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2) Accountability and Facelessness

The second leg of contemporary anomie is the faceless nature of political life. Here the restless world of globalisation has not just a geographical anonymity but also an accountability crisis: nobody appears to be responsible or accountable for anything. Susan M Kay, Mayor of Weymouth in Massachusetts, spoke of how her town had switched from a town meeting system to an elected mayor system because under the previous model nobody knew ‘who was really in charge’ when things started to go wrong.

This element goes beyond the consequences of globalisation and focuses instead on the nature of contemporary political life, dominated as it is by the traditional machines of party politics. In this world the shift away from the domination of political life by charismatic leaders, by personalities and by the attendant fears of corruption have generated a world dominated by committees, by distributed leadership and by decision-making behind closed doors. That the public often have
complete access to these council decisions does not necessarily mean that political decisionmaking is seen as transparent and the mayoral debate seems to have tapped into this. It is also the case that many members of the public are confused by the distribution of powers and responsibilities between central and local government and between the various elements of local government and this merely serves to feed the appetite for a more transparent political system – where the face of the person accountable is known to one and all. Indeed, in a recent poll for the Institute for Government in 2012 only 15 per cent of the 2,299 people polled said they knew the name of their local leader – but only half of these (eight per cent of the total) got the name right (Adonis and Gash, 2012: 6-7).

The four year appointment of elected mayors does at least provide a rather more stable platform for ‘putting a face to the place’ and achieving significant – and sometime controversial – change through a council that might otherwise be difficult for council leaders wary of the fragility of their own political base. This advantage is supported by data which suggests that leadership turnover in places with mayors is 50 per cent lower than those with council leaders (Parker, 2012: 20).

One such face that is well known to the electorate is Mayor Nenshi of Calgary who suggested that his direct public election gave him not just the political authority but the ‘moral authority’ to lead the city. Mayor Nenshi also seems to represent a growing trend amongst mayors: they have to be adept not just at leadership but the performance of leadership: the spinning of a narrative that catches the voters’ imagination and binds them to the inclusive vision of the mayor. Or Mayor Brown of Auckland suggested:

Tell a story about the city, past and future...people have to see your love for the place and if you have that sense of passion about the place that you live, and you care about that passion and the people, then the story will present itself.

This performative aspect of leadership is especially influential in an era where new social media provide greater access to voters and greater exposure to them (Alexander, 2010, 2011). Celia Wade-Brown, Mayor of the City of Wellington, New Zealand, reproduced the importance of this aspect in her concern that ‘Overall, you need to give the role the face time as a directly elected person. It’s more than just being strategic and policy – people need to feel connected to the mayor.’ And her deputy, Ian McKinnon, was equally adamant that the mayor was ‘a moral leader who is a “cheerleader” for the city and citizen...It’s very much a representative democracy – listen to the people – it is a vocal community.’ This is echoed in the comment by Mayor Kay (Weymouth, Massachusetts) about the importance of being outward facing:

Make sure that you are out there. Connect with your people, with the residents. Because if you stay out of touch, then you are
going to lose it. You have to have very good knowledge of all your departments, especially the key ones. But you also need to be out there in the street … I’m out there all the time; and they expect it … I’m one of those ‘out there in the public’ mayors. It works for me. I’m very social. It may not work for another. Someone else may be really administrative and kind of standoffish, not as social, but a really good administrator.

