Anticipating, managing and adapting to ‘No overall control’
This longer read is the first in a series for senior officers on working in a political environment – capturing some reflections and considerations for those operating in authorities that have experienced no overall control, authorities that are politically contestable, and single party councils.
Anticipating, managing and adapting to ‘No overall control’
The recent local elections resulted in many authorities maintaining or entering the realm of ‘no overall control’. Whilst this might sound like an undesirable result and can be confusing for residents, it is a well-established feature of the local government landscape under our first-past-the-post voting system.
The phrase can be quite misleading in that it implies chaos will ensue – but it is simply an expression of numbers in the council chamber immediately following an election, not a description of the council’s governance in perpetuity. NOC means different things in different councils (as highlighted in Ed Hammond’s recent MJ article). “Plenty of councils have been under no overall control for some time, with a political balance which is fairly static. Equally, there are those highly contestable councils which may oscillate between the outright control of different groups when an election happens – in some cases annually.”
At best, NOC can operate as effectively as majority-controlled councils, with the added bonus of plurality and consensus in decision-making and political debate. At worst, NOC can be fragmented, slow-moving, inconsistent, and difficult to manage.
Whilst this post focusses on councils with executive arrangements, some councils feeling their way through the realities of NOC are adopting the committee system as a model to assist them in making decision-making more collaborative as a standard way of operating.
Of particular interest to us at CfGS is how NOC affects council culture and governance, namely the political relationships and the role of senior officers in the process. Building on our governance risk and resilience toolkit, this piece tries to capture some risks to good governance that can emerge from a NOC scenario – specifically on anticipating, managing and adapting to this political context.
A change in political dynamics can often signal the opportunity to ‘reset’ outdated systems and processes or engrained ways of working that present a barrier to good governance. CfGS can support you in evaluating governance arrangements, conducting a scrutiny review, or testing if your constitution is fit for purpose.
Anticipating – before the election
A NOC council will inevitably operate differently in practice, but not in principle. So it is important to consider how the approach to forming the administration takes place in NOC councils and the practical ways of working going forwards.
Whilst acknowledging the inevitable degree of political uncertainty that representative democracy brings, it is in the interests of the council to avoid an unstable or unpredictable political environment. In the absence of clear political leadership, senior officers will have to ensure that the corporate capacity exists across different parts of the council to respond to a NOC scenario, with clear organisational leadership from the top.
In terms of long-term planning, senior officers are advantaged if they can anticipate with some confidence the likely outcomes of a NOC scenario, so that key decisions contributing to the council’s strategy are not going to be reversed suddenly. Considering possible post-election scenarios – including potential political relationships as well as likely governance arrangements or constitutional changes – may help soften the blow of an unexpected result.
The fragility of coalitions (or of councils operating under minority control) can blur political priorities, or make them more short-term in nature. So there is a common interest between officer leadership and political group leadership in maintaining regular communication leading up to elections, providing a strong basis to work from if an unforeseen outcome does occur.
Managing – the negotiation process
A sudden shift in the political dynamic once votes have been counted can be difficult to get used to for members and senior officers alike, and seeking to secure and sustain a stable decision-making environment in the post-election period is important.
Without overall political control, the relationships between and within groups will be the most crucial ingredient in the success or failure of new governance arrangements. Resolving a NOC scenario is likely to be about focusing on behaviours and organisational culture.
There is also the vital member-ofﬁcer dimension to council cohesiveness. Whichever shape the administration takes, they will need to develop and maintain close relationships with senior ofﬁcers in the council to help deliver their council’s priorities.
In between the election results and the council’s annual general meeting (AGM) is the window of opportunity for negotiations and for political groups to come to an agreement on how council leadership and decision-making will be undertaken. This can take some time to sort out, alliances may not come naturally, existing bonds may be broken, and new allegiances may have to form.
There are a couple of ways forwards for NOC councils:
- Most commonly, two or more political groups can form a majority through a formal coalition and operate on a ‘power sharing’ basis (or a confidence and supply agreement);
- Or, the largest political group can govern as a minority administration and ‘go it alone’ – as the other groups don’t agree on enough to effectively oppose them.
This negotiation process can appear secretive, and group leaders may retreat to conduct discussions in private. Whilst this somewhat streamlines conversations, it also prevents some members from having a stake in the formulation of proposed arrangements and risks their ongoing support. It will be in everyone’s interests to identify governance solutions a pluralistic and inclusive way.
In NOC councils with a leader-cabinet model, a leader will still be elected at the by the council to form the ruling administration, either from a coalition or the largest party governing alone. Choices over significant council roles will be the subject of intensive inter-party discussion, with bargaining over cabinet portfolios and committee chairs. These discussions are vital as senior members need to practically consider who they can work with, both politically and personally. As all positions have to be filled at the AGM, this acts as a strong stimulus for acceptable outcomes to be agreed in advance.
In NOC councils with a directly elected mayor, the mayor is slightly less vulnerable to the power of the party group than a council leader, due to their electoral legitimacy and constitutional differences. But they will still have to persuade other party leaders in the council to cooperate, either by collaboratively forming a cabinet, or by facilitating the passage of mayoral initiatives through council, or both.
