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Speaking to the Daily Mail in March, sources at the department for Communities and Local Government argued

Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome. Photo: author’s own

that “there was really no need for councils who opt for an elected mayor to have a chief exec – because the mayor can take on the executive role and could deal with the directors of various government departments himself.”

Since then, most of England’s cities have rejected the government’s proposal for directly elected mayors, but what of the argument that elected mayors should take on the role of chief executive?

As I have argued before, while some councils will re-badge their senior officer, not many will experiment for long without a senior officer. The reasons for this are well argued in a new report by the Group of 30, an international grouping of central bankers and senior financiers. In their paper on governance of financial institutions they outline 10 tasks that well-functioning boards should discharge. Two in particular concern the role of the chief executive:

Appoint the CEO and gauge top talent in the firm, assuring that the CEO and top team possess the skills, values, attitudes, and energy essential to success. A very good CEO is preferable to a “star” CEO. The board must confirm the appointment of independent members of the executive team, including the chief risk officers (CROs) and head of internal audit, and should be consulted with respect to other very senior appointments. Boards should maintain a focus on talent development and succession planning, which are critical components of organizational stability.

Respect the distinction between the board’s responsibilities for direction setting, oversight, and control, and management’s responsibilities to run the business. It is misguided and dangerous to conflate the responsibilities of management with those of the board. The board’s primary responsibilities include: (a) reaching agreement on a strategy and risk appetite with management, (b) choosing a CEO capable of executing the strategy, (c) ensuring a high-quality leadership team is in place, (d) obtaining reasonable assurance of compliance with regulatory, legal, and ethical rules and guidelines and that appropriate and necessary risk control processes are in place, (e) ensuring all stakeholder interests are appropriately represented and considered, and (f) providing advice and support to management based on experience, expertise, and relationships.”

The Financial Times today reports on the woes to befall Jamie Dimon the chairman and chief executive of JP Morgan Chase and quotes Robert McCormick, chief policy officer of Glass Lewis & Co on the joint role “It is potentially insurmountable conflict. How can you oversee yourself?”

This idea of checks and balances is as essential in the corporate governance of democratic institutions as it is in financial institutions. Human beings are not omniscient creatures, we all require advice, cooperation and partnership to achieve all but the most simple of tasks. It is no dilution of democracy to recognise that political leaders also require others to achieve their goals. And of what value is it to be surrounded by people whose roles you think you can do better than them? JP Morgan Chase seems to be the latest to discover the myth of the emperor-like, all-powerful leader who acts without any real challenge to his authority. Without the cooperation of others who bring new capacity, knowledge and skill, leaders ultimately deny themselves any hope of success. Eric Pickles should listen to the bankers in the Group of 30 and stop encouraging mayors to go macho.

Noting Sir Gus O’Donnell’s views on the importance of checks and balances in

Sir Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary, Photo CC UK in Canada

good governance, from yesterday’s Observer:

“What is the secret to his survival through four such different PMs: Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron? “Civil service values,” he insists. “They didn’t want ‘yes men’. They’ve all wanted people who tell them what they think objectively. It’s important.”
O’Donnell admits he was no fan of “sofa government”; though he won’t name Blair or indeed criticise any prime minister. “I’m at the more formal end. I like calling PMs ‘PM’. I like the proper committee structures, properly recorded minutes. I want government to have a safe space where people can disagree and argue – to be accurately recorded and kept private.””

Photo, CC UK in Canada

William Hague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall

The Foreign Secretary has delivered a speech defending the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which is well worth a read for those of us interested in this administration’s attitude to government and for its direction of travel on public services. Beside what he has to say about UK foreign policy, the speech is remarkable for what it says about how government works. At a time when most ministers (of this government and the last) go out of their way to denigrate their officials, William Hague’s speech provides a fine counter example.

The Foreign Secretary praises junior officials, talks about the need for good policy and management skills, and mounts an eloquent defence of the need for institutions themselves. He says:

 “Strong institutions are necessary in civil society, to encourage participation and keep in check an overmighty State; they are necessary to our judiciary and Parliament so that the law is upheld and the making of it respected; but they are also necessary within the State, a point tragically overlooked by those Prime Ministers who have created and abolished departments on a fancy or a whim, destroying as they did so the pride and continuity of thousands of public servants while rendering government incomprehensible to the average citizen. The whole country should know what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is and what it does, and all those interested in foreign policy at home or abroad should see it as a centre of excellence with which they aspire to be associated. This can only be achieved if it is in itself a strong institution, able to attract and retain exceptional people from a wide range of backgrounds and to generate powerful ideas.”

