Does being a leader need to be a full time job?

July 2, 2018   By Dame Jane Roberts, NLGN Chair, Research Fellow in Public Leadership, The Open University Business School

As the local government clans gather in Birmingham this week, let me offer a view counter to the apparent increasing trend for local political leaders to work full-time in their leadership role. I suspect it is an unpopular view.

With the changes heralded by the Local Government Act 2000, directly elected mayors of local authorities have all, to my knowledge, been full-time in their role and council leaders seem increasingly to be following in their wake. Even Cabinet members commonly now work full-time on council duties! Yet this is a non-executive role: councils appoint well-paid executive directors to manage departments.

I have profound misgivings about this direction of travel. Having been a council leader, believe me I understand the pressures. If council leaders wish to and are able to work full-time in the role, so be it, but I am very uncomfortable with any expectation that they should. We should retain flexibility so as to encourage as wide a range of people as possible to become leaders of councils. Councils should be organised in such a way that it is eminently possible for cabinet councillors, including the leader, to work in other employment. It is quite feasible. Of ten members in Camden’s cabinet in the early 2000s, eight of us had jobs, mostly full-time. This appears now to be unusual and yet there has been little consideration of where the trend for full-time council leaders might lead.

What are my concerns?

Aside from the potential blurring of responsibilities between councillor and officer, leader and chief executive, my worry is that we narrow still further the range of people who can become council leaders. Only those who are retired, those who own their own business, or those in so-called ‘politics facilitating’ jobs (such as PR/ lobbying/ think tanks) where having worked as a council leader is likely to be recognised as a boon, are likely to be able to stand. Those with significant domestic responsibilities and in jobs and professions where skills have to be maintained are excluded. Is this really what we want?

And for those who do make it to the top, their exclusive focus on their political role risks enhancing the perception that councils are led by people unlike them, disconnected from the experience of ordinary people. Furthermore, having all their financial (and many other) eggs in one basket means that leaders are more likely to be reluctant to go – understandably. The risks of losing political office for them are after all raised very considerably: income gone overnight and since 2014, following the unpardonable decision of a former Secretary of State, no pension. With such high stakes, why would any council leader seriously engage in succession planning – ensuring that there are a number of talented people from whom a successor could be picked – and yet this is a key task of leadership? We have been warned. As Peter Riddell observed of MPs over 20 years ago,

“This new breed of full-time politicians is determined to cling on to both office and seats” and yet local government seems to be hurtling down the same path.

With council leaders drawn from narrower occupational backgrounds, with a single minded focus on their political role alone, and with conditions such that they may seek to remain in office longer than they might otherwise, the widely prevailing public perception of politicians as a class apart can only be reinforced. At a time when there is profound political disengagement and distrust in politicians, surely this is unwise?

The great strength of local government is that it is indeed local and its proximity of elected councillors to those whom they represent. Councillors, whether front and back benchers, are the indispensable link between the council and local people. Should we not create the conditions in which the widest range of people can come forward to stand, to lead, to serve – and to leave?*

* Roberts, J. (2018). Exiting the Political Stage: Exploring the Impact on Representative Democracy. British Politics. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-018-00091-3.

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