Since 2019, the number of No Overall Control (NOC) councils has increased significantly in English local government. One in four councils were NOC after the 2019 local elections. After the 2023 local elections, this increased to one in three councils. NOC takes several different forms: single party minority administrations; and administrations involving two, three and four or more parties. Moving from majority control to NOC is a major change for governance in councils, which typically produces new structures and processes and shifts the nature of cross-party relationships and lead councillor / senior officer relationships. Given the current national political context, it is likely that this trend to a high proportion of NOC councils will continue.
At the LGA, we – in particular, our political group offices and principal advisers – provide a wide range of support to councils that have transitioned to NOC. We are committed to providing development tools and support for councils making this transition. We have designed this 12 components of effective coalitions guidance framework to be a succinct guide covering key elements in ensuring effective NOC working. It has been developed, in particular, for councillors; but it can also be used by officers.
This document outlines the 12 key components of effective coalitions, and also includes a development exercise (Appendix 1) for councillors, officers and LGA regional teams to use in developing their own local arrangements.
This guidance is drawn from our work supporting councils that have transitioned to NOC.
Although we use the term ‘coalitions’ in this guidance framework as an easy single reference point for NOC arrangements, we understand that there are formal and informal coalitions and that many different terms are used locally and that these local terms are important to recognise and respect.
Build strong foundations
Ensuring effective coalition working in the longer term benefits from investing in shaping good early foundations. Take your time to build these foundations well. In Scottish local government, because of the nature of the electoral system, coalition working is the norm. It is not unusual for Scottish coalitions to take a few weeks to emerge and to develop a shared understanding.
It might take time to work out exactly which parties will be part of a coalition. Spending time investing in getting to know potential and then confirmed partners will be an investment that pays over the long term many times over. Take time to understand each other’s manifestos, ‘red line’ issues and values. Understand what their motivation is for serving as councillors and ‘what makes them tick’. And build personal relationships not just transactional ones.
Part of this foundation building will include working with senior officers – in particular the chief executive – in order to understand how the organisational leadership can support the developing coalition. Senior officers will be invaluable in talking through the organisational and financial practicalities of shared coalition priorities as they emerge.
Councils may also wish at this early stage to bring in external help to guide and facilitate the process of coalition building. Contact with the our political group offices, national lead peers and principal advisers can unlock access to a wealth of support and knowledge.
Find the common ground
As the coalition partners get to know each other better, it will be necessary to start focusing on finding the common ground between the groups:
- What are the shared priorities and values?
- Where are the lines of disagreement and are there any ‘red lines’ for the groups?
Good governance in local government is partly premised on the need for a clear political vision and political priorities that then guide a council’s strategic direction and corporate strategy. There are many examples where NOC councils very successfully produce a robust strategic direction and excellent outcomes for their communities and residents.
Every effective coalition will need to develop a set of shared priorities and a shared political vision. In the medium to longer term these common priorities will also be tested by needing to take difficult, ‘crunch’ decisions. Not ducking these difficult decisions will be a litmus test for an effective coalition. Anticipating potential divisive issues and considering – and negotiating in advance – how to address these is a worthwhile investment. Consider – what could trip us up? In six or 12 months time, what might prove to be a stumbling block?
Taking some time out to discuss and determine shared vision and priorities through away days or half days is usually valuable. Political leaders will also need to involve senior officers in working through their political priorities:
- Which priorities can be implemented by the organisation more easily and quickly?
- Which might take longer, require new officer skills or culture?
- Which are possible within current budget projections?
- What ‘quick wins’ might exist?
There will be a need for member-only discussion and member-officer discussion. The chief executive in some authorities does act as a broker and coordinator of these discussions. Again, external support can be invaluable.
Explore having a written agreement
Coalition partnerships can build trust over time – even in circumstances where there was distrust and some history of acrimony between political groups. All coalition administrations begin as transactions. Partners join together in a self-interest exchange. And there is always an agreement over what each partner is getting out of the coalition. This will start as a verbal agreement. Over time, coalitions can build trusting relationships and stability. They do this through honouring the original transactional agreement and often through building personal relationships over the base of the original transactional relationships. One of the most common problems coalitions experience is when one or more of the partners believes the original agreement is not being honoured.
Successful coalitions can work based on verbal agreements but we recommend exploring a written agreement. Written agreements ensure greater transparency and accuracy in setting out the terms of the partnership. And they can provide a reference point if disagreements arise. Written agreements take different forms: some are largely documents setting out ‘ways of working’ outlining the process of joint decision-making and conflict resolution; others focus on the ‘shared agenda’, the joint priorities for the coalition; some are a combination of the two. And some include a written communication protocol. It can be useful to review agreements annually to ensure all is working well or in order to make adjustments. Our political group offices are a valuable source of different types of written agreements.
Build intentional relationships across the groups
Relationship-building – and then sustaining good relationships – is the basic currency of successful coalitions. Good relationships are almost always purposely cultivated across the leading members of the coalition and with senior officers. But it is important to deepen the relationship building to include all members of the coalition’s political groups. If the coalition is operating in a ‘cabinet and leader’ system then at the most there will be ten cabinet members. This can be a relatively narrow platform to rest a partnership on. Having periodic meetings across the coalition groups of all elected members – again, investing time in intentional relationship building – will widen the base of support.
