Any examination of ‘community leadership’ within the local government context must start with a brief conceptual history. Where has the term ‘community leadership’ come from? How is it now applied? How is it understood by practitioners, councillors and the communities that are ‘out there’ waiting to be led? In focusing on this, we will see that a major challenge for councils is developing a collective understanding around the term itself and gaining sufficient consent from the community to operate in the manner implied. We will then look at some of the complex challenges that are presented using as a (non-axiomatic) frame, the work carried out by Helen Sullivan; James Downe; Tom Entwistle and David Sweeting, which has grouped the challenges into three main areas – public engagement, strategic leadership and collaborative capacity (Sullivan, et al, 2006).
Community Leadership: A brief conceptual history.
In the context of this discussion, we can trace the origination of the term ‘community leadership’ to the New Labour Government’s 1998 White Paper, Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People. In the forward, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott states that local councils are ‘uniquely placed to provide vision and leadership to their local communities.’ However, this new role is based on the ‘need listen to, lead and build up their local communities. We want to see councils working in partnership with others, making their contribution to the achievement of our aims for improving people's quality of life.’ (DETR, 1998 pp2). This latter quote reveals the central-local paradox - the Government is expecting councils to work more closely with their communities towards ‘the achievement of our (i.e. the Government’s) aims.’ This linking of national and local priorities is discussed more fully by Bevir and Rhodes (2004). Essentially, their analysis pivots on the role of local government within a decentred or multi-polar polity (Rhodes’ ‘hollowed out state’); suggesting that New Labour’s approach takes forward the earlier Conservative concept of the ‘enabling’ council (Clark and Stewart, 1988) which was underpinned by an ideological commitment to reduce the size of government, shift the emphasis from state provision to consumer choice and reinforce market centred managerialism.
Subsequent government policy initiatives have reiterated and developed this essential message (DCLG 2006, 2007, DTLR, 2001, ODPM 2005a 2005b 2005c, ODPM/HO 2005) - commonly referred to as the ‘modernisation agenda.’ It is interesting that the latest White Paper (Communities in Control, Real People, Real Power) moves away from the idea of community leadership towards a concept of empowerment and devolution – ‘passing more power, influence and control direct to local communities’ (Blears 2008). This has led some commentators to suggest that the leadership and empowerment agendas are a tacit attempt by central government to bypass local councils and direct policy at local level through unitary reorganisation, performance frameworks, local area agreements and comprehensive area assessments which brings us back to the central-local policy paradox (Griggs, 2008).
Sullivan (et al) suggests that Government has become frustrated by the perceived inability of local authorities to adapt themselves to the new community leadership role. Government research (including the extensive evaluations of the New Deal for Communities programme undertaken by the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit) has shown that its ambitious reforms have had only partial success and some unintended consequences (ODPM 2005b, 2005c) – particularly around the impact of the wellbeing powers and the duty to develop community strategies in collaboration with local strategic partners (LSPs). The evaluation serves to demonstrate how reflexive policy interventions can be ‘a creative art’ that provide ‘new ways to think about political problems (crises and dilemmas) and to persuade others to see things in these new terms’ (Finlayson, 2004).
Defining ‘Community Leadership.’