This is true, but it is not something that has been obvious in recent political discourse. The Foreign Secretary is right to pinpoint the fad for “machinery of government” changes that tend to characterise the annual Cabinet re-shuffle. While reform of government departments is perfectly legitimate in order to focus governmental resources on priority areas, the reality of these reorganisations have often been skin deep; a re-branding exercise required by factional, horse trading rather than any genuine re-direction of governmental attention.

But William Hague’s speech also brings into the focus this government’s aspiration to deliver a post-bureaucratic state. The theory behind which is perhaps most concisely captured by David Cameron himself:

“We’re living in an age where technology can put information that was previously held by a few into the hands of almost every­one. So the argument that has applied for well over a century – that in every area of life we need people at the centre to make sense of the world for us and make decisions on our behalf – simply falls down. In its place rises up a vision of real people power. This is what we mean by the Post-Bureaucratic Age. The in formation revolution meets the progressive Conservative philosophy: sceptical about big state power; committed to social responsibility and non-state collective action.”

What is striking about the post-bureaucratic state language is how complete and all-encompassing it is. It does not suggest an evolution in which government machinery is made incrementally more transparent using information technology, but recognising that central expertise would always be necessary. It suggests instead, that dispersed “people power” can and should entirely replace the power of official structures of expertise; of bureaucracies.

Oliver Letwin, for example, talks about the “post-bureaucratic age” in terms of the “point we’ve reached in our and the world’s history.” And he compares present social changes to the very beginnings of modernism and the invention of the printing press. “We don’t think that the coming of the internet age and the associated sociocultural changes are just something that’s happened that’s sort of interesting in the way in which the invention of some new machine tool or whatever might be interesting. We think it’s a profound a shift as the invention of printing with as much effect on the way in which cultural and social life is conducted as that had.”

The Conservatives’ post-bureaucratic age was an ambitious attempt to hook a programme for a new government to deeper social changes that would undoubtedly affect the administration’s work. Why, however, the government let itself claim that our age had moved beyond the need for organised expertise was surely a misjudgement.  It is therefore interesting, and the first that I have noticed, that a senior member of the government is prepared to stand up for traditional institutions, for governance and significantly to defend the necessary role of official expertise in our democracy.

Photo: FCO on Flickr

Sitting on the TGV to Toulon from Paris last Friday I found a rare opportunity to read properly the newspapers from cover to cover. The FT was predictably rewarding on the faltering global economy and the background to the tumbling markets that I had barely had time to follow in the news for weeks. However, the FT also provided two other delights. The first was a letterfrom Mark Wolfgram, an associate professor of philosophy at Oklahoma University. His letter provided a new and rewarding analysis of the recent English riots, which led some way to an explanati

Footlocker, Brixton, 9 Aug 2011 http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurachamberlain/ CC

on. He pointed out that most of the analysis has focused on the materialistic motives which lay behind the acquisitive violence.  However, taking from the ancient Greeks Wolfgram suggested that an exclusively materialistic explanation would neglect the necessary spiritual drive within human beings for self-esteem and respect. His broader philosophical point was that since the Enlightenment western philosophy has tended to concentrate on humans’ material drives rather than their spiritual motives. In other words, there while there were clearly materialistic motives for many, and perhaps most, of the rioters there must also be a non-materialistic motivation which we must try to comprehend. More blogging on this shortly.

My second FT related delight was an article by Bill Harris a former US diplomat who was the senior US civilian in Afghanistan from 2009-10. Harris’s article was a tribute to his former boss Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kabul who was assassinated last month. The article’s thrust captured in his title “The Taliban fears governance, not the garrisons” argued that the “Coalition in Afghanistan is missing a big opportunity. Security is essential for governance, so alliance leaders have understandably wagered heavily on building up the Afghan military and police. But we now need to include serious Afghan civilian capability. … The output tells the story. As the police and army’s strength nears 350,000, the Afghan civil service wobbles along with a few thousand to serve a population of 30m. …. Hamidi’s municipal government was starting to attract new staff, but was also operating at a vacancy rate of more than half.

We and our Afghan allies can fix this, but we will have to act quickly by enabling the Kabul government to begin churning out basic civil servants the same way we mass produce soldiers and policemen.”

This is a compelling argument. Recent events suggest the peace on on our streets in the UK is no more a natural state of affairs than it is in Afghanistan. Consent is necessary for peaceful government and governance matters to the giving of consent. This means, for example, good services delivered in ways which are seen to be fair; honesty and transparency with public money; and governing institutions in which those with or close to power, at the top of the hierarchy, treat those at the bottom, without formal power, with respect.

Our recent crises in banks, MPs’ expenses and on our streets defy glib explanations, but as part of the mix, I suggest that we need to pay more attention to the level of respect that we pay people and public institutions. Otherwise we risk undermining the mutual respect on which our peaceful society has for so long prospered.

Image of Footlocker, Brixton, 9 Aug 2011 with thanks to laura chamberlain.

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