Features: February 23rd, 2007

Managing Successfully in a Political Environment

By Cheryl Miller

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

The party political environment has an enormous impact on managing in government. This article looks at the problems and some solutions which will be of value to both central and local government. I feel qualified to write on the subject because I have survived longer than many, though not as long as some, working in two very distinct party political environments—central government and local government—for more than 30 years. I have been a chief executive in local government, with the same authority, for over 12 years. We have been politically stable for the past five years—an overall Conservative majority—but for seven years we were ‘hung’ and I served four differently composed administrations during that time—a rather painful experience.

What is success?

Success in a political environment is a precarious thing—it is difficult to know what it looks like—is it winning elections, is it improving the overall quality of life for most/all citizens, is it delivering the manifesto on which you were elected, is it simply surviving? It is a foolish politician, and a foolish officer, who ever believes they’ve ‘cracked it’, especially in a democracy. History shows us that very few political leaders, certainly not in democracies, can survive indefinitely—after a while, no matter how successful the government, the electorate likes a change. Government is just about the most difficult job about—you can’t please all the people all of the time, and the longer you have been trying to do so, the less forgiving people are. And, as an officer, I may have survived 12 years as a chief executive but I am well aware, as Harold Macmillan said, that ‘events dear boy’ can happen very quickly and I could find myself in ‘difficulties’ with my authority in a very short time.

Government has always been difficult. We tend to argue that it is more difficult today than ever before and getting more difficult still—that may be true—but I think if you asked political leaders of the past (perhaps Queen Elizabeth 1, Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill), they might argue that government in their day was more difficult than it is now— certainly it was more brutal. Enlightened despotism is probably the most efficient form of government—but again history teaches us that power corrupts and, unfortunately, enlightenment doesn’t last. And it was because of the corrupting nature of power that, as we became more civilised, we developed systems of government that tried to ensure an appropriate ‘balance of power’—particularly between the governors and the governed. This is the basis of democracy and I still sign up to Winston Churchill’s philosophy that it’s ‘the worst system of government, apart from all others that have been tried’.

Democracy in difficulty

But I think that the democratic process itself is getting more difficult and this is making the task of succeeding and surviving in a political environment, for both politicians, and those who serve and support them, more difficult. Why is it getting more difficult?


The first reason is today’s immediate global communication and the power of the media. With the internet, television and mobile phones, the public, or parts of them, often learn of things before the politicians, and even sometimes before the media know. And often, irrationally, they want answers and action before there has been time to ascertain the facts, analyse them, discuss the way forward with those who need to be consulted and decide, announce and put into place a course of action.

‘News management’ is an essential part of government at national and local level. As Sir Christopher Foster said in his PMPA report Why Are We So Badly Governed?, the problem comes when, as seems to be the case these days, the job of government becomes essentially the job of news management. That is when, as many political commentators have said over the past few weeks, we find newspapers determining the direction of government policy rather than ministers. If the home secretary has to send someone to America to find out how ‘Megan’s Law’ is working, it begs the question whether those dealing with ‘paedophilia policy’ in the Home Office have been doing their basic research job properly over the past few years. Actually they probably have and one of the downsides of serving in a political environment is remaining silent when a politician, for political expediency reasons, may implicitly (or even explicitly) give the impression their staff haven’t been doing their jobs properly.

Expectations and information

Linked to this are the ever-rising expectations of a poorly informed population. Now, one can argue that we are better educated and better informed than at any time in history. I would, however, argue against that view—we certainly have access to more information, and we should be better educated to evaluate it, but the truth is that the vast bulk of the public, while demanding immediate action to solve intractable political problems, have neither the time nor the inclination to learn why they are intractable. And the politicians, and we their servants, collude with the public on this. We avoid speaking unpalatable truths. For example the economy simply cannot sustain the best health care that is scientifically available for everyone free at the point of delivery; we cannot protect every child all the time in all circumstances from evil; while waste incinerators bring with them certain risks, those risks are measurable and more containable than those we have lived with for years from landfill sites.