One of the key challenges for local councils, partners and ‘real’ people is developing a definition of the term ‘community leadership’ that encourages a willingness to participate in the process. Community can be defined in, inter alia, geographic, ethnographic, demographic, historic, economic, sociological, political, cultural and gendered (Newman, 2005) terms. The Government is inconsistent in its use of the term and it is often interchangeable with ‘neighbourhood.’ Within the local government community the phrase is used mainly in its ‘instrumental’ sense (Taylor, 2003) being attached to groups of people with shared interests and shared spatial references as a frame governance. In the same context, ‘leadership’ can be understood in its literal transitive sense – as setting direction and guiding. Conjoining these two contextual interpretations provides a definition – ‘governmental direction derived from shared interests’ – that has a certain utility for the purposes of this study. It is also useful as it makes clear that community leadership is not about local councils assuming a controlling role in determining strategic direction and action. Rather, it brings into play Habermasian (1988) notions of dialogic, discursive and deliberative democracy (as later articulated by Anthony Giddens 1994, 1998). However, we must remain mindful that the search for any objective definition runs into epistemological problems. Gergen (1986) argues that the there are no adequate means for representing such external realities, such being little more than linguistic interpretations and mental constructs and Fish (1989) reminds us that realities are ‘intelligible only within their context’ or paradigm
The three challenges of community leadership
The introduction made reference to the work of Sullivan (et al) on community leadership (2006). Based on case study research in six local authorities, she has identified three key challenges associated with community leadership:
Challenge 1: Engaging the public
Challenge 2: Providing strategic leadership
Challenge 3: Developing collaborative capacity
This will provide the analytical frame for our discussion. We will also examine briefly some practice based learning from the reorganisation of local government in Wiltshire and the 12 community governance pilots that have been running in the County since June 2008 (WCC, 2008).
Challenge 1: Engaging the public
We have previously discussed how ‘community leadership’ depends on the effective engagement of citizens in a new style of dialogic, discursive and deliberative democracy. Sullivan et al’s first observation on this point is that many of the authorities studied had difficulty in getting people to engage. The research highlights concerns that community engagement events tend to attract those with a particular interest to promote or those already active within the community (Bang’s ‘expert citizens’ – Bang, 2005). She also identifies ‘dysfunctional’ engagement practices that lead to public cynicism and distrust and finally she highlights the frequent ‘disconnect’ between engagement outcomes and citizens’ perceptions.
Gerry Stoker (2006) presents a more optimistic view. Based on a study of activism, he concludes that ‘it is a mistake to see people as apathetic’ (pp 89), rather ‘engagement is not something people do all the time.’ His conclusion is supported by Pattie, Seyd and Whiteman’s 2004 study ‘Citizenship in Britain: Values, Participation and Democracy’ that reveals 80% of people engage in some form of political activity in any given year. Based on the results of his research, Stoker has developed the CLEAR model of factors that influence public participation (Figure 1). If the use of CLEAR can improve participation, then effective community leadership must involve providing the conditional factors it identifies – although these are not unproblematic concepts as we shall see later.
Figure 1: The CLEAR Model
1. Can do The resources and knowledge to participate
2. Like to A sense of attachment that reinforces participation
3. Enabled to A set of supporting civic institutions that make participation possible
4. Asked to Mobilized by direct invitation
5. Responded to Provided with evidence that views make a difference
Stoker, G. (2006) ‘Why Politics Matters’ Palgrave
Matthew Taylor (2008) in an address to the Wiltshire Assembly, presents an alternative model (Figure 2) based on four motivations that borrow from Le Grand’s economic-based theories of knightly and knavish behaviour (1997, 2007) and from rational choice theory (Laver, 1997).
Figure 2: Taylor’s Behavioral Model of Participation
· Individualistic What is in it for me?
· Collective Together we can achieve something
· Hierarchical Who is leading this?
· Fatalistic What is the point?
Taylor, M (2008) ‘Address to the Wiltshire Assembly’
While the two models share some characteristics, Taylor emphasizes the need to understand or empathize with the motivations of participants and provide engagement frames that appeal to all four behaviours. Taylor’s model stresses the importance of leadership although he does not see the local council or elected members automatically assuming that role – preferring an approach that diffuses leadership across community networks. His view is that the council should work with existing community agents and actors who are better placed to broker deals and mobilize action.
