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5. January 2012

Good Governance

Better governance through directly elected mayors in the UK?

There has recently been a public consultation in 12 English cities about whether to introduce directly-elected mayors. The debate on this issue has been lively, with leading organisations and national and local political figures falling into the 'for' and 'against' camps. Governance International is principally based in Birmingham and, as Birmingham will be voting in May 2012 on whether to have a directly elected mayor, we thought it was worth throwing in our two penny's worth.

We think there is a lot to learn from the German experience of directly elected mayors.  While Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg have long-standing experience with directly elected mayors, the rest of Germany only adopted the 'directly elected mayor' model between 1990 and 1995. In this set-up, the directly elected mayor chairs the council and prepares and implements council decisions, without a separate chief executive. All this takes place, of course, in the context of German 'local self-government', as a result of which local authorities have significant decision-making autonomy on local issues. Indeed, what the Localism Bill is trying to achieve in the UK has long been the constitutional position in Germany.

Although this the new directly elected mayors system has only recently become the  standard throughout Germany, in practice it has already become taken for granted as the obvious way to govern local councils in all the 16 German Länder (states). This means that Germany has no Whitehall department like CLG nor a Secretary of State in central government responsible for local government, no centrally defined performance indicators, no performance audits - as a matter of fact, there is no proper translation for the concept of 'public accountability' in the German language! (The audit commission of each Land merely undertakes a probity audit, checking whether local government acts in accordance with the law). Public accountability is therefore mainly exercised at local level, specifically through the mechanism of the directly elected mayor. Interestingly, the performance of the various mayoral systems has been quite different across Germany. We believe this gives valuable insights into what might happen in British cities if they move to having directly elected mayors.

The experiences of North-Rhine Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg are very instructive as these states represent two very different ways of operating an electoral model based on a 'directly elected mayor'. Whereas the Baden-Württemberg electoral system is based on a flexible list system, voters in North-Rhine Westphalia cannot change the order of the candidates on the lists nominated by local political parties for council elections. As a result, the council is strongly dominated by party politics, which makes the co-operation with the directly elected mayor difficult. In fact, there are often party coalitions for or against the mayor. Furthermore, the chairs of council committees have the power to define the agenda in agreement with the mayor. This gives council chairs a lot of visibility and makes this post very popular. As a result, the number of council committees is high. The main way for council chairs to demonstrate success is to implement new projects, which means additional expenditure. The fact is that more than one third of local authorities in NorthRhine-Westphalia have accumulated so much debt that they have now lost much of their budget autonomy and have to negotiate major investment expenditures with the audit commission of the Land, as they are at or near the limit of prudential borrowing.

The budget situation of local authorities is Baden-Württemberg is very different. According to the German local government expert and former Director of Governance International, Gerhard Banner, the superior performance of the Baden-Wuerttemberg local government system in terms of sound budget management and efficient public services is due to the strong co-operation between a strong mayor and a strong council which encourages their co-operation even on contentious issues. How can such a co-operative relationship develop?

Gerhard Banner (click here to see his website in German) suggests three key factors:

  1. The strong powers of the mayor to chair all committees and the council and to determine the agenda, which means that issues the mayor does not like (or believes cannot be financed) do not even get on the agenda. At the same time, the mayor seeks to build consensus and achieve the agreement of the local council in all important local government matters, including the local budget - indeed, it is not uncommon that local councils in Baden-Württemberg agree the budget unanimously. As we can see from the US, polarised politics is not conducive to balancing budgets!