Investing time in building relationships across the groups is often necessary because the transition to NOC in many councils also brings with it a high turnover in councillors. Where there is a high percentage of new councillors then relationship building is even more important.
All of this is time consuming. But necessary.
If a council is moving from majority control to NOC, it is likely that this will have an impact on governance arrangements. Some political groups who have been part of a coalition may have a manifesto commitment to changed governance arrangements. Some of the changes to governance arrangements might affect the number and range of pre-meetings rather than formal public meetings; some may require more fundamental change. Usually there would be early conversations about the impact on governance and there is the opportunity to seek advice from the monitoring officer and also from the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny. Consideration would be given to how governance arrangements:
- need to reflect any changed council values, strategic direction, corporate priorities, partnership working and budget priorities
- provide enough time and space for careful consideration of policy and decisions through a number of coalition groups and through scrutiny and challenge
- make certain committees obsolete or produce a need for new committees.
It can be helpful to:
- physically ‘map out’ potential changes and new systems to give a visual of potential changes and how the whole system would work. Use this as a springboard for discussion and revision
- review similar NOC authorities to examine their arrangements.
- (if the council is considering a switch to a different constitutional system, for example, to committee, cabinet and leader) consider setting up a working group to fully work through the implications.
Right people for the right jobs
Matching the ‘right people for the right jobs’ can have a real pay-off in coalitions. And square pegs in round holes can cause tension, resentment and missed opportunities. Coalition group leaders have in some authorities collectively reviewed the relevant experience, skills and capacities of councillors across their groups not solely within their own group. There can be benefits in the greater range of experience to call on.
When you have matched up the right people for the right job there is also the issue of member development and support. Moving from opposition to administration requires some different skills. New cabinet members or committee chairs might be supported in their transition through coaching, mentoring and other development programmes. Cabinet development programmes and top team (top team consists of the senior management officer team and the cabinet / executive or leader and chairs of certain committees) programmes can also be valuable. If there is a large intake of new councillors, then induction programmes may need to be re-thought and re-shaped.
Invest time in lead councillor / senior officer relationships
Successful transition to NOC and effective NOC working is a collaborative venture between leading councillors and senior officers. The chief executive plays a pivotal role in supporting a successful transition. Alongside the chief executive, the monitoring officer and section 151 officer – all officers of the whole council – are essential to provide legal, constitutional and financial guidance, as follows:
- the chief executive will provide the lead on the strategic and operational implications, possibilities and opportunities in implementing the coalition’s shared priorities
- the monitoring officer often provides expertise and guidance on necessary governance and constitutional changes
- the section 151 officer will keep the coalition informed and updated about budgets and financial options and forecasting.
If certain services are under performing (for example with poor inspections) or are the focus of particular coalition priorities then forging good links with senior officers will be a priority. Equally, if certain policies or services are a ‘blind spot’ for coalition parties, officers in those areas may need to brief coalition members on their value.
Moving to a coalition from majority control may involve more complexities for senior and middle officers – and will require more briefing and more time for briefing – but many coalition councils develop very successful member-officer relationships. Having a good mutual understanding of the member roles, officer roles and shared or negotiated roles is key. Taking time to talk through how officer-member relationships will work is important – and having up-front, honest conversations early on can build trust.
No public surprises
Coalition ‘discipline’ is an interesting issue. In general, it is usually considered best if coalitions can maintain a cohesive, united front. Disagreements in private; united in public. Part of laying a sound early foundation of common ground is wherever possible anticipating where there may be differences and finding a way through. It is also worth early on agreeing procedures for how press releases are processed through the coalition partners. Disquiet can be produced in coalitions where, for example, a coalition decision is agreed across the partners (for example in cabinet or executive) but members of a coalition group vote against the decision in full council or produce negative press releases. If this becomes frequent then problems may arise. But in reality, there will be differences and the occasional disagreement will happen. This is the nature of coalitions. How they are processed is key.
Coalition ‘discipline’ can also be complicated when there are coalition partners who do not operate a political group system in the way the three main traditional parties might. For example, independents will often form a group because of the advantages this brings but rarely feel comfortable with ‘strong’ group discipline. The number of Green councillors has increased dramatically at the 2019 elections and again in 2023. Green groups also do not believe in traditional ‘group’ behaviour. Understanding these different political cultures and approaches is important.
Keep the groups involved
Lead members with experience of coalition-working talk of the importance of keeping political group members both involved and informed. The nature and distribution of leadership roles within the coalition groups is part of this. Coalitions are suited to more distributive models of leadership where there is a premium on leadership as a process involving many individuals. The form and processes of group meetings can be shaped to ensure all group members are both informed and involved in coalition policy development. If there are a significant number of new councillors and also councillors in new leadership positions this emphasis on keeping the groups closely involved is doubly important. It can also ensure that coalitions avoid the danger of coalition lead members becoming more comfortable with other each than their own political groups; executive governance arrangements in particular can ‘pull’ coalition executive members into very close working which can lead to a perception of too great a distance from their own political group colleagues.