The views of Stoker and Taylor sit within a new didactic approach expounded by Giddens and Habermas and more recently in the work of Sullivan, Knops, Barnes and Newman (2004), Lowndes and Sullivan (2004) and Henrik Bang (2004). Bang challenges existing governmental leadership paradigms and proposes in its place a concept of ‘culture governance’ where governance is 'co-produced' through new forms of collaborative partnerships, deliberation and the involvement of citizens on the ‘output side of political processes.’ (p 160) Lowndes and Sullivan (2004) point to the need to reflect decentred and complex polity networks with more flexible governance arrangements – that resist ‘universal’ best practice and promote local differentiation to achieve ‘local fit’(p 71). Sullivan, et al suggests that this differentiated ‘multi level governance may have helped loosen the taut central-local relationship’ and created ‘opportunities for localities to operate beyond the central state.’ (p 263)
Griggs and Howarth (2007) draw attention to the important role of ‘signifiers’ to which individuals attach meaning as the basis of rationalising events, situations, actions and interactions. Signifiers can assume contextual and associative meanings that provide individual and collective rationales for action. Contextual signifiers may include – unity around purpose, consensus around local priorities, shared problems, identification with place, perceptions of injustice and identification of outside threats. These signifiers can be ‘represented and depicted in a form in which they can enter the sphere of conscious political calculation’ (Rose and Miller, 1991) – they can become subject to the processes of governance. If these signifiers are co-produced through facilitated discourses, they may also function as ‘triggers of engagement’ - Stoker’s ‘sense of attachment’ (Figure 1) and Taylor’s ‘collective behaviour’ (Figure 2). So, council’s with their democratic mandate are uniquely placed to: provide resources, opportunities, discursive spaces and structures in which these signifiers can evolve; to reflect back and articulate these views to deepen engagement and, crucially, to provide meaningful collaborative responses.
Where does this leave local government? In such decentred, self regulating, community governance networks how is the legitimate democratic leadership role exercised? We can see from the work of Stoker and Taylor that participation depends on the creation of effective facilitative and motivational frames. Failure to engage is not necessarily indicative of public apathy but might result from a lack of understanding of the complexity of the participative process itself. The difficult challenge for local councils and councillors is to rethink participative processes, adapt organisation cultures and transform outmoded notions of democratic representation (March and Olsen, 1995).
Not surprisingly, there are alternative theoretical views that problematize and challenge our understanding of community leadership. Nikolas Rose (1999) asserts that communities are being ‘colonized’ as new realms of government and have become agonistic spaces for conflict, veto, control and the pursuit self interest. Collectively he terms these dynamics ‘a game of power’ (Sharpfe, 1997) where unintended consequences are as important as the claimed positive outcomes (here he follows Foucault, 1954-1984). He observes the emergence of a new ‘ethico-politics’ that results in tensions between the ‘imperatives of common norms and the demands for the recognition of cultural diversity.’ Rose also casts doubt on the ‘community-based relativism’ that underpins the development of present day community strategies. Henrik Bang (2005) points out that ‘everyday makers’ (Blears’ ‘real people’) often absent themselves from government networks or they engage in a ‘roll-on, roll-off’ manner – which we can understand in the context of Stoker and Taylor’s models. In their place are found ‘expert citizens’ and community activists.
Challenge 2: Providing strategic leadership
Returning to our framework, Sullivan, et al’s research raises several issues in relation to community leadership. First, her research highlights the need for strong corporate and political commitment to the principal and delivery of decentred, collaborative, community governance. This is a difficult and time-consuming job that involves shifting institutionalized cultures, behaviours and norms, redefining corporate purpose, building acceptance around the idea of devolving power and equipping the organisation with new skills and competencies (WCC, 2008). It is hard to imagine councils rushing to adopt such fundamental corporate change programmes and it is doubtful whether such self-referential (autopoiesis) reforms could be radical enough given that the ultimate solution may involve dismantling existing civic institutions. Next, she highlights tensions between the roles of officers and members – providing evidence of antagonistic relationships. She points to the challenge for elected members in accommodating new models of democratic representation and leadership and finally, she examines the paradox of the new central-local governmental relationship.
By accepting Rhodes’ dominant ‘governance narrative’ (2003) of a decentred or poly-centric state, where hierarchical government has been replaced by a highly differentiated ‘hollowed out’ polity with power diffused across multiple and interlinked governance networks, we encounter a key question – how does strategic leadership operate within governance networks? For an idea of the answer we can examine Eva Sørensen’s (2007) extensive qualitative study of local governance networks in the Danish municipality of Skanderborg. In her study, Sørensen explores how community networks may be influenced or ‘steered’ by meta-governance interventions and this suggests a need to redefine community leadership as a process of metagovernance.