  2. The person-oriented electoral system for mayors and councillors, which makes both mayors and councillors primarily accountable to local citizens and not to the political party which they may represent. Both the mechanism of cumulating votes (up to three votes can be given to one candidate) and mixing votes (votes can be given to from different lists) means that voters are not restricted to the lists presented by political parties or by the other associations formed by independent candidates and other interest groups. Typically, the smaller the local authority, the more use is made of this flexibility by local voters - in smaller local authorities in Germany, some candidates tend to be personally known to the voters. But even in big cities such as the Stuttgart, the capital city Baden-Wuerttemberg, with 600,000 inhabitants, there is cross-list voting in more than 50% of the voting forms. In the recent mayoral election in Nürtingen, voters even added to the voting form the name of a woman who was not standing as a candidate -  Claudia Grau's candidature was promoted by a citizens' movement in a skilful social media campaign (similar to US 'write-in' campaigns) and came very close to beating the incumbent mayor. Councillors are very well aware of the fact that they have been elected due to their personality and not simply because their name is on a party list. In fact, more than 40% of local councillors candidates in Baden-Wuerttemberg stand as Independent. The fact that the election of the mayor (who serves an 8 year term) does not coincide with the election of the local council (with a 5 year term) also helps to reduce the influence of party politics.

  3. The highly professional administrative expertise of the mayor who, in many cases, has considerable administrative experience in local government. Indeed, many mayors have occupied leading administrative positions in local government for many years and often have worked closely with other mayors, so they know the business and the legal framework inside out. Clearly, the voters in Baden-Wuerttemberg have matured over time and learnt that it is important to give a lot of weight to the professional qualifications of mayoral candidates.  It also helps that the local government constitution requires mayoral candidates to present themselves at a public hearing, which tends to be very well attended and reported, where they have to answer questions from local citizens - this makes very transparent the experience and professional qualification of the candidates.  

The German debate shows that the issue is not just whether to have directly elected mayors or not. Directly elected mayors are not a panacea for strong local leadership. As the German experience shows, the way the mayor interacts with the local council is one key success factor. Of course, another question is also which influence local people have on local budgets and local decisions. This will be discussed in our next blog.

And if you are a polyglot Gerhard's website has an online mayor check to help voters check the competence of candidates (click here - in German).

14. October 2011

Open Government

Fix my Society through Open Government

Elke Loeffler, Tony Bovaird and Frankie Hine-Hughes ran a well attended workshop at the Open Government BarCamp held by the Government 2.0 Netzwerk Deutschland in Berlin on 29th and 30th September. This blog sets out some of our thoughts and conclusions from the event and the discussions in and around the sessions.

The topic of open government has exploded since Barack Obama published an Open Government Directive for the United States Government. The directive included a commitment to unprecedented openness in Government in order to increase public trust and establish transparency, public participation, and collaboration in what the government does.  Greater openness is argued to strengthen democracy and promote the efficiency and effectiveness of government.

Following this US lead, governments across the world have followed suit in attempting to demonstrate their commitment to open government. The international scene has seen the formation of the Open Government Partnership - a multilateral government initiative seeking commitments to open government.

However, is 'open government' actually the right term? Since the concept has exploded onto the public governance scene, it has been obsessed in particular with transparency and open data, which have been treated as 'first amongst equals' in open government initiatives. The success of open government reforms is often being gauged in terms of how much transparency has increased and how many datasets have been published on-line. Much less attention has been paid to increasing citizen participation to help in  co-commissioning, co-design, co-delivery and co-assessing public services . Indeed, a recent report by America Speaks accuses the US government of failing to move towards a more participatory approach, due to focusing too much on transparency.

This obsession with getting data and information out there is misplaced. As some conference participants reminded us, an authoritarian government can publish a large number of datasets and claim to be open. So open government isn't just about information - it is also about enabling citizens to change how things are done. While transparency is important, it only enhances accountability, if it is combined with engagement mechanisms, so that they are interested.

For this reason we entitled our presentation 'Fix my society: more citizen participation through open government?'. We showcased four examples where government was made more open and participatory, particularly focusing on the most disenfranchised in society and issues that affect how we view our communities.

First, we talked about Stockport Council's adult social care website. The original website provided insufficient information, was hard to use and didn't help informed decision making - wasting everybody's time and increasing the frustration of actual and would-be service users. The council decided to co-design its new website with service users and providers. The new website, was much improved, with relevant and easy-to-find information. It has already had over 100,000 hits and provides an estimated saving of £300,000 per year. You can get more information about this by reading the case study here.

