Cambridge Labour’s young guns take up office


Some thoughts and advice for Cambridge City Council’s new executive councillors – in particular for those that have never held executive office before

They’ve been named here. Included in this list are tweeting councillors Carina O’Reilly (deputy leader covering the city centre & public places), Richard Johnson (community, arts and recreation) and Peter Roberts (environment, waste and health). My local councillors Lewis Herbert (council leader) and George Owers (finance and resources) are also on the council’s executive, as are the two Kevins, councillors Kevin Price (housing) and Kevin Blencowe (planning and transport). ****Good Luck**** to you all in your new posts.

A blogpost about public administration

Cambridge Labour’s manifesto is here for those of you who haven’t seen it. I’m not going to cover what’s in the manifesto – that debate has been had and Labour won the local election here. (For those interested, my thoughts at the time are here). My thoughts in this post are based on having worked with ministers in the civil service – in particular junior Labour ministers who were appointed to executive office for the first time. The party political context matters because I’ve found the parties have different cultures when it comes to running executive offices.

No longer backbench councillors

You are now individually and collectively some of the most influential people within the city. With that comes both prestige (yes – really!) and increased scrutiny. People and organisations that you may never have heard of before might start getting in touch with you on a regular basis. How you conduct yourselves in official business, online and in private will now have a higher profile than when you were in opposition. Please bear this in mind.

Learning and training

Public administration has evolved significantly since Cambridge Labour was last in office. At the same time, the skills and competencies you need to run an executive office successfully are very different to those needed to be an effective political campaigner and ward councillor. Do your own skills review. What are the skills and knowledge you need to carry out your duties effectively? Which of these skills do you not currently have? Where can you go about getting the training you need? The council has a training budget which, across the public sector tends to be underspent. Use it – and use it wisely. For example it might be better value for money to bring in someone who has experience of high public office who can tailor a group course to the demands of Cambridge rather than sending you down to London for courses there. The main ones to consider at the outset are programme management, (within that risk management) and managing teams.

Managing a team of people not in your political movement

This can be the making or breaking of your executive and of your manifesto. Local council officials will be the ones you charge with delivering your manifesto on your behalf. They are the ones who will be doing the day-to-day work. They are also your eyes and ears.

Motivating people

Learn what makes them ‘tick’ – what motivates them. Find out what style of management allows them to perform a their best – and just as importantly, what stifles them. Due to the sensitive and pressured nature of what you will be working on, avoid unnecessary conflicts. Conflicts will happen, but make sure you don’t personalise them and that you all know & use the systems for managing them. While you can block people on social media, you can’t block people who you have to work with day-in-day-out.

Being clear in your instructions

Fewer & more clear instructions are better than a stream of directives. Ensure those working for you know what you want to do, why you want to do it, what your expected result is and how long it’ll take for them to do it. Most importantly, trust them unless/until proven otherwise. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to assume that the council officials are all Lib Dems because they were in office before you. Some Labour ministers made this mistake in 1997 & some Coalition ministers made this mistake in 2010. Please don’t repeat them.

Delegate effectively

Even with all the time in the world you will never be able to do everything. What are the things that with your very limited time you need to be focusing on? Which are the things that you can delegate to officials? In principle, things only need referring to you when you need to make a decision about something. Save progress updates for programme/project meetings so they don’t clog up your inboxes.

Information management

You’ll be more than familiar with the huge amount of paperwork you get for council meetings. Having seen them myself as a member of the public, my worry is that the information you really need to make decisions – the important stuff – is buried. What are your ‘must knows’, your ‘want to knows’ and ‘would like to knows’? (If it’s the last of the three, that information generally doesn’t need to be there unless you’ve asked specifically for it).

How do you want information to be presented to you? Are you someone who likes reading lots of text? Are you someone who likes things on slides? Do you like tables of data or do you prefer charts and graphs? How long do you want your briefing papers to be? Most ministers I’ve worked for say two sides of A4 on substantive issues, with information, pictures and graphs attached in appendices.

