and like politicians and the political process. They value adaptability but not weakness. Politicians recognise the need for officers who will speak truth to power but they’d rather they weren’t smug and patronising when they did it. They value integrity and transparency and don’t like it when officers are playing the game for their own end. Politicians need officers who are in touch with the real world, who are good listeners and well informed.

Senior officers want politicians who have a vision, are passionate and decisive and set a clear agenda for other members and officers to follow. They value politicians who keep sight of the big picture, rather than focusing on operational details. They need to be able to challenge and motivate officers but not micro-manage and use any powers wisely. They value the abilities of political leaders to be visible and accessible and to develop clear expectations of and good communications with their member colleagues.

They would like politicians, particularly leaders, to appreciate that the most important relationship is with the chief executive and they should avoid making promises before checking with the chief executive that they can be delivered.

Both political and managerial leaders wish all their colleagues and counterparts to be ‘owls’, in Baddeley and James’s terms, but they may well be disappointed.

Professor Catherine Staite, director of public service reform, University of Birmingham

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