Joint Committee on the Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Report

  Annex 1

  The Overseas Experience with Political Management in Local Government

Professor Robin Hambleton, Special Adviser to the Committee and Director of the Centre for Local Democracy at the University of the West of England, Bristol

1)  Introduction

This paper responds to a request from the Committee for more information on the political management models found in local government abroad. It does not offer a comprehensive review, rather it aims to provide evidence to illuminate some of the key issues the Committee has been examining in recent weeks.

Two points should be made at the outset. Firstly, it is clear that comparing local government systems in different countries can be extremely rewarding. It can stimulate fresh thinking and offer valuable insights into the way particular models of local political management work in practice. Secondly, it is also the case that democratic traditions and legal systems in different countries vary a great deal. It follows that it is misguided to scan foreign local democracy in the hope of finding easy answers to local political challenges. Successful cross-national policy transfer requires an ability to interpret foreign experience and adapt it to meet local political and managerial objectives.

2)  The separation of powers

The Government has stated that the quality of local democracy will be enhanced by the introduction of a separation of powers between 'the executive and backbench roles of councillors' (1). This terminology has created some confusion and continues to bedevil debate. 'Backbench' is a Westminster term and, as explained below, the meaning of 'executive' needs to be unpacked. However, the separation of powers between a political executive and a political assembly is extremely common in local government abroad. Supporters of this model argue that it has three main benefits: 1) the executive has the legitimacy to exercise bold outgoing political leadership, 2) it is clear where power lies, and 3) it enhances accountability as those exercising power can be held to account. In her evidence to the Committee the Minister said that she is persuaded by these arguments. The indications are, then, that all local authorities will be required to introduce a separation of powers as they draw up a 'new constitution' for local governance in their area as envisaged in the recent White Paper (2).

Overseas experience will be invaluable to local councils as they embark on this task. In many countries the local authorities are well used to developing and revising their constitutions within frameworks provided by higher levels of government. For example, in many states within the USA local authorities, either of their own volition or as a result of citizen pressure, can be seen bringing forward proposals for constitutional change. This is known as charter revision and, in any given year, perhaps 1% or 2% of localities might be expected to modify their constitutions. For example, on 8 June 1999 the citizens of Los Angeles were invited to vote on the separation of powers within their system of local governance and decided, inter alia, to strengthen the power of the neighbourhoods, to give more authority to the directly elected mayor, and to reduce the power of the city council.

Two points about overseas experience with the separation of powers should be emphasised. Firstly, there is enormous variation within this model of governance. Recent research on foreign experience with versions of the three models set out in the Government White Paper has provided examples of situations where the political executive has substantial formal authority (for example, the Mayor of Baltimore, USA) and situations where the political executive has virtually no formal authority but can, nevertheless, be very effective by virtue of positional power (for example, the Mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand) (3). There is, then, more scope for diverse approaches within the three models than has been commonly recognised. Secondly, local constitutions can be revised and developed to suit changing circumstances. Clearly charter revision should not be undertaken lightly—constitutions ought to be fairly lasting. But a strength of local government in many countries is that citizens can and do initiate change to the governance arrangements of their areas. This is bottom up governmental change and differs fundamentally from the top down approach that has been such a striking feature of local government reform in the UK.

One area which the Committee may feel deserves further examination concerns the definition of 'executive'. It is clearly a myth to suggest that, in the modernised local government the Government wants to encourage, the 'executive' will make all the decisions in an area. This is impossible—the executive could not possibly cope with the work load. It is also highly undesirable as it would involve an unhealthy over-concentration of power.

Work for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) suggested that it might be helpful to invite local authorities to make provision for three kinds of executive decision as they draw up their new constitutions: 1) strategic executive decisions (to be made by the central political executive), 2) local executive decisions (which could be made by local councillors in area or neighbourhood committees), and 3) operational executive decisions (the many detailed decisions delegated to officers) (4).

A further theme that foreign experience can illuminate relates to the processes of: 1) electing (or appointing) the political executive, 2) holding them to account during their period of office, and 3) removing them should they be failing disastrously. As implied by the earlier discussion there is wide variation on all three points. I now consider each in turn.

In many countries citizens directly elect the political executive. Where this happens there is usually a single executive known as the mayor. However, in some countries citizens directly elect a cabinet to run the local authority. This approach, known as the commission form in the USA, is uncommon but is used even in some fairly big cities—for example, Portland, Oregon. An alternative to direct election is appointment of the executive by the council. This is common practice on the continent and is the approach being adopted now by innovative UK councils working within existing legislation.

The arrangements for holding the political executive to account are inextricably linked with the design of the separation of powers within a local authority. Again there are choices. In Oslo, Norway, members appointed to the cabinet resign their seat on the council. At the other extreme the cabinet (or mayor) may continue to also be 'normal' members of the council. Councils should be encouraged to develop their own proposals.

