Coalition administrations and COVID-19 video transcription

A transcription of the webinar recording

Welcome to this webinar on coalition administrations and COVID-19.

I am Stephanie Snape and I will be leading you through the webinar. I've been privileged to spend the last 20 years of my career almost exclusively working with councillors on political leadership and management, so let's have a look at the format and approach of the webinar.

So this webinar is focusing on the work of councils led by coalition administrations during the COVID-19 response and recovery.

The purpose is twofold, firstly to support the councils who are run by coalition administrations in their work on COVID-19 in the recovery, but also to distill the learning from that period to identify how can we ensure that coalition working is effective, cohesive, stable and robust so what are the wider lessons.

In terms of format this is a pre-recorded webinar, it also has a powerpoint attached that is downloadable separately so do encourage you to do that it would be helpful.

We're going to look at a range of key issues related to coalition administrations and there will also be some self-reflection exercises which we hope will support your own learning but also improving practice.

The first question to ask yourself and there's not a simple answer, but the first question to ask yourself is really um what is a coalition administration what does coalition administration mean?

Well it's all related to the local electoral systems and when we have no overall control authorities which come from the elections, and no overall control or noc um can be defined as when no one single party achieves 50% of the seats plus one seat so they don't have that majority that 50% plus one would give you then you get no overall control and what we've seen recently is a rise in the proportion of councils which are noc, so my 2019 prior to those local elections there were just over 30.

Since May um 19 we have the high 70s of noc authorities and to bring you bang up to date in 2020 Grace Collins of the LGA has identified 86 no overall control councils that includes by the way both cabinet leader and committee system authorities.

It's quite important to break that 86 down a bit further so you can see the range of um collaboration that you get when you have an noc outcome, so of those 86 councils, 35 are single party minority administrations so run by a single party despite them not having majority.

There are also 51 coalition administrations, 32 of those involved two parties, twelve three parties, six four parties and one five plus parties.

You might have heard the term rainbow collision, the term rainbow coalition is best defined as three plus parties so when you have three plus parties in a collaboration in an alliance that runs the local authority then that's called a rainbow coalition and one of the issues around noc authorities is the language.

The language can be quite complex and a bit confusing, people use different terms, so sometimes people use alliance pact, coalition, rainbow coalition or they might have very locally specific terms for their particular coalition.

What is common to all of them including the 35 single party minority administrations is that they rely on collaborating with other parties.

There has to be the essence of them is that collaboration. So one of the important takeaways is summarized in this next slide so we've already found that the number of noc authorities has really increased since 2019.

Noc is something that's been around for a long time but it tends to go in waves where you have more noc such proportion of local authorities and some where you have less, we're now on a rise and so we have almost one and four authorities which on their overall control and what's interesting is just over half of them have had less than a year to really bed into their coalition before they faced COVID-19 and all the changes that that has brought.

So what again is essential here is this need to work across the groups that's the currency of coalition administrations, that's the currency of no overall control.

Also important to say that's the currency of it whether it's a committee system or the more common cabinet and leader system.

So there are a number of questions that you could ask that would be common to  ask about coalition administrations in COVID-19.

So I distilled that down to four.

The first one is is the coalition administration as effective as say a majority party control in responding to an emergency and generally in providing leadership?

The second one is what impact has COVID-19 had on the relationships between the different groups in the coalition and therefore what lessons could be learned about ensuring effective cohesion during response and recovery and that big question that we set out right at the beginning of the of the webinar, which is so what's really important in terms of shaping effective coalition working is there you know is there a recipe that we can follow?

Now we're going to come back to those questions but now seems a really good time to pause and do some self-reflection.

So there are two exercises on these uh two slides the first one is for a coalition group or groups to consider the second one is for a coalition leader or a councillor to consider, you might want to pause the webinar and make some notes now or you might want to come back to it at the end, or you could use these questions in whatever virtual platform you use through your group discussions to form a part of um how are we doing with COVID-19 and how we're doing generally as a coalition.

So the first set of questions are how was your coalition group or groups been impacted by the response and recovery has your group responded quite rightly what are the challenges,

have there been some opportunities that have presented themselves and I think a real litmus test would be to ask yourself is your coalition generally more cohesive or less cohesive than pre-COVID-19 and just to dig into some of the reasons for which answer you give and then again what have we learned about effective coalition working through this process?

