Features: February 8th, 2008

By Jane Martin

The view of many is that the local political process is not the place to go if you want to get things done. We hear all too often that the public has lost confidence in the political system, that people distrust politicians and care less and less about collective problems and more and more about their individual needs and wants. Some of this must be true, judging by the evidence of low turnout at elections and decreasing membership of political parties.

While this malaise applies across government, it is probably most keenly felt at the local level. This situation has come about despite the excellent work of many local councilors. So does politics matter?

Government by consent

Politics is the means by which we order our society. Within a framework of representative government, politics is the space for reconciling competing interests for public goods, prioritizing the allocation of resources and creating the kind of world in which we want to live.

Politicians wielding executive power should never forget that they do so on behalf of the public—their authority only lasts as long as the public consents to it. Despite the general disengagement from local politics, we are seeing the re-authorization of local government taking place in many ways. The local council is no longer the main provider of services, but it does (on behalf of the public) authorize the provision of many local services—social services, refuse collection, transport, children’s services, and it regulates many other areas which affect our daily lives—planning, licensing, trading standards to name but a few.

The ‘public value’ proposition

The political sphere is where we workout local ‘public value’ propositions. All the resources made available to local government are from public funds—money freely given by the public through taxation within a system of representative government. The institutions of representative government create the conditions by which individuals come together to decide collectively what can be achieved without sacrificing individual rights and liberties.
Through the political processes of representative government we, the public, decide what needs to be done, raise the necessary resources and organize to achieve collective goals.

The power of politics is the opportunity to agree collective purposes—the things we together believe are of ‘public value’. In his book, Creating Public Value, Professor Mark Moore explains how public managers need to understand the ‘authorizing environment’ which legitimates their creating public value on behalf of the public. In local government, local councillors elected to represent the public have a distinctive and valuable role to play, in mediating the local authorizing environment through local political processes, such that public value propositions can be supported and implemented. This is the very stuff of local politics.

In his recent article for the Solace Foundation Imprint, Greg Parston describes the task of public service leaders as the ‘real hard and necessary work’ of identifying the accrued values of public services, helping to mediate and craft the vision and strategy for public services, and operationalizing service delivery to focus on value creation. He rightly points out that this is a complex task, with much potential to generate conflict, and that the leadership task is to define a bottom line and clarify the high level public goods—for example, safer communities or improved health.

From refuse collection to education, it is the role of public leaders to explain the public value of the enterprise to be undertaken, the resources required to undertake it and to win public support—or authorization—for what they propose to do on behalf of local people. This means convincing local people of the argument for public services which ensure their collective well-being. Clean and safe streets are better than a dirty environment in which people live in fear of crime. Well-educated young people will make a more effective contribution to our local communities and society as a whole. These arguments appeal to the public as citizens as well as individual service users.

Both politicians and managers in leadership roles in local government need to be thinking much more in terms of how they engage local people to create the local public value agenda—and how they are then clearly held accountable by the public for that agenda. This suggests moving beyond a conception of a local public made up of groups of individual service users, to a broader sense of a local citizenry with shared needs, common purposes and collective views. This is the only way of really addressing those ‘wicked issues’ which need collective agreement and collective action.

Rediscovering representative government

We need to better understand and value the political processes of representative government and the role of politicians as representatives. The skills of political leadership and political awareness (both of politicians and managers) are fast being realized as the key skills in building the trust and confidence needed to agree local public value propositions and create local ownership of the solutions to the problems faced in our local communities. Local government is increasingly dependent on partnership working to fulfil the objectives of local area agreements and needs more politics, not less. Not a politics of mischief-making and point-scoring, but a politics of alliance building to win support for policies and decisions which move towards shared goals.

This also means valuing the non-executive, representative role of councillors as much as those in an executive position—recognizing that representatives should have the local knowledge and expertise to deliver public consent through constructive challenge and deliberation. Local government will have to work even harder at achieving relationships of mutual respect between politicians and officers in the executive team, where each value the contribution of the other within the inescapable political processes of both leadership and management. Policy implementation is an interactive process where politicians and officers have overlapping roles and both need political awareness. It may be a myth that politicians lead and officers manage, but understanding the distinctive contribution each bring to the process should result in a more solid basis for sustainable policy development and service delivery which is responsive to local needs.

Jane Martin is Senior Research Fellow in Public Leadership, Institute of Governance and Public Management, Warwick Business School.

?References Moore, M. (1995), Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government(Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA).
Parston, G. (2007), A simple big idea. In Thomson, W. (Ed), Local Leadership for Global Times (Solace Foundation Imprint, London).