It is very important to have in place arrangements for removing a thoroughly incompetent political executive. However, great care is needed. Once a political executive is elected or appointed they need to be able to exercise leadership without too much interference. It is argued that many existing political leaders in UK local government often have to spend too much time dealing with the internal politics of the town or county hall. If the new arrangements do not grant leaders more space to lead local democracy will not be enhanced.

We do, however, need to guard against the opposite extreme. In some countries the local political executive has, over a period of years, been able to build up an unchallengeable position. In some cases this has led to corruption, more commonly it results in incompetent leadership. Term limitation can form part of the solution and is commonplace in local government abroad— that is the political executive can be required to vacate their office after, say, two four-year terms (as with the President of the USA). In addition the council needs to have a power of recall during the term of office of a given political executive. This could be along the lines of a vote of confidence by, say, 60% of the council. This kind of arrangement is often found in local government charters abroad.

3)  Six models of local political management

This section outlines six models of political management found in local democracies around the world. There are other models but the six summarised here provide a reasonable picture of the options which are most relevant to current policy debates in the UK. A fuller discussion of these models is found in a report prepared for the Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament (5).

i)  The typical UK local authority

The Local Government Association (LGA) in its evidence to the Committee rightly pointed out that many local authorities have modified the traditional committee system to meet changing needs. There is, then, probably no such thing as a 'typical UK local authority'. However, it is still the case that the majority of UK local authorities continue to manage their decision making through a number of separate committees usually related to local authority functions—see Figure 1. Councillors, elected on a ward basis, usually serve on several committees as well as on the council as a whole. Most councillors belong to a political party and many important policy decisions are made in party groups, rather than in the committees. However, it should be noted that not all councils are party political. It should also be noted that:

  • many councils have developed area committees so that local decisions are taken closer to the people most directly affected, and

  • many councils have developed robust arrangements for listening to the voices of people who are often excluded (for example, disabled people, young people, ethnic minorities).

In the existing UK model there is no separation of powers. To citizens at large it is often not at all clear who is responsible for which decisions.

ii)  The mayor-council structure (strong-mayor)

Figure 2 illustrates the strong-mayor form of government in which the mayor has substantial executive powers as compared to those of the council. The mayor serves as the directly elected chief executive and is highly visible. The mayor prepares the budget, controls the city administration and has the power to appoint chief officers and to veto legislation passed by the council. The council can be responsible for developing policy, authorising the budget, reviewing the performance of the mayor and can retain executive responsibility in specified areas. The council can insist on regular reports from the mayor and can have a system of committees to examine issues and scrutinise decisions.

Chief officers are clear that, if the mayor loses an election, they could well lose their jobs. Some department heads may, however, be covered by civil service employment conditions or may, once appointed, not be removable by the mayor unless it can be demonstrated that they are failing to perform their duties. In any event, the lines of authority for all or most departments of local government lead to the mayor's office—hence the bold line around the mayor.

The Government's proposals for a 'directly elected mayor with a cabinet' can be viewed as a modification of this model in two main ways. Firstly, the Government envisages the mayor appointing a cabinet. In some countries—notably France—the directly elected mayor will have several 'deputies' (6). However, in many countries the mayor acts alone. Secondly, the Government anticipates the mayor and the council appointing a chief executive. Again this top officer role does exist in other countries but, in the strong-mayor model, the most senior officer is often called the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). This officer, as the name implies, is usually less powerful than a UK chief executive. Remember in the strong-mayor model it is the mayor, not the officer, who is the chief executive. It is clear, therefore, that the strong-mayor model can be expected to alter the roles of the chief executive and other chief officers. The Committee will wish to ensure that there are adequate protections for the Head of Paid Service and, possibly, the other statutory officer roles which now exist in UK local government.

Because the Greater London Authority (GLA) is a strategic authority the Government's proposals for London are distinctive. Nevertheless, it is useful to note the separation of powers that will be introduced in Greater London next year (7). The Government's proposals indicate that the mayor will have five key roles:

  • To devise strategies and actions
  • To propose a budget
  • To co-ordinate action to implement the agreed strategic plans
  • To act as a voice for London
  • To make appointments

The assembly, which will have 25 members, is to have six roles:

  • To assist in policy development
  • To approve or amend the mayor's budget
  • To examine London issues
  • To examine the mayor's strategies and performance
  • To participate in the appointments procedure
  • To serve as members of the police and fire authorities

These proposals give the mayor substantial authority. In constitutional terms the balance of power in the GLA can be described as strong-mayor rather than strong-council.

iii)  The mayor-council structure (strong-council)

Figure 3 illustrates the strong-council form of government. The mayor is still directly elected but power is dispersed between the mayor and the council and, in some cases, other elected officials. The council is usually the formal centre of power. In particular, it is normally the council that appoints chief officers. There is, however, no sharp line between the strong-mayor and strong-council options—rather there is a continuum. Generally speaking, the strong-council form disperses authority.