The second list of questions is simply the more personal ones for an individual coalition leader or councillor and they follow the same lines as the first set.

So let's think about those four questions we asked ourselves um that were the kind of general questions you could imagine people asking about how coalition administrations work.

That first one was about how would they compare with a majority party in terms of responding to emergencies, well there is actually no simple black and white answer indeed coalition administrations can be strong stable robust and highly effective at responding to

emergencies and in many cases maybe more effective than majority rule, so there's not a simple equation and indeed if you have a look at the LGA's councillor's workbook on the role of leaders and cabinet members during the COVID-19 pandemic, LGA drew on a number of coalition administrations to provide case studies um of positive actions and that they were taking during COVID-19 and one of the leader profiles is actually at the leader of a coalition administration, so no simple, no simple correlation.

Indeed that workbook highlighted a number of key components of effective political leadership in an emergency they're listed there in red all of them can be provided by an effective administration so not a simple answer there and some of some administrations as effective if not more effective than some majority.

So what um impact have we seen of COVID-19 on coalitions?

So the LGA has been hearing from coalition councils and authorities and unsurprisingly real diversity in response and impact, so many coalitions report particularly in the early response stage closer working almost if the focus on responding to the emergency brought people together.

Some coalitions however, have struggled and have struggled to the extent that it's been impossible for them to maintain their partnership, so again this diverse response.

Some have commented that that there's been need a need to just think about the balance between the groups because there has been uh a differential impact of COVID-19 on groups in the coalition for example, a group might have a higher percentage of key members whether they're committee chairs or cabinet members who are shielding or they're key workers than another group and that just needs an adjustment.

And certainly um the lack of face-to-face can be challenging um in coalitions because they so rely on maintaining good relationships.

Again the currency of coalitions is that effective relationships within groups and across groups.

However coalitions have responded like cabinet and leader or elected mayor authorities have responded that they've increased the frequency of virtual meetings in order to counterbalance that lack of face to face.

So what lessons are we hearing that are being learnt from coalition administrations?

The first one is the real value of putting time into the early days of establishing a coalition so that the foundation is is strong to then build on we've heard about the value of having a written agreement, some coalitions uh rest on uh almost a proverbial political handshake.

That can be more difficult when you're coming into the virtual world of the recovery period, so a written agreement seems to have particular primacy, very active communication deliberately investing in good communication and communication um with all not just within the coalition groups but with opposition as well and with partners.

The usefulness of knowing what your common ground or your common purpose is because that's an anchor for a coalition being realistic about what can be achieved very important issue around right people in the right jobs, so that whether it's the key committee chairs in the committee system or it's the cabinet members and also the key committee chairs in a cabinet and leader system, it's about ensuring that  that reflects experience skills and passion, if it does it's more likely to work well, if it doesn't it can be a source of frustration within a coalition.

Managing personalities because again relationships are so important in coalition.

Working developing that that resilience to carry on during a um an emergency in a prolonged emergency and, also, despite having secured your common purpose and your agreement of your joint priorities and willingness to compromise time.

Now we're in the recovery period and when we're in a part of the recovery period where I think the implications of COVID-19 are becoming more clear and it's possible that the recovery period will challenge some of the assumptions and priorities that were the foundation for original agreements and therefore it could be a vulnerable time for some coalitions.

Generally revisiting your shared priorities your agreed common purpose can be a difficult time and really needs careful management,

So, the financial impact of COVID-19 on this year's budget is becoming more obvious, clearer and it's knock on effect to the medium term financial strategy is also becoming clearer. And it's likely that there will be in many authorities difficult decisions to negotiate and when you have a coalition or some sort of arrangement with other authorities, then that needs real careful management

We've heard from some councils saying that the elections coming up in May 2021 in some authorities, they're noting some increased politicization, again as you're moving towards local elections a coalition needs careful attention thinking about what behaviour how messages get out there how the media is approached.

Easier in coalitions where the groups are not competing for the same electorate or or seats, more difficult where they are in a competitive electoral situation, so I believe that recovery is going to be a more testing time for many coalitions.