Government is about making difficult choices—these choices cannot be properly made and understood until the full facts as we know them are presented and heard—‘you pays your money and you takes your choice’—but you have to pay your money first. Sir Michael Lyons is absolutely right in his latest report to say that until the public knows what public services cost and what they pay for them, they can’t be expected to assess whether they’re getting value for money. For example, people seem to be happy to pay Tesco £5 per week to deliver their groceries, but balk at the 82 pence a week (at 2004/05 figures) that it costs to take away the resultant rubbish. But, while greater transparency on cost would be helpful, government is not about flogging something to customers as John Humphreys said in his recent book Lost for Words. It’s about engaging citizens in debate and from debate comes understanding.

The balance of power

The main component of good government is achieving the appropriate balance of power. When power is unbalanced you get, at best, a lack of accountability and, at worst, corruption. I think that the balance of power we see at the moment at all levels (internationally, nationally and locally) is wrong.

One international super power is unhealthy and dangerous. The same is true when there is an imbalance between the three cornerstones of our democracy—the executive, legislature and judiciary. The first two have been out of balance for some time—I despair of Parliament ever using effectively the existing power it has to hold government to account and, in particular, to ensure that real debate on intractable issues takes place rather than knee-jerk reaction to immediate events and newspaper reports. Hasty law-making is usually bad law-making. More worryingly, we are now seeing the balancing, independent power of the judiciary being challenged. These imbalances of power, and the slide of government into the ‘economical with truth’ task of news management, that are the main causes of the growing lack of trust, increasing antipathy and apathy of the public, particularly perhaps the young, towards politicians and the political process.


So what do we do about it? All this means that the political environment in which we operate is getting more difficult and nowhere is that more true than in local government. The sorts of problems I’ve discussed are common to government at all levels yet, in local government, we have some added complexities compared to our colleagues in the civil service and the NHS:

•We are accountable to the whole council not just the ruling administration.

•We are more immediately and more extensively accountable to the public, the press, inspectorates, government departments as well as our elected representatives—we serve a multitude of masters.

•Our politicians, at least at senior levels, directly appoint and dismiss us.

•The weight of government bureaucracy—targets, guidance, legislation—since it comes, it seems, independently from a range of government departments on to us, is greater than elsewhere, the NHS only has the Department of Health to contend with.

•With the growth of the local partnership, neighbourhood, community agenda, we are increasingly accountable for outcomes over which we exercise very little direct control.

•The growth in local government budgets has been comparatively less than in other parts of the public sector. Indeed, given the bizarre way the government’s disaggregation formula works, some of us have found that this ‘growth’ has not actually reached us.

Yet, despite this, I believe it is local government that is delivering—I could argue better than other parts of the government machine. For example, in terms of efficiency, local government delivered savings of £760M in 2004/05; £1.1 billion in 2005/06 and is on course to deliver a further £1.3 billion in 2006/ 07. We’re well on our way to meeting the £3 billion Gershon target a year ahead of schedule—and the Treasury has confirmed that councils are making more efficiency savings than elsewhere in the public sector.

Furthermore, in terms of the public service improvement agenda, real improvements are taking place in public services under local control (for example exam results, crime rates, road accident casualties, and the percentage of household waste recycled).

Why are we doing so well, particularly in comparison to others, and what does this tell us about how to succeed and survive in a political environment?

Last year’s SOLACE Commission’s work on ‘Managing in a Political Environment’ provides a number of the answers. One of the most important reasons why local government is now out-performing other parts of the public sector is because, increasingly, on the whole we get the relationship between the political leader and the managerial leader right—or, at least, in appropriate balance. The best authorities are those where there is both strong political and strong managerial leadership working well together.

This is not an easy thing to achieve and it has to be worked at constantly. In the SOLACE Commission’s Report Leadership United and particularly in the Handbook associated with it, we outline a range of techniques to help ensure that relationship is strong. These include:

• No surprises—especially in public.

•There should be an effective appraisal regime—if things go wrong, a good personal appraisal system provides both warnings and protection.

• Honest feedback.

Of course, there are other issues to deal with (the political parties employing better selection and training techniques to produce more able politicians and raise the overall quality of the political class for example) but all of us individually can also do something about in terms of working at our personal relationships—often the most difficult thing we have to do.

Cheryl Miller is with East Sussex County Council