The government's proposals for a 'directly elected mayor with a cabinet' could be built around a version of Figure 3, just as they could stem from a version of Figure 2. As before the key differences are that the Government envisages the mayor appointing a cabinet and that the mayor and council will appoint a chief executive.

Much of the UK debate about elected mayors has tended to assume that the mayor-council form is a 'big city' model of government. Famous examples lend support to this view—such as New York City and Chicago. But the assumption is quite wrong. The mayor-council form of government is extremely popular in rural areas and small towns.

iv)  The council/manager structure (with a top manager)

In the council-manager form of government, as illustrated in Figure 4, there is no separation of powers between a political executive and a legislative body. The elected council appoints a top manager who, in turn, is directly in charge of departmental chief officers and supervises their performance. This officer is often referred to as the 'city' manager but in a county he or she would be the county manager and in some cases the term used is council manager. In this paper I use the term 'top' manager to make it clear that it is a form of management which can be used in both rural and urban areas. On the whole top managers have rather more authority than a typical UK local authority chief executive. For example, they may be able to appoint all officers with little or no reference to the politicians. These managers are, however, usually on five year contracts so if they are not politically aware they will not last long.

In some ways the top manager resembles the managing director of a private company. Indeed, analogies with business organisations almost always provided the principal supporting arguments for moving to the council-manager plan in the USA in the early part of this century. Figure 4 suggests that, in contrast to Figure 2, power is concentrated in the hands of an officer: hence the bold line around the top manager. Whether too much power is concentrated in the hands of one officer is a matter of dispute—much depends on the details.

The council-manager form can, however, create a leadership gap. Top managers, because they are not elected, cannot provide political leadership. The original council-manager plan developed in the USA at the turn of the century attempted to separate politics from administration. Inevitably, however, top managers have been required to act as visible leaders. But they do not have the legal basis or political authority for performing such a role and this factor has triggered improvements to the council-manager plan in many American local authorities and elsewhere (see next model).

The Government does not envisage the council/manager form of political management in the three models it has set out. It does, however, see the possibility of introducing a strong top manager into local government. At present, this role is linked into a model which also incorporates a directly elected mayor—it is described as the 'directly elected mayor and council manager' model. This model is discussed next. The Committee may, however, feel that there is scope for recommending that councils should be allowed to introduce a hybrid model combining a strong top manager with a cabinet-plus-leader arrangement for members i.e. an approach which combines features from two of the Government's models. Given the commitment of the Government to a separation of powers it can be assumed that the straightforward council-manager model—as shown in Figure 4—can be set aside as it does not pass the separation of powers test.

v)  The council-manager structure with a mayor

Many council-manager cities have modified their structures along the lines shown in Figure 5. Here a directly elected mayor is introduced to give a political lead to the work of the top manager. This model has become increasingly popular in council-manager cities in the USA. It is also the model of political management introduced across New Zealand by the last Labour Government in 1989.

Council-manager mayors tend to act as facilitators rather than executives. The possibilities of political leadership for the facilitative mayor have been neglected in recent debates. Kinds of leadership, beyond traditional ceremonial functions, can be developed. One is a co-ordinating role in which the mayor pulls together the different parts of the system of local governance to improve their interaction.

A cross-national evaluation of political management models carried out by the Carl Bertelsmann Foundation in 1993 gave joint first prize to two local authorities using the council-manager structure with a mayor—Christchurch, New Zealand and Phoenix, USA (8). Whilst it would clearly be unwise to advocate any particular model for UK local government—such a stance would deny the importance of local choice—the Committee may wish to suggest that this is a model which deserves to be given more attention.

vi)  The cabinet-council structure

In the cabinet/council structure there is a separation of powers between a cabinet, which acts as the political executive, and a council which develops and monitors policy and holds the cabinet to account—see Figure 6. The cabinet is usually indirectly elected by the councillors and has the power to appoint chief officers—hence the bold line round the cabinet. The model, borrowed and adapted from central government, clearly identifies the leading group of councillors responsible for running the authority. Where there is a majority party the cabinet would, to some extent, resemble a single party policy committee with a high degree of executive power. The council delegates this executive power (which could vary considerably) to the cabinet. Decisions taken by the cabinet are decisions of the authority. As with the model in central government individual members of the cabinet have delegated areas of responsibility and the attendant decision taking powers, but the broader strategy is decided by the cabinet.

