At long last the Local Government Act 2000 has reached the statute books. Councils now have some real space to try entirely new approaches to political leadership and management innovation. But there is a gap in the debate.
There has been extensive consultation on the proposals for modernising local political management, set out two years ago in the white paper Modern local government: in touch with the people.
Key landmarks have been: a draft Bill (March 1999), a detailed report on the draft Bill from a joint committee of the House of Lords and House of Commons (July 1999), a Local Government Bill (November 1999), a government response to the joint committee (December 1999), draft guidance on regulations and constitutions (two versions, January and May 2000) and, of course, extensive debate on the Bill in Parliament.
There are two main reasons for this neglect. First, even now the model is not well understood. Second, the third option has, to date, linked the council manager with a directly elected mayor.
Those reluctant to consider the directly elected mayor option may have given the council manager approach short shrift - possibly before any serious consideration of the managerial merits of the model.
A new paper, The council manager model: enhancing political and managerial leadership, published by the Improvement and Development Agency, aims to raise awareness of the mayor/council manager model.
The paper, which has now been circulated by IDeA to all chief executives in England and Wales, draws on first-hand research into the model in other countries, particularly New Zealand and the US.
Much of the recent UK debate has rightly focused on the need to strengthen council political leadership. But political leadership needs to be supported by strong managerial leadership.
A key feature of the mayor/council manager model is that it can provide a platform for high profile, outward looking leadership by senior members and strong internal leadership by the chief executive and top officers.
For councils with a population of less than 85,000 (on 30 June 1999), a last minute change of mind by the government means a fourth option is available. The Liberal Democrat amendment to the Local Government Bill, slipped in at the very end of the legislative process, means small councils will be allowed to have a modified committee structure with enhanced scrutiny and overview functions (LGC, 21 July).
Here, then, is a marvellous opportunity for the 80 to 90 councils eligible for this option to pick up and develop the council manager model. In these it will be possible to introduce a council manager form of government without a directly elected mayor.
It is to be hoped these councils recognise the council manager model works very well in rural areas. The small rural communities in New Zealand resemble shire districts in England.
The council manager model could be helpful in hung authorities or areas where there are several independent members. In these situations it may be possible for a good manager to help the council become more forward looking and innovative.
So much for the fourth option in small authorities - what about our cities and counties? Here again the council manager model should be considered. The managerial challenge facing large councils is more demanding than the challenge confronting shire districts.
The model works well in Phoenix, a major city with a wide range of functions, including policing. In 1993 the local authority won international recognition for its achievements when it received an international prize for its effective approach to city management.
In the UK, party politics tends to play a significant role in the way big councils are run. But are members spending too much time on arguments about internal management? Could they focus more effectively on key public concerns if a top manager was given more authority to manage the services?
As UK political leaders consider the options now available to them under the new Act they would be well advised to consider the council manager model. It can lighten their managerial load as well as empower local councillors to develop policy making, scrutiny and representative roles. There is still time to invite Cinderella to the ball.
Professor Hambleton's report, The council manager model: enhancing political and managerial leadership, is available from the Improvement & Development Agency and is on the web at www.idea.gov.uk.
Mayor/council manager myths exploded:
It is an officer's charter - it gives too much power to the top manager. Try telling that to an elected mayor with a city manager in New Zealand or the US. City managers are on performance contracts requiring regular reviews. Managers who do not perform well are soon shown the door.
It is a small town model - it could not work in a metropolitan district, London borough or county. True, the model is more common in smaller local authorities overseas. For example, in New Zealand, where all authorities have the mayor/manager model, 85% of the councils serve populations of less than 70,000. But the US has numerous examples of the council manager model in big cities - for example, Phoenix, Arizona (population 1,159,000) and San Diego, California (population 1,171,000).
The model confuses political and managerial leadership - citizens do not know who is running the place. IDeA research shows the interaction between the top politician and the top manager is a subtle process which can be negotiated to suit the leadership styles of particular politicians and officers. This is no surprise - it already happens in the best UK councils. A good relationship between leader and chief executive can make a big difference.