Now if you think back over half of our 86 number of country authorities have their values coalitions have been in place for less than a year it's a really appropriate time both in in terms of COVID recovery but in terms of the length of time you've been working as a coalition, to sit down and to really think about what we've learned and think about how we go forward, so negotiating this in a really attention-to-detailed manner so from um both previous insights into how coalitions operate fare well or don't fare well and into the particular circumstances that have happened uh and the lessons around COVID-19 we've identified 10 components of effective coalitions, and I'm going to take you through those

There will also be a separate downloadable exercise that you can do to see where your coalition sits on these 10.

So the first one is take your time at the beginning.

Do not be rushed by the media or officers or other political groups putting pressure on you to announce a coalition and its terms. Take your time.

Get to know the group that you might be working with on a personal level really take your time to assess how much common ground there is.

If there's no common ground then that will make a coalition quite difficult to operate.

So and that moves on to and so you know have away days whatever it takes to really take your time at the beginning build those strong foundations and so that also moves on to the second one which is find that common ground you will need some sort of common ground and part of the recovery process might be revisiting what is our common ground as well that might have changed.

Please don't ever stop a handshake or a verbal agreement, the one bit of crucial advice I'd give to any coalition is always get the coalition agreement in writing, doesn't have to be an extensive document but have it in writing.

Each of the political groups by the way have their own templates which they do provide for councils who become no overall control so always always always always get it in writing then a year down the line or two years  down the line you're not going back saying well, what did we say? I didn't think that included that.

It's important to say what it include and what it doesn't include and it's about building relationships and relationships good relationships with the currency of coalition working so it's about being very intentional in building those relationships and not just amongst the committee chairs if it's committee system and not just amongst the cabinet if it's a cabinet system, but deeper into the groups really important to build those relationships and lots of different ways you can do that, again right people in the right jobs Right people in the right jobs can be great for a coalition because think about all the potential that you have across two or more groups all the different experiences skills, life experiences, but also think about passion, commitment, time and if you can call on the whole of that pool instead of your own group, there's great potential there and you I've known some coalition cabinets, chairs of committee that are so diverse and uh and very effective because of that diverse experience and skills.

In terms of no public surprises, what will be important is the public face of your coalition,  so you will need to agree you know who sends the messages not having multiple messages that conflict particularly if you're coming up to an election, and generally in terms of coalition working and partnerships I would say have your disagreements in private, iron them out as much as possible in private,  but no public surprises.

The groups opposition groups will be looking at how coherent you are. Officers will be looking at how coherent you are, so no public surprises.

Keep the groups involved um again I've come across coalition cabinets that are working so  well together and they're really cohesive and bonded and they're doing great work but they're leaving their individual groups further and further behind you need to make sure those groups still feel involved not just that you think you are involving them, but they perceive it too.

Invest in communication because miscommunication can be a real problem with coalitions, so ensure that you're actively communicating in lots of different ways that's part of keeping the groups involved as well.

And the coalition in a sense will be an experiment at first so it's a really good approach to think periodically let's stand back and just say, how's it going? Don't expect it to be 100% right, things will go wrong, it's having that I'm going to learn from the mistake rather than blame.

So learn, improve, adapt and it's such a good time to be doing now that right now is a coalition particularly with the recovery process and if you've got an election you might be thinking about, how we negotiate that as well, and finally, again, going back to coalition working the currency's relationships and actually managing people and the relationships is so important there's something here about the primacy in coalition administrations of political skills, being politically savvy and all those soft skills like influence, reading rooms, reading people, persuading people, negotiating, all of those are so important so you not only have to politically understand your own group and what makes it tick, but be able to understand the groups that you're in um coalition with and that will really help how you can work together, so lots and lots of analysis of um what's the political situation currently?

How can we improve it? How are the groups doing?

So ten components are the effective coalition working if you find it useful download the separate exercise that you can do as well.

Now related to this, is the importance of honouring the deal and thinking about trust and coalition working, so coalition administrations are based on a type of political leadership called transactional political leadership, this very common form of political leadership can be extremely effective and useful and it's really easy to understand because in transactional political leadership, you follow a leader because you get something back from it it's based on a self-interested exchange so um it's not about me feeling as though oh your political vision is brilliant or your political values I can completely relate to those if you get those as well in a coalition, great, but actually it's based on something much more fundamental.

