Rewards of cross-party collaboration

By Kathy O'Leary | 17 July 2019

‘How do you do it?’ my leader and I were asked time and again at the recent Local Government Association (LGA) conference in Bournemouth. This wasn’t about late-night staying power on the dance floor of the LGBT 1980s disco, but how to make a ‘rainbow coalition’ work well.

The local elections this year saw a further 37 councils shift to no overall control (NOC). Of the 248 councils where local elections were held, some 73 are now NOC.

My own council has been run as a co-operative alliance of the Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat groups since 2012. It therefore has some experience of the opportunities and challenges of needing to take a more collaborative approach to decision-making.

However, this isn’t just about the alliance itself. The largest group of the council’s 51 members is the Conservatives and the council prides itself on its successful cross-party collaboration on many issues, which impressed our recently visiting LGA Corporate Peer Challenge team.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that given the local prominence of Extinction Rebellion, Stroud DC was in the first handful of councils to declare a climate change emergency last year and that this received support across the council chamber. Attention is now focused on the wider aspects of collaboration – how to work with our partners to have balanced discussions with our communities, empower them and facilitate action to help achieve a demanding target of carbon neutrality by 2030, another challenge facing an increasing number of councils.

So what do all those councils facing the new territory of NOC – and the rest of us – need to think about?

The challenge of needing to collaborate politically to move forward at all is evident, but this may present a great opportunity to make a cultural shift away from a more adversarial approach to local politics.

At a time when trust in national politicians is at an all-time low and people are increasingly fed up with Westminster, it feels as if local government is distancing itself and thinking more about its relevance to the communities it serves.

The art of successful collaboration starts with a shared purpose in putting people and place first. The ability to foster and maintain good working relationships founded on mutual trust and respect is important. Effective collaboration, as identified in a number of eminent studies, relies on good communication, networking, negotiation and conflict-resolving skills, the ability to empathise, and not least leadership.

Put simply, we need to find a way of agreeing what we are here for and getting on together to achieve it. It helps if this is couched in a good understanding of what is important to our communities in the first place, as highlighted in Donna Hall’s recent article in this column entitled Communities know best. It is also important to agree with communities what is realistically deliverable if we are to escape what some see as the traps of taking a populist approach to local democracy.

Collaborative decision-making is about working together to see the bigger picture and build consensus. This requires developing a good understanding of evidence to frame problems and issues, and a focus on solutions based on the outcomes we all want to achieve for our communities, so that we can make informed decisions and choices.

At its most powerful, it is not just cross-party but also cross-organisational, with good systems leadership also delivering more for the public sector pound in times of tight budgets.

We will deliver better results if time and trouble is taken on preparation. Shortcuts tend to result in difficulties at the point when decisions have to be made and explained to the wider community. However, the downside of thoroughness can be a loss of momentum, which is magnified when collaborating with partners from organisations with very different cultures

The prize of shifting towards a more collaborative culture within councils and with external partners and communities is significant – shared understanding, common goals and new ways of managing and networking for joint action in our local leadership of place. Somewhere over the rainbow…

Kathy O’Leary is chief executive of Stroud DC

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