‘Putting a face to the place’ also exposes the belief that it is – and perhaps should be – ‘lonely at the top’ (Grint and Scholes, 2008). The idea that leadership involves some mechanism of ‘distance’ between leader and follower is commonplace but that this is a necessary aspect of leadership for both leaders and followers is less common. In both the contemporary world of work (Collinson, 2005) and the history of military leadership (Grint, 2007) the belief that proximate leaders are significantly better than distant leaders is pervasive. In contrast, Bogardus noted in 1927 that distance enabled rather than disabled leadership, an echo of Machiavelli (1997: 63) who was keen to note that distance was a useful device for preventing followers from perceiving the ‘warts and all’ nature of leaders, for ‘men in general judge more by their eyes than their hands; for everyone can see but few can feel. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few touch upon what you are, and those few dare not to contradict the opinion of the many who have the majesty of the state to defend them.’ It is also worth considering the utility of ‘acting at a distance’ as a means of enhancing power by enabling the more powerful to influence the less powerful without being physically present (Latour, 1988, 1991, Law and Hassard, 1999). This also implies that acting at a distance enables leaders to take unpleasant but necessary decisions for the benefit of the whole, often at the expense of a particular part.

Yet distancing the mayor from the rest of the politicians or officers or citizens is always a matter of skill: too little and the proximity becomes claustrophobic, too much and the gap becomes a chasm. Thus Sir Peter Soulsby (Labour City Mayor of Leicester) spent the very first weekend after his election moving the mayor’s office next to the officers’ offices to reduce what had been perceived as a political chasm between the political and the managerial leadership teams. The Leicester City Mayor also appointed a team of a Deputy and five Assistant Mayors from the existing councillors to distribute power away from the centre – a move in sharp contrast to the prevailing assumption that mayors would necessarily centralise power. Sarah Russell, one of the Assistant Mayors, said she felt ‘more challenged [by the change], but in a good way. It is an opportunity that I wouldn’t get in any other capacity. I now have more influence to change things.’ This, perhaps, is another important aspect of switching systems – it can provide greater opportunities for less experienced leaders to learn the ropes of leadership in a small area prior to taking on greater portfolios. As she explained, for significant things, each Assistant Mayor has a one-to-one slot with the City Mayor – it is a more approachable and open relationship with better access to the Mayor, giving reassurance: ‘He has experience and is an extra pair of eyes; he is someone who will back you up. Previously, under the council leader you were lucky to get one meeting every 12 months – it was never a functional part of running the team. It is now a big part.’ A similar response was made by a senior civil servant from Mayor Mandel’s office (Edmonton, Canada):

The power of his [Mandel’s] leadership in Edmonton is obvious – by empowering the councillors (and the people) it stops them focusing too much just on themselves but it makes people look at other initiatives and look at what’s right for the city and the community – it stops competitiveness between councillors. The councillors are now being given more opportunities. A mayor cannot be an expert in everything, so why not use the resource of the expertise within the councillors. The mayor appears to have institutionalised the office and the administration by ensuring that everything has a councillor with an administrative officer associated with it.

Stoker (2012) also suggests that this facilitative or participative leadership style is more likely under a mayoral system and that on many measures mayors are performing better than their council leader alternatives.

Moreover, one of the benefits of the distance from party politics that mayors bring is that it enables the latter to focus outwards and to avoid the scourge of committee work: more information is needed before a decision can be made. Sir Steve Bullock, who was previously council leader of Lewisham before becoming Mayor, acknowledged that the compulsion to ‘discuss the minutiae’ was not limited to the opposition but rooted in the nature of the system: ‘the committee system just seemed to defer decision-making because they always wanted more information. The committee system didn’t let the council leader stand up for what he wanted to do.’ Or as he put it rather more bluntly later, ‘having a council leader was a way of not making a decision.’ This problem was also highlighted by Mohammed Dawood, one of Leicester’s Assistant Mayors: under the previous council leader system ‘cabinet meetings were long.... They could take up to six hours!....They are now short, sharp and focused.’ Peter Kelly, Mayor of Halifax Regional Municipality in Canada, was even more direct about the problems of party politics: ‘I do not favour political alignments at the municipal level; politics detract from the debate. The public good is not always served by political alignments at the local level. Council’s focus should be public issues and not on one’s politics.... Politicians can fail to recognise that they are the servants of the people and that they are there to serve the people’s interests, rather than their own interests; after all, it is the people who have elected them.’

