In the media

Managing with No Overall Control: tools for collaboration

Luke Muir

By Luke Muir, Sir Merrick Cockell

The MJ

17 May 2023

This article was first published in The MJ

As the dust settles on the pomp of King Charles III’s coronation, new political leaders continue to be crowned with more muted fanfare across a selection of England’s local authorities.

For many, this may be a formality with the leader known as soon as the result of the count was announced by caffeine-fuelled council staff. Elsewhere, even where political control didn’t change hands, a significant number of long-term leaders lost their seats resulting in uncertainty and the sudden emergence of new people keen to make their mark. For an increasing number of councils with no outright winner there will be delicate negotiations that could last right up to the Council’s AGM.

Looking at the map of local election results, it is striking that despite lots of change in seats between parties, No Overall Control dominates. If No Overall Control were a party, it would have been the largest single council winner in the country - with 92, or 40% of the councils declared in England. This continues a trend seen since the 2015 elections, despite our first past the post system favouring bigger parties.

In the last week, councils big and small have passed to NOC, ranging from the rural districts of Lincolnshire’s West Lindsey and Boston to commuter belt areas such as Hertsmere and Welwyn Hatfield. In these places, chief officers and senior leadership teams will be preparing the ground for working with new administrations, either a formal coalition or a minority with confidence and supply agreements.

The risk in these situations is that political manoeuvring ends up taking precedent over effective planning, decisions, and delivery. So, what can officer teams do to help their local leaders form effective administrations? They might draw on good practice from the experience of senior civil servants who have worked on large collaborative projects across multiple departments, arms-length bodies, and partner organisations. These include the Covid vaccination programme, Glasgow’s recent commonwealth games and the construction of the new power station at Hinkley Point C. They are complex, involve gigantic budgets and require working with and balancing the variety of priorities, objectives and personalities. PA’s work with 36 public sector leaders involved in these projects suggests there are five lessons council officers could draw on.

The first is to set new goals and strategy with sufficient room for different groups to find enough to satisfy their own priorities and supporters. Leadership teams can help find the common ground and shared underlying drivers between differing political groups and translate these into a mutually agreeable set of priorities for the local authority.

Then there is a need to focus on behaviour as well as structures. In addition to administering formal governance structures, officers can use tools from behavioural science, such as nudge theory, to help drive constructive approaches. This means explicitly discussing and agreeing principles and ground rules for how different groups should work together.

This work should prepare for political fluctuation with adaptive design. This means that when a political shift happens, programmes can adapt to them rather than break. In particular, big programmes should be broken down into modules which are easier to evolve or redesign. Giving teams licence to experiment with new ideas will also start to foster team flexibility that means they can handle changes in direction or emphasis better.

The diverse perspectives and goals within NOC councils have the potential to create destructive tension. However, if managed effectively this tension can be used productively. CEOs can help set the conditions for this by embracing techniques such as Kim Scott’s radical candour. This establishes ways of providing honest views and feedback within challenging environments. Officers, acting as trusted, honest brokers can enable productive, rather than destructive challenge.

Finally, there is a need to create time to build resilience. One of the most common emotions felt by public sector leaders of big multi-stakeholder programmes was exhaustion. The mental and emotional energy required of leadership teams in councils with NOC can increase as people work to bridge the gap between differing values, agendas, and personalities. In a sector that is already stretched, leaders need to make time to build new ways of working and increase resilience. That means establishing more cross-team communication and using short-term goals and milestones to focus effort.

Voters may not have been able to put a cross against NOC on their ballot paper but where that has ended up as the unintended consequence then council leaders – members and officers - have the responsibility to make the democratic decision work. That may require the rapid learning of new skills and enhancing some that are less developed in single party administrations. Learning from current collaborations and collaborators in other spheres will help NOC councils to rapidly and effectively implement the will of their electorate.

PA’s report – The Collaboration Cohort is available

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