Leadership is saying that, at this time, something needs to change. But, do we have the institutions and ways of working that enable leadership? And why might having elected mayors go some way to enabling more open leadership?
Tomorrow, in Birmingham and other cities, people will be voting on whether to change the way their cities are led: for an elected mayor, or for a continuation of the current arrangements. If we vote for the latter, we will be missing what there is to learn from grassroots leadership on estates and in neighbourhoods and communities across our cities.
For example, later today, I’m visiting Perry Common with a group of residents to find out about community asset transfer at Witton Lodge Community Hall. We’re actually going to find out about leadership too: the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of someone (a group of residents) saying, ‘At this time, something needs to change’ on our estate; and, in the case of Perry Common and Birmingham City Council, we’ll be looking at how a local authority was able to react to support to that act of community leadership. Two things occur:
First, you can’t easily predict from where leadership will arise. It certainly doesn’t come with a job title, a professional qualification or an elected office. Managers are not necessarily leaders: management is, more often, about asking How can we keep this thing going? Politicians are not necessarily leaders, especially when they let their defining question be: How will we keep on getting elected? And it is a mistake to think that leadership, in whatever form, comes only from the old, or the young… or the people in between.
What matters, and is possible, is having institutions – authorities, forums, ways of working and listening – that enable leadership and respond to it rationally. Given that we can’t predict where it might come from, we need institutions that are open to leadership from all quarters. That needs to be done openly and accountably . We need to understand where the ideas are coming from that governments adopt. We must have ways of making our views heard in respect of them.
The dark arts of ‘lobbying’ (literally, hanging around outside meetings to catch decision makers on their way in and out); the corruption of the media in the hands of people who are ‘unfit’ to control it; and, in local government, the old-style systems of committees and unaccountable ‘Leaders’ – that is people who run cities without being directly elected by their people – all, are part of the mess that degrades the potential for leadership. Rather than being open and accountable, in government, leadership seems closed and often inexplicable.
What happens? The politicians competing to control the local State become obsessed by staying ‘in power’ at almost any cost. The managers employed to deliver it become risk averse and overly defensive. Community and voluntary groups – set up with the idea that at this time, something needs to change – are supplanted, managed and ‘quality controlled’ by voluntary sector bureaucrats who know it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
Voting for an elected mayor won’t make everything all right. But it might, at least, make it easier for people who know something needs to change, to be heard.