Your gatekeepers

You’ll have council staff responsible for supporting you. They will be the ones who will be doing things like managing your council diaries and preparing your papers. Treat them kindly and with dignity. Chances are the more experienced staff will have seen crises that you’ve not seen before. Ask them for their advice on how to handle.

You’ll have even less time for the likes of Puffles

Good! 😉 The point being here is social media users may want to review how they use social media to interact with residents. Content, tone, frequency, subject area. Don’t be afraid to refer things outside of your portfolio to someone else. Your time is now much more precious than it was before.

Ensure backbench councillors & activists pick up some of your campaigning & constituency work

This goes particularly for councillors in Abbey and Coleridge wards (the latter being my ward). Half of the councillors in those wards are executive councillors. This means the amount of time they will have to devote to constituency and community work will be significantly restricted. The demands of executive office are significant. This means that the backbench councillors will need to step up if collectively councillors in those wards are to maintain their existing presence.


Transparency and accountability

You are now going to be on the receiving end of things like the Freedom of Information Act – brought in by Labour in 2000. Expect to be on the receiving end of a number of requests. At the same time, think how you can reduce the number of requests by proactively publishing information. Think about how best the information you publish states what decisions you’ve taken, why you’ve taken those decisions and what evidence bases you have that justify the decisions you’ve taken.

Think also about how the scrutiny and questions you receive from the wider public (ie not just those of us that watch local democracy closely in Cambridge) feed into your decision-making processes. You will always be making decisions on the basis of imperfect information. That’s the nature of the beast. Do your polices, systems and processes allow you to be flexible where the info/evidence bases change?

Managing expectations

Me and Richard Taylor disagreed on this earlier

Managing expectations – whether the public’s, your own or those of your staff, are essential for sound public administration. This is where your management skills will be tested. There are a number of questions you’ll want to ask your staff and advisers, such as:

  • What is the current situation with your policy portfolio?
  • Where do you want to get to with your portfolio given your manifesto commitments?
  • How are you going to bridge the gap between the above two?
  • What are the things that are currently getting in the way of achieving your manifesto commitments?
  • How are you going to overcome those barriers?
  • What are the risks associated with delivering your manifesto commitments?
  • How are you managing those risks?

Much of the above comes down to sound project and programme management principles. Get into the habit of asking a regular set of basic questions at the start of each meeting you have, such as:

  • Progress update – what has happened/changed since the last meeting you had?
  • Top three risks – what are they, how are they being managed and by who?
  • Achievements – what has been done/completed and that can be crossed off the list of things to do?
  • Correspondence from outside organisations

‘Stakeholder management’

Yeah – I hate the term too. One of the first things you may want to do is to commission your staff to draw up an ‘influence/interest matrix’ of people and organisations that have something to do with your policy area. Who are the people you want to be communicating with and listening to regularly? Who are the people and organisations that can enhance what you’re doing in the council? (This comes back to my concept of ‘mapping our communities’ in Cambridge – are there people and organisations that we’re missing?)

Communicating directly

Inevitably there will be a lot of comment on what you do over the next year – a fair amount from this blog. You don’t have to rely on mainstream media or local bloggers to be the means of getting messages or explanations out. Is there an option of having a corporate blog for executive councillors where once a month a different executive councillor writes a short piece about what they have been doing over the previous few months? It also might be a useful outlet for an executive councillor to explain what decisions have been taken and why – even if that explanation is a transcript of a speech delivered to a full council. At least that way if anyone complains as a result of an article in the media or someone else’s blog, you can always refer them back to the transcript of your speech & see if they follow up with a more detailed/specific question. (Parts of the civil service have tried this and it’s worked well).

And finally…

You won’t get everything right. You’ll make mistakes – remember you’re going to be making decisions on the basis of imperfect information due to the time pressures more than anything else. When things go wrong, far better to hold your hands up and say “Yes, we got this wrong.” Then briefly explain the cause (without blame) of why that thing went wrong and what you learnt from it for the future. That’s a far better, more effective and more honest way of dealing with failures – and chances are the public will see you in a better light for it. There’s only so long you can credibly defend the indefensible for. In this environment, that’s not long at all.

Good luck and best wishes!


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