The UK Experience by Malcolm Morley*
After the General Election, with no party able to command a majority in the House of Commons, the options available were endlessly analysed under the glare of television cameras, and drawn out negotiations in private ensued.
Finally the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats reached a deal to enable them to form a government.
The new Government now comprises representatives from both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.
An agenda for change has been drafted and policies and expenditure are being reviewed.
An intention to cut £6 billion out of this year’s budget and to tackle the longer term fiscal deficit is to be converted quickly into firm proposals and action.
While this form of partnership working at national level in the UK is rare (this is the first coalition in 40 years), it is far more common within Local Government.
In the northwest of England, for example, nearly half of the councils are either ruled by a minority administration or by two or more parties.
Many commentators have postulated about why clear majorities have not been achieved, but it is the reality of making the situation work that counts.
Business still has to be conducted, services provided, budgets managed, customer expectations managed and staff motivated.
Minority or joint administrations often require great interpersonal skills at both political and managerial levels to make them work.
Without the certainty of a majority of votes in the Council Chamber, a lot more work has to be done to ensure that policy proposals are not only suitable and feasible but acceptable to partners.
This is particularly the case where tough choices have to be made due to financial restraint.
Everyone in Local Government is expecting the Government to announce budget cuts for councils and the cancelling of major capital expenditure projects.
Meeting these cuts will require very difficult decisions to be made by councils – decisions that will test political coalitions and decisions that will test the managerial resilience within councils.
Senior managers within councils need increasingly to be able to develop radical options to meet the challenges faced both by the communities that they serve and their political masters.
Coalitions require managers to be very politically aware and to truly understand the boundaries of acceptability when proposing options.
They also need to be able to judge when and how it is possible to push the boundaries of the definition of acceptability.
Many of Local Government’s senior managers get to their positions through professional routes, which major on teaching what is suitable and feasible in responding to challenges.
While all councils and politicians need access to this type of expertise, the key to successful management at the most senior levels politically and managerially is the ability to understand and to change what is defined as acceptable.
There is a clear and growing need in the development of those in, and aspiring to, the most senior positions within Local Government to acquire the ability to understand and to continuously evolve the definition of acceptability.
*Malcolm Morley is Chief Executive of Harlow District Council and can be contacted via the Editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of his employer.