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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).

2 Comment(s)
Clive Mitchell
5. January 2012
Local Government Advisor

Thanks for this blog post. Good to get some comparative analysis, something we don't do enough of in the UK. Particularly interested in the balance of power and citizen-led approach to voting lists that you describe in Baden-Wurttemberg. Am wondering what drives the consensus between mayor and council - presumably it's a constitutional separation of powers, but what stops the polarisation?

Gerhard Banner
13. February 2012
German local government expert

Clive Mitchell wonders what drives the consensus between mayor and council in Baden-Württemberg. Is it the separation of powers? And what stops polarisation? There is indeed a constitutional separation of powers. The council is the supreme body of the local authority, and it legally decides on all important issues. It is not split into decision-makers and backbenchers. The council as a whole is very much aware of its ultimate decision-making power and of its responsibility to control the mayor. What drives consensus? The municipal code of Baden-Württemberg has put in place a level playing field between council and mayor, with rules which basically make cooperation a more promising strategy than conflict. The council's disposition to dialogue has much to do with the ‘open list’ voting system. Each voter has as many votes as there are council seats. He selects a list, and if he leaves it unchanged, each candidate on the list gets one vote. But a candidate can be given up to three votes. And the voter can even transfer candidates from other lists to his own list and give them up to three votes. The ‘rebalancing’ of lists is very popular. It generally works in favour of locally respected candidates from business, the community sector or popular professions such as doctors. Political parties and independent groups anticipate this voting behaviour and strive to recruit candidates who will attract votes,as individuals, not simply as party members. The readiness of these elected members to speak, and now and then to vote independently, gives them visibility, boosts the debate in public and creates a climate conducive to cross-party policy-making. Majorities tend to form around issues and only to a lesser extent along party lines. The mayor is even more interested in a climate of consensus. As CEO (head of the paid service) he legally ‘prepares and implements the decisions of the council’. This gives him a strong position but does not guarantee his proposals a majority in council. Whenever an issue is controversial, the mayor will try to persuade or seek compromise in informal talks with leading council members prior to bringing his proposal before the appropriate committee and full council, both chaired by him. Since absolute majorities of one party are rare and formal coalitions are virtually unknown, the mayor's interest is to act and to be perceived as a non-partisan moderator and unifier. On a mayor's election campaign posters, the logo of his party will be ostentatiously absent and he will only exceptionally attend the meetings of his party group. There is growing agreement among experts that the local government system of Baden- Württemberg is the best performing and closest to citizens within Germany.


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