Communication, communication, communication
A chief executive of an authority that became NOC in 2019 commented that the key to successful coalition was ‘communication, communication, communication’. This is a common theme among lead councillors and senior officers with NOC experience. An active and thorough communication approach works well; there needs to be good communication across the lead coalition members; across the ‘top team’; across coalition political groups; between the senior leadership team, assistant directors and middle managers; with the opposition group/s; and with partner agencies. It is useful to take time to consider how to communicate effectively with partner agencies given the change in control.
Commonly, more councillors in particular are involved in shaping policy and decision-making within NOC authorities; and there is a necessary process of iterative rounds of consultation and decision-making across the coalition groups for some key decisions. This can feel time consuming and sometimes repetitive but it needs to be pretty exhaustive to maintain cohesion and to avoid mixed messaging. Active communication will be easier where councils invest in intentional relationship building.
Officers will often adapt their processes to ensure they reflect this need to be thorough in communication. The monitoring officer and head of democratic services may also amend constitutional practices, meeting timetables and processes.
Learn, improve, adapt
If the council had a long period of majority control prior to moving to NOC, then the transition may involve substantial change. It can be useful to adopt the culture and approach of a ‘learning organisation’ in this situation. Learning organisations build in reflective and evaluative processes. Designing periodic reviews can allow councils to identify:
- What is working well?
- What are the remaining blockages and challenges?
- What can we do to resolve these?
These reviews can be either light-touch and informal, or more formal and comprehensive (or a mix of both). They can also take thematic approaches. For example, reviews can be linked to work on supporting the culture change often necessary for successful transition to coalition working.
Use political nous and soft skills
Coalition-working really benefits from lead councillors who are politically astute and savvy. Having a good understanding of the political landscape, who the key players are and where power rests is immensely valuable. The most effective coalition lead councillors not only understand their own political group dynamics but that of the other coalition groups too. And they use both their political and soft skills to ensure a cohesive, successful coalition. Soft skills include relationship building, influencing and communication skills. They also understand the important of building successful relationships with senior officers.
Senior officers in coalition also benefit from a good level of political awareness and skills. To work effectively with the coalition and opposition group/s they also have an advantage if they understand and can map the political terrain accurately. To be politically impartial but politically astute; to understand the ‘world of members’ and their particular pressures and challenges.
Political skills can be learnt and some NOC authorities invest in member development programmes and political awareness training for officers.
Appendix 1 – 12 components of effective coalitions (development exercise)
For each of the 12 components of effective coalitions, we recommend that you consider the following issues and note down answers to the following questions:
- What is the position on each component within your coalition / council?
- What has gone well in implementing this component?
- What have you learned while implementing this component?
- What actions should you take in relation to this component?
Build strong foundations (component 1)
- Don't rush the early stages – take your time.
- Build personal relationships – get to know each other.
- Take time to identify shared agendas.
- Take time to develop a written agreement.
Find the common ground (component 2)
- Explore your respective interests, policies, values and manifesto promises.
- Identify shared, common interests, policies and values.
- Develop a shared agenda and key priority.
- Be clear where there are divergent interests and policies (and clarify how these will be managed).
Explore having a written agreement (component 3)
- Any initial verbal agreement can be followed up with a written agreement.
- Never shortcut this stage.
- Any necessary adjustments to a written agreement need careful negotiation.
Build intentional relationships across the groups (component 4)
- Stable coalitions thrive where time is taken to build intentional relationships across the coalition groups.
- Relationships should not be restricted to leading members of the coalition groups.
- Build relationships intentionally and carefully.
Think governance (component 5)
- Invest time in developing robust, good governance arrangements.
- What political management arrangements will work best given your particular coalition arrangements?
Right people for the right jobs (component 6)
- Look across the groups – where possible – to match known skills, experience (and commitment) to leadership roles.
- Building a diverse, skilled leadership team will bring benefits over longer term.
Invest time in lead member–senior officer relationships (component 7)
- Build intentional relationships between lead members and senior officers.
No public surprises (component 8)
- Where possible avoid public disagreements or different public messaging across the groups.
- Develop co–ordinated processes for agreeing and communicating public messages.
Keep the groups involved (component 9)
- Keep all members of coalition groups informed and involved.
- Avoid the danger of a growing 'them and us' between coalition leading members and their groups.
Communication, communication, communication (component 10)
- Keeping the groups involved is a key reason to invest in communicating actively using range of methods.
- Coalition working rests on effective and timely communication – it's hard work but vital.
Learn, improve, adapt (component 11)
- Adopt an improvement focus – reflect on what's working well and what isn't and take steps to improve and adapt.
- Problems will occur – how can you learn and adapt?
Use political nous and soft skills (component 12)
- Successful coalition leaders use their political and soft skills effectively.
- Understand not just the dynamics of your own group but of the other coalition groups too.
- Soft skills such as influencing, relationship building, and negotiation skills are at a premium in coalitions.
[Appendix source: Dr Stephanie Snape, LGA Associate and Director, New Leadership Foundation]