Our second example highlighted the work of Podnosh and Talk About Local. These two organisations provide training to help people get the skills and support they need to give their community a voice online. Both organisations have received funding from local authorities to provide training in deprived communities, so that local people can set up web-pages and circulate e-newsletters, at low cost  (e,g. by using free technologies such as Talk About Local has helped in setting up over 400 websites. These websites help people to engage with local authorities and service providers more effectively, using less time and energy. Moreover, they spread more information locally than can be achieved by traditional means.  For example the web site ran a campaign against Network Rail?s plans to refurbish Kings Cross station, because the plans didn't take the local community into account. The site lobbied LB of  Camden council to act, so that Network Rail was pressured into providing £1 million for community enhancements before planning permission was given.   

We then talked about FixMyStreet created by in 2007, with initial funding from the UK Government  FixMyStreet enables people to report, view or discuss common local problems (potholes in roads, graffiti, flytipping and so on) that if left unsorted can result in a 'broken window effect'. FixMyStreet is simple to use - you just enter your postcode, or street name, click on a map, input your problem (possibly with a photo), and it is documented on the site and the relevant council is informed. This enables citizens to see how many issues are reported in their areas - and also to see how responsive its council has been.  In turn, the council then has an incentive to act quickly and effectively. The site increases local authority accountability, increases local trust, strengthens citizen participation, and improves how we perceive our community.

It has been a major success: in the past week (14 October 2011) 1,034 reports have been made, 1,834 problems have been fixed in the past month, and there have been over 163,383 updates on reports since the site was created.

Our final example was Camden Council's use of social media to connect with its residents. Social media usage has exploded and Camden Council has taken a pro-active approach. Alasdair Mangham, Head of Information Systems and Development, says it has been a very cost effective way of communicating with citizens, and provides real-time feedback on how citizens view and feel about Camden?s services. Rather than simply pushing the message 'out there', the Council now engages in on-going conversations with citizens. The complaints management team uses Twitter to see what people say about them and to feedback quickly how they have responded to the complaints. One example was a complaint that a local park was closed during snow a year ago. Camden Council quickly tweeted that the park was closed because staff had not been able to get to work, and directed him to a website with details of local services disrupted by the weather. The following day the Council proactively tweeted to the man who complained that all Camden parks were now open.  This brought the enthusiastic response that he would blog about how good the Council had been (he has over 1,000 followers). This was publicity of the best kind - it stopped a complainant being sour, transformed him into an ally and resulted in the council being promoted by one of its customers as dynamic and effective.  To read more about how Camden has used social media to communicate better with its community, read this interview with Alasdair Mangham.

It became clear that Germany is lagging behind other developed nations when it comes to open government - e.g. it is not amongst the participating states for the Open Government Partnership. Despite having a burgeoning data using community, there are administrative and legislative barriers to opening up data. In our view, this reinforces the value for Germany in taking the lead in emphasising the citizen engagement strand of any potential open government strategy.

In particular, local authorities in Germany should open themselves up to citizens, so that they can both make better use of each other's assets. Germany already has many good practice examples of this - the time has come for them to be scaled up and disseminated more widely.  Towns like Nürtingen in Baden-Würtemburg and Offenbach in Hessen have a huge amount to offer in terms of smart citizen engagement - but have not yet cottoned onto the potential of social media.

So we came away from the 2011 Open Government Barcamp thinking that Germany has the opportunity to develop an open government strategy that fits its own strengths rather than struggling with pursuing transparency and open data as ends themselves. We hope that at next year's Barcamp the conversation will have moved to giving as much weight to open dialogue as to open data. And we hope, too, that the potential for transfer of international best practice is given more weight in the programme. After all, if open government is to empower citizens, we want them to be able to say  'No decision about me without me!' not just 'No decision about me without me being able to read it about in the internet!'

13. September 2011

Good Governance

What Austrian and UK local government can learn from each other


In July, Governance International arranged a visit of Martin Huber, CEO of the Salzburg Local Government Association, to LGiU to share practice between the two organisations and to learn from each other. Laura Wilkes, LGiU, organised a very interesting programme at LGiU and also set up a visit to Birmingham City Council. Here is what Martin Huber learnt from the two visits:

My recent visit to London and Birmingham was to look into how English local government is trying to cope with the fiscal crisis. It left a lasting impression on me.