In some cases, senior officers may want to steer clear of any involvement in political negotiations and ‘leave the politicians to work it out’. But in many cases, it can help facilitate discussion between group leaders to support a swifter transition.
There are some informal rules that govern the scope for senior officer intervention in political arrangements. Whilst acting as an impartial adviser and trusted broker there will need to be understanding of group leaders’ motivations and likely appetite for working across the political spectrum. Drawing on common ground in party manifestos and seeking to identify issues of contention early can help this process.
Where there is history of joint working, shared policy objectives, or a knowledge that the real electoral competition in the local area is not between the groups concerned – it is likely that a joint administration will be formed. But if there is no such basis for a coalition, or any feasible alliances, then usually the largest party will form a minority administration.
It is accepted that senior officers can act as intermediaries between political parties in supporting deal-making and forming an administration in a NOC situation. However, it would be considered inappropriate for senior officers to advise on the individual allocation of cabinet posts and political responsibilities.
Adapting – once an administration has formed
Once the composition of the new administration is clear, the executive may comprise of members from one, two, three or more parties – and officers will most likely find themselves performing slightly different roles in a NOC council.
In the medium and long term, it will be critical to make sure that new governance arrangements “stick” – that they are sustainable, and they support effective decision-making and good governance overall.
The political leadership skills associated with a joint or minority administration are signiﬁcantly different from those required when dealing majority control. Senior officers can be a vital source of guidance for political group leaders dealing with NOC.
When entering a coalition, leaders who command confidence and discipline within their own group have to share power. Coalition leaders will need to broker compromises with a partner group whilst being constrained by the views of what their own group deems acceptable. The cohesiveness of a joint administration requires groups providing mutual support and a dimension of continued inter-party working. This is understandably absent, or much more low key, if there is a majority party.
Running a minority administration is far from ideal for political leaders, and the uphill struggle of getting any major policy approved can split group cohesion. Minority leaders enter into administration in the recognition that they will have to consistently seek compromises to get policy and budgetary proposals through full council, or risk having recommendations routinely overturned.
For senior officers there is a key role to play in cultivating trust and tolerance between political groups to support solid coalitions and effective minority administrations. Officers can help develop open and inclusive communication channels between political groups, help set realistic expectations, and help manage any personality clashes.
Coalitions are based on transactional leadership, so encouraging political group leaders to regularly meet and form agreements will be crucial in supporting council decision-making. Formal written agreements are preferable – clearly setting out governance arrangements for the benefit of the public and partners, and providing a framework for ongoing working. Or they can be informal – agreeing on how groups will work together on an issue basis.
Working with and briefing spokespersons from several parties rather than a single majority party will probably take up more resourcing and result in longer lead-in times. But attempting to conduct these cross-party where possible will be advantageous for officer time and collaborative member working. Making sure opposition groups are brought into the fold on matters will also help ease potential tensions.
New administrations will have many ambitions, so it is vital for senior officers to understand the most urgent and important priorities. Being able to plan and deliver ‘quick wins’ that align to the administration’s ambitions can create initial momentum, and provide public assurance that the organisation can deliver in the longer-term.
In many cases NOC can result in an entirely new leadership of the council, particularly when members do not come from one of the more established parties. Even for those who have occupied significant positions prior to becoming leader or cabinet member, it can take a while to get familiar with the role. Where strong political leadership is absent, senior officers will need to recognise this and reflect on what it means for their role and responsibilities.
When there are a significant number of new members without prior political experience or real knowledge of how local authorities operate, comprehensive member induction and development will be a priority. The roles of members and officers, and the principles of good governance will be essential to clarify at the outset.
NOC tends to cause churn in cabinet and committee appointments, and it will be necessary to ensure new or inexperienced cabinet members are offered support, mentoring or training. It will also be vital for the new administration to understand their role as an executive member in being accountable to and working with scrutiny.
Effective scrutiny supports improvement and generates more robust decision-making, but it can be more challenging in authorities where there is a fine political balance – this all depends on the council’s wider political context.
It comes down to the relationships between groups and members, as effective scrutiny depends on the right behavioural and cultural aspects. Part of a positive council culture is about scrutiny and the executive working together to develop solutions, as scrutiny may help to reach consensus around some controversial issues in a council without overall control. However, scrutiny makes recommendations, not decisions – so some mutual understanding is necessary for the executive to accept and implement scrutiny’s suggestions. It all depends on how the role of scrutiny is valued and promoted.
Effective scrutiny can happen in in all forms of governance. Depending on the political climate of the council, there could be a cross-party approach to scrutiny, in which policies and decisions are judged on their merits, or scrutiny can become an arena in which political disputes and point-scoring dominate.
Whatever form of administration is adopted following NOC, there will be the choice as to how governance operates. Ensuring that all officers understand the implications of changes and new ways of working will help the council adapt quickly. Equally as important, will be the role of senior officer leadership in stepping back to review new arrangements to assess whether they are supporting effective and democratic decision-making, and what can be done to improve any flaws identified.
Our governance risk and resilience framework provides you and your colleagues with a common language to explore what needs to be done to anticipate, manage and adapt to risks in governance – such as no overall control. If you need to tackle a governance issue in your authority, but you are not quite sure where to start, just get in touch for advice.