Blog: Political culture: the central role of the executive

Posted on 06/02/2020 by Ed Hammond. Tags: , , ,

This is the first in a series of five blogs on political culture and scrutiny. Over the course of the next couple of months we will explore what political culture is, what its practical implications are and how members and officers at a local level can work together to identify deficiencies in how people act and behave to promote a more positive and productive approach to politics and local democracy at a local level.

Some of this work intersects closely with work that the LGA has been doing on civility in public and political life – and it also links with material that we have just produced which directly engages with the support that the executive needs to do to promote and support scrutiny.

In the sector, we talk a lot about “leadership” and what good leadership might look like. It is far easier to describe it in the abstract than it is to give examples of it in practice. Good leadership is individual, it is personal – it is relational, about the way that different people, working together, interact. By definition this means that good leadership will look different in every council.

There are some common principles. One is that the senior councillor leadership of an authority – the executive – sets the tone for others to follow. Senior leaders “model” behaviour for others, and this is particularly the case in the political environment.

Traditionally we might have thought of “good leadership” by the executive as being about working consensually, being open and transparent, being visibly accountable. These are all important characteristics but to them we would also add the provision of political direction for the authority.

This particular characteristic can often be overlooked. We may support and encourage behaviours which are “non-partisan” and even “non-political” but politics is an inherent part of how councils run themselves – and of how scrutiny operates too. An executive without clear political priorities, tentative about expressing its preferred political direction and equivocal about the ideological principles which motivate it is an executive that is likely to be ineffective.

Political direction is about making decisions about what is important, and what isn’t. By definition, these decisions will be matters of contention. Political disagreement will arise. Some of this will be performative, played out on the floor of full Council. Much, however, will be real and heartfelt. Just as the role of the executive has to allow for the assertion of strong political direction it also has to allow for the assertion of strong political opposition. This political opposition is also part of the exercise of strong leadership – on the executive side, good leaders will recognise the need to be challenged (not only does it help to refine and develop policy, it also helps with Group discipline) and, on the part of the opposition, effective and productive opposition is a way to demonstrate to yourselves and to the public at large that you are ready for power.

How does this – how should it – play out in scrutiny? Scrutiny is absolutely a place for the political direction of the executive to be challenged – on the basis of evidence. Scrutiny is an inherently “political” space but it should not be overtly party political – it should provide the opportunity for different priorities and motivations for action to emerge and be discussed. In this way it provides a similar (but distinct) function to good political opposition. It supports the executive by challenging assumptions, tightening up sloppy and lazy thinking where necessary, and drawing into the council the perspectives and insights of those individuals and groups which the executive (and senior officers) may not have heard.

A council’s executive has to demonstrate that they “get” this, both by words and deeds. It is a start, but not enough on its own, to speak warm words about the role of scrutiny without taking action to properly support it. An executive which really recognises the practical benefits that scrutiny brings will actively support it in a number of ways:

  • By participating in frequent, formal and informal dialogue and discussion with scrutiny about work programming (engaging in debate in a constructive and good faith manner about what scrutiny might, and might not, look at), and about substantive policy issues. This includes pitching up to committee meetings, often accompanied by senior officers, to answer frankly and candidly for executive action;
  • By promptly providing – and volunteering – information which is likely to be relevant to scrutiny’s work programme;
  • By responding intelligently and creatively to recommendations that scrutiny makes – doing so by taking definite, provable action rather than saying things like recommendations will be “noted” or taken under advisement.

This, we should be clear, is a baseline set of behaviours – the minimum that we should expect. Executives who sit back and complain about scrutiny being “ineffective” when they have not sought to engage with these matters properly have only themselves to blame if scrutiny’s direction is not to their liking. It is an attitude that suggests a political naivety, a lack of understanding about the uncomfortable presence of the checks and balances that need to go alongside political leadership in a modern council.

Our next blog will go into this topic in more detail, by exploring the mutual motivations of scrutineers and the executive – what drives each group of councillors and where opportunities arise for tension and disagreement. I’ll also talk about how such disagreements might be overcome.

If you want to explore and discuss some of the challenges that you have around scrutiny, and the relationship between scrutiny and the executive, CfGS’s Scrutiny Improvement Review (SIR) service may be something you want to take a look at.




About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.