Firstly the scale of the  challenges facing local authorities in the UK is remarkable. The current social and economic problems are far greater than in Austria - and quite a lot tougher than I had presumed. Indeed, the reductions in local council staff in the UK would be unthinkable in Austrian local government. Basically, local authorities in Austria cannot dismiss staff, as people are civil servants for life or have a very strongly protected employment status. Therefore, Austrian local authorities have to cut other costs in order to reduce current expenditure levels. Indeed, seven out of ten local authorities in Austria are currently not able to balance their budgets anymore. I was interested in learning about the kinds of strategies that UK local authorities use in order to achieve efficiency savings and to see if these strategies might be transferable.

For me it was thought-provoking to find out how local authorities are weighing up very different options for delivering various public services in the future: providing the services themselves, externalising them to private or third sector providers, or sharing the provision with someone else, or - where no cost-effective way is found - stopping the service, either completely or  partially. In Birmingham, for example, the City Council has set up a public-private partnership, Service Birmingham, to undertake all its customer contact and to help it transform all its public services - this is a joint venture, partly owned by the City Council and partly by Capita, a large private sector provider of public services, with the profits to be shared by the two partners. 

In Austria, many local authorities have also semi-privatised their utilities and other public services but local authorities still have a long way to go in sharing provision with other local authorities or even other administrative levels. Smaller local authorities have already become active in running shared services with neighbouring local authorities but in big cities an Austrian citizen may find two Citizen Advice Bureaus within 100 metres offering exactly the same services, one run by the municipality and the other one by the county. Stopping a service is also almost impossible when a local authority has to provide a service on behalf of central or Land (regional) government - as is the case for most public services in health and social care. This is why we currently have a very strong political debate about reform of the central-Land-municipality financial redistribution system in Austria.

I believe that we can also learn from the UK approach to commissioning from the voluntary sector. At present, most local authorities in Austria provide funding to voluntary associations on the assumption that a vibrant civil society is important for a strong local democracy. However, as local authorities have to reduce grants to football clubs, local music bands or other local associations there is now a debate on meaningful performance indicators which demonstrate to what degree their activities contribute to socially desirable outcomes. Most progress has already been made in the grants system for improving the quality of life of young people.

What struck me in the UK is that localism is now a hot topic, but the position of central government is still very strong. I am convinced that British central government will sooner or later realise that one of the most important requirements for solving the current economic problems and social conflicts is to strengthen the local level now. I believe this because locally people have real capacity to make things better - and to give them sufficient resources, funding and responsibilities to take on more of the tasks which central government is less able to perform.

Actually, if UK local authorities are still uncertain about what 'localism' means in practice, they need to visit Austria. Here, local councils benefit from local autonomy in budget decisions and public services and are free from interference from central and Land levels of government. This means there is no 'one size fits all' solution but things are done differently in different places - without the widespread criticism that I heard in England about the inequities of the 'postcode lottery'. There is also strong local accountability through a directly elected mayor - most Austrian regions have adopted this model for their municipalities.

Although administrative structures in the UK and Austria are quite different there are similarities in  the current challenges we face. This includes: demographic change (particularly the ageing population in rural areas); loss of confidence in the political establishment at several levels (especially the European level); 'booming growth' in the metropolitan engine of the economy (London in the UK, Vienna in Austria) - these are only a few examples. At the same time, there are also stark differences - for example, social cohesion is a lot stronger in Austria than in the UK. This is partly because the level of unemployment in Austria is much lower in the UK but also because Austria has always had a strong tradition of a welfare state, characterised by a culture of dialogue and partnership working between social partners.

However, with increasing costs of public health and social care, we need to reform the Austrian welfare state model. In this respect the current UK debate on the 'Big Society' and public service co-production is very instructive. So maybe we are all working towards the same vision of a more collaborative state, even though we are coming from different directions: In Austria, we clearly need less government but need to trust citizens more, accepting that they can help themselves. It seems to me that in the UK the state needs to rebuild trust with some of disenfranchised parts of society and invest resources into peer support schemes. Although this is already showing first results, it could be much more effective if it were systematically supported by the state.


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