A very similar experience can be gleaned from the American interviews with elected mayors. Joseph Sullivan, Mayor of Braintree, MA, noted the advantages of switching from a town meeting system to an elected mayor system:

Town meeting was very cumbersome … it was hard to get something done … Honestly, town meeting sometimes was a little more of ‘well, you know, it’s my neighbor, I can’t vote against him’.... We can adjust our budget within two or three weeks … we don’t have to wait months in order for town meeting to get together ... I cannot say I miss town meeting, but there was a social element to it that was fun … a good gathering [but] if you look at it objectively, you have to say that the town is a much more efficient and responsive government than it was before.

Latham (2011: 97-128) mounts a vigorous left wing challenge to this distancing approach and suggests that the consequential concentration of political power in the hands of one individual leads inevitably to corruption, cronyism and patronage – witness its significance in US-style directly elected mayors. In contrast, Latham suggests that the more distributed nature of political power under the traditional committee structure simultaneously undermines corruption and distributes political power in a more equitable way. It is indeed the case that the USA has suffered from political corruption at the state and federal level for some time but the issue is probably best captured by the assumption that there are no incorruptible systems; there are just less corruptible systems and procedures to limit the chances of corruption and inhibit the damage done by it. As Lord Acton so clearly put it in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

This concern is reproduced in the ‘Vote No to a Power-Freak’ campaign in the anti-mayoral lobby, and also in the No-campaigners from Birmingham who launched a poster with the words ‘Brummies have always fought back against dictators, don’t elect one, vote No!’ Or as one council leader put it, ‘There is a danger of elective dictatorship. A failing council leader can be ditched by their party at any time – or face a no confidence motion of the full council. A mayor would probably be much harder to get rid of between four-yearly elections.’

But you don’t have to wander into the path of European dictators to recognise that many traditional councillors are concerned at the possibility of poor decision-making by an individual. As John Mutton (Labour Council Leader of Coventry) put it:

The public have faith in the ability of ten councillors who individually may not get it right but working together the right decisions are made for the right reasons. We don’t need a six-figure salary person to achieve things!... The idea that a DEM (Directly Elected Mayor) would provide strong leadership is rubbish! It’s all down to the individual... it doesn’t matter about the title.

The significance of getting the right individual for a mayoral position is a concern for many; take Fiona Skene, Director of Human Resources at Leicester:

The elected mayor model is good as long as it is the right person. If it is the wrong type of person, someone who is too bullying and domineering, it could go the wrong way. The role requires a balanced personality so the power doesn’t go to their head. It is overall a good model, but in the present situation the Mayor doesn’t have enough power.

The problem, of course, is that the concentration of power which facilitates corruption is the very same concentration of power that facilitates a greater degree of co-ordination and decisive decisionmaking, especially in a political system that seems to have ground to a halt in the face of bureaucratic wrangling or public acquiescence. Hence, the choice is not really between the elegance of a perfect decentralised democratic system and the elegance of a perfect centralised decision-making system but some combination of both approaches; a pragmatic but ‘clumsy’ alternative (Grint, 2008; Verveij, 2011).

Indeed, many mayors considered that selecting and empowering their cabinet was critical to success and far beyond the popular assumptions that the mayors made all the decisions and made them on their own. Dorothy Thornhill (Liberal Democrat Mayor of Watford) spoke of how ‘the cabinet is to make things happen so you have to choose the best people for the job. There is no ‘watching your back’ for the political group ... and it allows the mayor to be outward facing.

It is also worth pointing out that part of the skill of any leader is to select a team that includes dissenting voices – constructive dissenters – rather than destructive consenters. This also buttresses an argument for selecting non-traditional team players, beyond the middle aged white men that so often seem to prevail in councils. Nor is this problem restricted to England: listen to Stephen N Zanni, Mayor of Methuen, Massachusetts: ‘I employ ‘fresh, young people with prior experience working for the people in local governments from around the area. I want to surround myself with well-qualified people, not with people that are going to ‘yes’ you to death but don’t have any knowledge.’