Sørensen’s study identifies the important role that elected members play in the metagovernance of networks and Sullivan, et al’s research provides evidence that councillors see this as very much their natural territory. However, Sørensen concludes that what is required is ‘close cooperation between politicians and public administrators – not a sharp division of labour.’ She sees four essential metagovernance roles for politicians (and officials) - providing resource and policy frameworks, institutional design, network facilitation and active network participation. However, she is cautious about the latter role, suggesting that politicians need to be wary of creating power asymmetries and hierarchies within networks because this can cause them to fall apart. This is a particular problem in the UK where public perceptions of Party Politicians are generally negative (Councillors Commission, 2007). The participation of politicians in governance networks also raises questions about the accepted interpretation of representative democracy handed down from Edmund Burke (1774) and J S Mill (1948). Pressure to act in a ‘delegate’ role is likely to increase the so-called ‘crisis of representation’ (Copus, 2004) with politicians faced more frequently with conflicts between the will of the community and the will of the Party Group, suggesting that Parties might have to rethink their internal disciplinary and whipping rules.
Challenge 3: Providing collaborative capacity
Community leadership is associated with concept of collaborative advantage (Huxham, 1996) through partnership and these ideas are now closely linked (DETR, 1998). Helen Sullivan, et al’s study has identified specific challenges for local authorities in this area. The challenges stem from the complexity of working in partnership, ambiguity around the legitimacy of council’s leadership role, the central-local paradox and a lack of willingness to share resources.
Working collaboratively is problematic for local councils as they have stratified and asymmetrical relationships with local partners. At the highest level, they have a statutory duty to co-produce a Local Area Agreement and Sustainable Community Strategy and at the operational level there are many requirements to cooperate to provide specific services. However, local authorities are also charged with holding partners to account through overview and scrutiny, though the community leadership role and through the representational role of elected politicians. And, while council’s are used to the full glare of public accountability, some partner agencies – such as the Primary Care and Mental Health Care Trusts – are less comfortable operating in this arena (WCC, 2008). Community leadership depends on the collaboration of partners and this often hinges on the important role of individuals who can work effectively across organisational boundaries (Sullivan and Skelcher, 2002) – so called ‘boundary spanners.’
Murphy and Coleman (2000) in a study of the role of ‘boundary spanners’ concluded that they play a vital role in providing momentum for partnerships. Sean Ansett (2005) shows that the effectiveness of local partnerships often hinges on the existence of one or more influential boundary spanners within the network – someone who provides the drive, enthusiasm and skills to bring people together for a common purpose. Without the catalytic impact of boundary spanners, partnerships may stall or fail completely. This view is supported by Cross and Prusack (2002) who draw attention to the very difficult relationships that such individuals can have within a dominant organisational culture. Boundary spanners need to be highly skilled to operate within this demanding arena, as Tennyson (2003) points out; ‘many skills are needed in successful partnerships including negotiation, mediation, assimilation, coaching and institutional engagement amongst others.’ According to Mayer and Salovey (1990, 1993) boundary spanners need ‘emotional intelligence’ which is reliant on self-awareness, emotional control, self motivation, empathy and relationship building. Council’s must recognise the role of these individuals and provide them with the freedoms and status they need to effectively deliver their role, recognising and accepting the culture challenges inherent in the boundary spanning role (Bradshaw, 1999).