If I partner with you I get something out of it and so if it's a two-party coalition administration each of them needs to buy out be able to identify what they're getting out of it because by going into the partnership you get something back, and you can do that in the complete absence of trust that does not have to be trust at the beginning of a transactional coalition administration what happens is trust gets built through the process of honouring the original agreement and that's why that process is so important and that's why always have an agreement in writing and then you can't have those misinterpretations that can happen, now we've got some um photographs just to demonstrate the national transactional leadership that happens lots of that goes on but lots of it happens in local government there's lots of understanding about how it works but I think one thing that's less understood is the important importance of honouring the original agreement that builds trust, if that original agreement feels as though it's being undermined uh in any way that can undermine trust in the partnership and can lead to the partnership failing so always take time to explore the common interest because you're gonna you wanna know what you're gonna get out of it always get it in writing always honour the deal and if you're gonna revisit that original deal do so carefully because you don't want to undermine trust when you've built it so that's a really important part of coalition administration that always doesn't always get talked about.

So what we wanted to do is to give you a case study because I think it's really useful to look at an authority that I believe is a clear example of a coalition administration that is working well, so the example is uh Cornwall council and I would really like to thank Julian German and Adam Painter for providing the information to the LGA so that we could use Cornwall, as an example so just just say a little bit about the cornish example, it's a an administration of independence and lib dems and they are the second and third largest party on Cornwall council it's a mature administration um almost coming up to eight years so almost two administrations, interestingly they have a shared leadership model where the lead and deputy leader rotates so currently the leader is the independent group leader Julian German and the deputy Adam Painter is the leader of the lib dems but that rotates,

they spent a lot of time in the early days getting to know each other they did away days all as a way of establishing those relationships that you need but establishing a set of single priorities in terms of COVID, initially um it felt more command and control when you you know establish the emergency powers and you're into that emergency uh system, they certainly place more emphasis  on active communication so daily briefings for members, weekly group meetings the kind of thing many authorities did I think what's interesting here, is the liberal democrat cabinet members are available to the independent group meetings and vice versa and I believe they're going to continue with that through the recovery period and beyond sounds like again it's been an opportunity and a lesson learned.

They also were very inclusive in involving the opposition so they did some refocusing of their energy and effort on the emergency response priorities the emergency response cells and set up meetings focused on those it which involved the cabinet member the shadow cabinet member and the scrutiny chair and the vice chair so there was also this very much a sense of we must include everybody including the opposition.

Now we're moving on to recovery planning, they have elections in May 2021.

Prior to COVID they were already thinking about shifting their agreed joint priorities because of climate change but COVID 19 has really reinforced that they need to have a look at those priorities again.

They've launched a large-scale listening exercise on the, the Cornwall we want with residents, interestingly, the work they did supporting individual communities means that they have a much fuller kind of database of people they can ask their opinions on during that listening exercise they know that their financial impact of COVID-19 means they're in a fundamentally different financial situation so they're going to see all of this revisiting recovery planning will feed into the business plan in February and then into the medium-term financial strategy so there it's very strong echo that recovery planning in this authority is leading to some revisiting of those priorities.

We asked them for their lessons on what makes coalitions tick really well and again I think this echoes the lessons we've learned from COVID-19 which we looked at earlier and those 10 components of effective coalition working so leaders of the two groups they've known each other a long time they get on well and I'm sure that they ensure that they get on well they know the importance of a good personal relationship.

They spent a lot of time in the early days making sure that the groups got to know each other, they did away days to develop their shared priorities, they have this interesting rotating leadership and when they're about to rotate in the six months before it's about to rotate um in terms of the leadership and deputy leadership they spend a lot of time they invest a lot in time in that handover period to make sure they get it right.

They have a real diverse rich range of styles and experience in the cabinet so they're getting the right people in the right job.

They're taking a lot of time to keep the groups involved so they don't have this separation between the groups and the leading members um I've invested a lot of money in member development and they say it's a lot of hard work and that is one thing while you're using your political skills and you and your soft skills in terms of ensuring the relationships work well, ensuring that the processes work well, ensuring that there's a single message, that is a lot of time and energy.

So I think a quick final reflection time to just pause and say just what have you learned through the course of the webinar and if you can take that that one step further in terms of what insights have I had that then lead me to think about what actions can I take to improve coalition working, so a bit of time for reflection, but I would like to say thank you so much for listening to the webinar, please download the powerpoint and the separate exercise and I hope you found those really useful and really please take care and stay safe.