The council can require regular reports from the cabinet and can have a system of committees to examine issues and scrutinise decisions. These committees have rights and might have a political balance which favours minorities. As with the mayor-council models described earlier the balance of power between the executive (whether it is a mayor or a cabinet) and the council can vary enormously. Just as it is possible to have strong-mayor and strong-council forms in a mayor-council structure it is possible to have strong-cabinet and strong-council forms within the cabinet-council structure.

In 1986, the city of Oslo discarded a 'typical UK local authority' form of governance—see Figure 1—and introduced a cabinet-council structure. The cabinet, elected by majority vote of the council, comprises seven members. It is the controlling body of the administration, it reports to the city council and is responsible for implementing resolutions passed by the city council. In effect, Oslo now has 'hands on' political management in a form that resembles ministerial management of Whitehall departments.

An even more striking feature of the Oslo model is the radical decentralisation of power to 25 neighbourhoods (with populations ranging from 7,000 to 30,000). Close to 40% of the massive £2000 million annual revenue budget of the city (the local authority runs health as well as all the functions of a UK unitary authority) is decided at neighbourhood level.

Key points for the Committee to note are:

  • The cabinet is not just a souped up policy committee. It is a new model of political management with major implications for members and senior officers.

  • The Oslo experience suggests that the model strengthens 'hands on' political control of the organisation.

  • The Oslo experience shows that it is possible to combine a separation of powers with radical decentralisation going well beyond even the most ambitious decentralisation schemes currently operating in the UK.

4)  Conclusions

This review has provided evidence of practical experience with different forms of political management in other countries. Given the task of the Committee four important points should be highlighted.

1)  Unpacking the executive

The separation of powers between a political executive and a political assembly is common in local government abroad. However, it is quite wrong to suggest that the political 'executive' takes all the decisions in these other countries. The Committee may wish to suggest that the requirements of effective and accountable local government can be advanced by giving more attention to the delegation of decision making power. Foreign experience suggests that it is possible to make provision for at least three kinds of executive decision: 1) strategic executive decisions (to be made by the central political executive), 2) local executive decisions (which could be made by local councillors and others in area or neighbourhood committees), and 3) operational executive decisions (the many detailed decisions delegated to officers). The enhancement of 'local executive' decision making could make a major contribution to strengthening the role of all councillors.

2)  Local decision making involving local people

Devolution of decision making to local areas is commonplace in local government in other countries. These arrangements have been very successful in lifting citizen involvement in local affairs. In the period between the July 1998 White Paper and the March 1999 Draft Bill the Government seems to have weakened its support for area-based decision making.

Foreign experience suggests that this is a retrograde step and that the reverse is needed. Citizens are often more concerned about very local issues and the Bill should provide scope for councils to have the option of devolving far more decision making power to the local level.

3)  Hybrid models

Foreign experience suggests that there is scope for great variation in forms of political management whilst retaining a separation of powers. It is clear that very different approaches can be developed within each of the three models outlined by the Government. There is, however, a case for clarifying whether or not hybrid approaches combining features from different models would be acceptable. Foreign experience suggests that there should be as much flexibility as possible.

4)  Flexibility and change

The Government argues that communities should decide how they want their community governed and sets out proposals for binding referendums. This bottom up approach to constitutional change takes place in other countries. It is a welcome feature of the Draft Bill as it will enable local councils and their citizens to learn from experience.


1)  Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions (1998) Modern local government. In touch with the people, Cm 4014, July, para 3.12

2)  Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions (1999) Local leadership, local choice, Cm 4298, March, paras 3.5 and 3.6

3)  Hambleton R. (1999) Modernising local political management. Briefing Paper from the Centre for Local Democracy, University of the West of England, Bristol. February

4)  Hambleton R. (1999) Modernisation: developing managerial leadership. Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), January, paras 3.1 to 3.7

5)  Hambleton R. (1998) Local government political management arrangements—an international perspective. The Scottish Office Central Research Unit, The Stationery Office, Edinburgh

6)  Borraz O. (1994) Mayoral leadership in France in Borraz O. et al Local leadership and decision making. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. LGC Communications

7)  Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions (1998) A mayor and assembly for London. Cm 3897, March

8)  Pröhl M. (1993) Democracy and efficiency in local government. Bertelsmann Foundation Publishers. The author's own first hand research on Christchurch and Phoenix in more recent years confirms that, in many respects, these are, indeed, very well run cities

  Figure 1: A typical UK local authority

  Figure 2: The major-council structure (stong-mayor)

  Figure 3: The mayor-council structure (strong-council)

  Figure 4: The council-manager structure

  Figure 5: The council-manager structure with a mayor

  Figure 6: The cabinet-council structure

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