Sullivan, et al refers to the complexity of collaboration and this leads us to examine another theoretical critique of community leadership that stems from the observations of Collingwood (1989) and more recently in the work of John Law (2003). Collingwood observed that ‘historians ask questions and then answer them with stories that make sense out of ‘facts’, which in their raw form make no sense at all.’ Collingwood insists knowledge is ‘created, not discovered, because evidence is not evidence until it makes something evident.’ Law develops this paradigm into a concept of ‘mess.’ In our pragmatic attempts to make sense of the mess, we extrapolate, interpret and select that which is perceived to be relevant and ‘real.’ However, by so doing we create meanings that ‘other’ the original mess. Laws’ theory challenges the hubristic assumption that metagovernance can be effective as a method of leadership. Every community interaction has the potential to yield a different outcome because there are different actors, contexts, narratives and perceptions brought to the dynamic on each occasion (as well as those that are absent or not known). Therefore, it is inevitable that metagovernance interventions will have unintended consequences (Giddens 1994). Yanow (1993), Farmer (1995), Fischer (2003), and Yin (2003) have argued that an objectivist conception of social reality is at best limiting and at worst completely untenable in that we have to ascribe self-referential or self-constructed meanings to the discourses and narratives we encounter – discourses that are loaded with cultural and political bias (Cicourel, 1981, 1985, 1987, Heath, 1984, 1986). And this is all sound and valuable because it helps to improve our understanding of the complex social and political interactions associated with community leadership, to recognise and set aside our own bias and to challenge our own assumptions and constructed versions of reality (Hill, 2005).
Addressing the Challenges
By using the work of Sullivan et al as our frame, we have presented a useful but ultimately incomplete analysis of the challenges associated with community leadership. For example, we have not discussed the role of communications and the emergence of social networking (WCC, 2008). Nor, have we mentioned Riker’s (1982) critique of ‘populism’ and the ‘paradox of consensus.’ And, by focusing on the operation of leadership through metagovernance, we have not fully considered Jonathan Davis’ (2007) observations on the operation of ‘exit-action’ within governance networks, where actors choose to operate either wholly or partially outside of metagovernance control. We have also overlooked the importance of ‘veto-points’ (Torfing, 2007) which can operate negatively - where powerful individuals are in a position to ‘veto’ the wishes of many - or positively - by encouraging negotiated political compromise through agonistic discourses. This short diversion indicates the depth of theoretical perspectives that exist, and the complexity of the challenges for would-be community leaders.
So, from the preceding theoretical analysis, is it possible to produce some hypothetical deductions (Popper 1963, 1979) with utility for praxis (figure 3).
15 Conditions for Community Leadership
1. Councils must embrace a new understanding of ‘community leadership’ that is based on the representational legitimacy of distributive democracy.
2. Councils must better understand the complexity and local diversity of decentred governance networks before embarking on community leadership projects.
3. Legitimized community leadership depends on the use of more effective, inclusive and sophisticated community engagement techniques.
4. Councils must accept that better outcomes are often achieved by empowering others to lead.
5. The structures of leadership are less important than the dialogues that exist outside them.
6. Councils might view themselves as the enablers of leadership, rather than direct providers.
7. The views of those who don’t attend are as important as the views of those who do.
8. Moving to this new concept of community leadership demands political commitment and strong corporate leadership.
9. Effective community leadership requires a strong and constructive relationship between elected members and community officers.
10. To facilitate community leadership councils should identify, recruit, reward and retain individuals who fill the role of ‘boundary spanners’
11. Councillors should play an active leadership role within community networks but retain sufficient self awareness to understand the associated problems.
12. Party Groups should revise their disciplinary rules to recognise the representational dilemmas faced by elected politicians acting as community leaders.
13. Councils must accept and value the unintended consequences of community leadership, even if these end in failure.
14. Councils wishing to make a success of community leadership must value diversity and strive for maximum inclusively in every part of the process.
15. Finally, those engaged in the community leadership project must develop a critical understanding of varied theoretical perspectives.
Although we have followed Helen Sullivan, et al’s analysis, we are free to reach a different conclusion. Where she sees the Government acknowledging the ‘primacy’ of local authorities, others may perceive the coupling of top-down managerial performance regimes with devolution and community empowerment as an attempt to squeeze the last gasp of democratic autonomy from councils. But, while they retain some vestige of utility, councils will endure – and here lies the great opportunity because it provides a chance, perhaps the last chance for councils to reinvent themselves as enablers and facilitators of community leadership, operating with renewed legitimacy as the representatives of empowered democratic communities.
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