Over the last 12 months, local government has played an increasingly high-profile role in engaging communities and representing their diverse needs, during this extended period of lockdown and pandemic management. Whether at county, unitary or parish level, councils are a touch point to hold communities together and serve as trusted source of information and service provision.
Recent events in Handforth have thrust the parish council onto the national stage, and perhaps for the first time in history, a parish council meeting has become part of the national conversation. Here we look at four warning flags that leadership, particularly those representing communities, should be aware of, even when in the heat of debate. We ask Seb Lowe, GS Partner and leader of Rugby Borough Council, and Barry McNeill, GS Partner and leadership & OD specialist, to reflect on some of these red flags and disabling behaviours.
1. Public scrutiny is now virtual and instant
Seb Lowe (SL):
While the unfortunate conduct of the Handforth Parish Council has made a national hero of Jackie Weaver and spawned countless memes and t shirts, it does highlight that it is easier than ever before for members of the public to watch their elected local representatives in action. Whilst viewing figures from most local council social media channels do not suggest they are about to rival Netflix; elected members undoubtedly need to be more careful about what they say and how they say it. Handforth may be the most notorious example of a meeting going viral, but it is by no means the only example of a meeting attracting attention for the wrong reasons.
Barry McNeill (BM):
Leading and working effectively in public service relies upon peer and public trust, the latter vital to protecting the delicate relationship between local government and the community. So what factors are essential to establishing trust? Stephen Covey breaks trust into two core dimensions: character, which consists of intent and integrity, and competence, which breaks down into capability and results. Establishing trust takes time, but when leaders demonstrate character and competence through their actions and behaviours, consistent evidence can quickly build a trusting relationship. But you can destroy trust very quickly. The behaviours seen in the Handforth Parish Council meeting are an extreme example of this and will require significant effort to rebuild for the future. A more acute awareness of personal impact upon others and how you are perceived Leaders need to be acutely aware of their impact and how others will perceive their behaviour and act in line with their responsibility.
2. Egos, and jockeying for position can quickly descend into bullying
Whilst I can honestly say that I have not witnessed any bullying within my own council, I am aware that not all elected members everywhere could say the same. If there is one key lesson for Handforth Parish councillors specifically, it is a simple truth that most elected councillors already know: the general public strongly dislike bullying or childish behaviour from their elected representatives. The vast majority of elected representatives are there for the right reasons and it is essential that adding value to the community is the core motivator rather than self-aggrandisement. Again, this is something that the general public strongly dislike. Parish councillors of Handforth should take note: there is a reason that it is Jackie Weaver who is now a much-loved national celebrity.
At the core of what we witnessed in Handforth was the issue of power: the exertion of positional power over personal power. Personal power is the ability to influence and engage others through the strength of your communication, interpersonal relationships, and style. Positional power defaults to claiming legitimate influence based on defined role and delegated authority. While it is essential to adhere to legislative requirements, emotional outbursts claiming authority through rank merely undermine your power position and give others greater personal power. This power dynamic played out beautifully in the Handforth example, with Jackie Weaver remaining extraordinarily calm and becoming somewhat of a hero in the eyes of the public.
When working with Executive and Councillor populations, we use 360-degree feedbacks and diagnostic tools to open up the dialogue around behaviour, specifically separating intent from impact. An individual can intend to help clarify the importance of roles and responsibilities. Still, if their behaviour comes across as aggressive or overly domineering, any positive intent is quickly undermined by the impact. To support Seb’s comments that this is quite unusual, our data, gathered through the thousands of personality and behavioural assessments we conduct every year as part of our Altitude leadership model, indicates that ‘Influence and Impact’ is a significant area of strength in local government leaders when compared to leaders across the broader public sector.
We must remain vigilant in calling out bullying behaviour and tactics, however, when we see it. Our public institutions must be inclusive and welcoming; any action perceived to be bullying will prevent participation and engagement.
3. Clarity over legislative procedure
“Read the standing orders! Read them and understand them!” So goes the most famous line from the meeting. Procedural misunderstandings – even on the part of very experienced councillors or officers – are fairly common in council meetings. It is incumbent on everyone involved in local government to ensure that there is clarity around rules and procedure for the conduct of public meetings, and that all participants are agreed on what those rules are. Some councils do this far better than others, however there is a clear correlation between those councils which clearly articulate what they are doing and why with those who are most highly regarded by the people they represent.
This point moves from positional power over personal power to process over relationships. The line quoted by Seb highlights one of the influencing tactics that resonate with the realm of the childlike tantrum: “But it’s my turn”; “I was meant to have it next.”
Resorting to process negates the importance of the relationship. Within our Altitude data research, ‘Making relationships count’ is an area where local government leaders would benefit from greater focus when compared to leaders across the broader public sector. As Seb points out, achieving procedural clarity is a ‘must-have’ for everyone involved in local government. But, striving to deliver the best outcomes for our communities has to be more than procedural clarity. It is about everyone working effectively together, collaborating to solve the most pressing issues, and working together on setting the foundations for the benefit of all. Leaders must focus on building, developing, and growing high-quality relationships to achieve this way of working..
4. Confusion can lead to contempt
It is not just councillors who are confused. Much of the commentary in the media around Handforth Parish Council has come from a standpoint of a misunderstanding of the role and nature of a parish council, in some cases confusing it with a larger entity. In many parts of the country, it is entirely possible for one household to sit within the boundaries of three different councils (parish, district, county – to say nothing of any potential membership of a combined authority). All these entities may be referred to as “the” council, and all will consist of elected members who are styled as councillor. It is therefore perfectly understandable that many residents are often unsure as to which council has which responsibilities. It is incumbent on councils to try to communicate this to their residents, and many make an effort to do so. However, there will always be some confusion as long as single households are represented by multiple councils. Again, there is a clear correlation between those councils which clearly articulate their aims and vision, and those which are best regarded by their residents.
For me, this point brings us back to the earlier discussion about public trust and maximising social value. Residents need to see the value of the work delivered by each of the constituent parts within the system. For anyone in a leadership role within a complex system, demonstrating systems leadership and adding value through every interaction has to be fundamental to improving the social impact you achieve. By identifying confusion and complexity, leaders can create clarity and influence new ways of working to deliver greater social value and community impact.
Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that the reason this meeting has become so notorious is that it was genuinely exceptional. As a councillor, I can honestly say that I have never witnessed anything even remotely like what happened in Handforth. The vast majority of elected representatives are there for the right reasons and behave in the right way. Like almost every other elected councillor in the country, I was horrified by the way in which this particular meeting unfolded. However, the very fact that we were all watching it should be of some comfort to us all – if every parish council meeting in England was like this it would not be news.