Since 2019, the number of No Overall Control (NOC) councils has more than doubled in English local government. One in three councils are now NOC. NOC takes a number of different forms: single party minority administrations; and administrations involving 2, 3 and 4 plus parties. Moving from majority control to NOC is a major change for governance in authorities which typically produces new structures and processes and shifts the nature of cross-party relationships and lead member / senior officer relationships.
The LGA – in particular its political group offices and principal advisers – provides a wide range of support to councils who have transitioned to NOC. The LGA is committed to providing development tools and support for authorities making this transition and those working within NOC arrangements.
This framework document provides guidance and support to chief executives and other senior officers in preparing for potential NOC change of control and for delivering a successful move to NOC. Effective transition and coalition working is by its nature a collaborative endeavour between councillors and officers; this framework focuses on the officer side.
Section 2 sets out the chief executive roles in preparing for and delivering successful coalition working. These have been grouped in ten key areas. These include governance, relationship building, communication, learning and development and external support and guidance.
Sections 3 to 5 outlines the 30-step framework which is organised into guidance and advice for the following stages:
- Stage 1 – Pre-election
- Stage 2 – Early foundations (election day to 4–6 weeks after election)
- Stage 3 – Strengthening coalition working (from 4–6 weeks after election to end of first year.
Although we use the term ‘coalitions’ as an easy single reference point in this framework for NOC arrangements, the LGA understands 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.
Chief executive roles
The section below sets out the key roles that chief executives can undertake supporting effective NOC transition and operations. While these roles are familiar to all chief executives, many are given greater currency, immediacy and emphasis when transitioning to NOC. And NOC working often provides a very specific context for undertaking these roles, requiring different approaches and styles of working. It is important to state that each council is unique and this is general guidance which would always require tailoring to specific circumstances.
Politics and politicians
- understanding the political landscape of the local authority, its political geography and the key players
- facilitating and brokering where necessary communication between political groups
- anticipating, where possible, potential political change.
Organisation and officer side
- developing a senior leadership team with high level political skills
- senior leadership team who routinely share and discuss political intelligence to support effective working
- generally, ensuring good level of political awareness on the officer side.
- ensuring ‘fitness for purpose’ of governance arrangements
- providing an informal and formal meeting structure which supports coalition working and effective challenge.
Councillor-officer boundaries and respective roles
- reinforcing the message that officers serve the whole council
- working to clarify with councillors and officers their respective roles
- maintaining boundaries between roles.
Strategic direction and budgetary position
- working with coalition partners to develop a shared agenda, clear strategic direction and sound budgetary position
- working across all parties to ensure wide understanding of the strategic direction and budgetary position.
- investing in intentional, comprehensive relationship building with group leaders in coalition
- identifying emergent leaders to build relationships with.
- ensuring active communication approaches with coalition partners
- agreeing where possible a communications strategy / protocol with the coalition partners.
- attuned to officer, councillor and officer-councillor culture
- developing appropriate organisational culture for working in NOC.
Learning and development
- encouraging a ‘learning’ approach to coalition working
- building in review sessions, councillor development and briefing sessions / programmes and political skills for officers where necessary.
External support and advice
accessing external support and advice where necessary to aid coalition working.
The roles are grouped into ten areas. The first is politics and politicians. Chief executives potentially moving to NOC and transitioning to NOC working benefit from a detailed understanding of the political landscape of the authority. Calculating how likely a NOC situation is; its potential shape; and the implications for the organisation and officers is part of the pre-election stage. If NOC is the election result, it is often the case that the chief executive will need to ‘step into’ the space between potential coalition partners to broker and facilitate coalition working. This can be a very different relationship between lead members and the chief executive than under majority control. In order to support stable coalition working, experienced NOC chief executives talk about the importance of anticipating potential political problems and working with group leaders to find ways forward and to build trust. Often a transition to NOC also brings with it a high turnover of councillors. There will be returning councillors who have moved from opposition to control, controlling group councillors moving to opposition, a range of new councillors and potentially new governance arrangements. In this situation, chief executives will often prioritise political analysis and step into brokering, facilitation and coaching with senior councillors from each group.
In order to undertake the range of roles outlined above, a tight, cohesive, politically skilled senior leadership team (SLT) is enormously beneficial. The second area, organisation and officer side, emphasises the importance of good political awareness skills. The SLT can share their political intelligence in order to better support transition and coalition working and can collaboratively work through the implications of transition and how best to support any new arrangements.
Transition to NOC would almost certainly have implications for governance arrangements. Do any of the coalition partners have manifesto commitments to governance changes? How might the constitution need to change? Do protocols and procedures need amending or developing? The monitoring officer, working with the head of democratic services, will often lead on the formal constitutional arrangements, including engaging councillors – often against tight timescales with the upcoming annual full council meeting. The council diary might need adjusting – as coalitions often need longer to discuss and agree policies and decisions.
There is usually a growth in the number of informal pre-meetings. It can become a web of meetings, particularly for the chief executive, SLT (and lead coalition members). Meetings will be councillor-only, councillor/officer and there will be a range of bilateral meetings. These may be thinned down and decrease in frequency over time as coalition working settles into its own rhythm of meetings.
In terms of councillor-officer boundaries and respective roles, experienced NOC chief executives emphasise the importance of repeating the mantra that all officers serve the whole council and that officers are politically impartial. Reinforcing member – officer boundaries and respective roles is important. And carefully and honestly negotiating the ‘shared roles’ and shared space that exists between senior officers and lead members is a priority. Chief executives – working with their SLT – may need to provide some guidance and advice to coalition lead members who are new to being in power; and similarly, may need to have honest conversations with previous majority lead members who are now in opposition.
A key priority for the chief executive will be supporting coalition members to identify their shared interests in order to develop a political vision and political priorities. This can then be used to shape the council’s strategic direction, corporate plan and budgetary plans. Or if there is an existing council plan, to potentially amend or re-shape this plan. This may involve the chief executive brokering and facilitating this process. All the SLT would become part of the process of discussing the practicalities and options involved in shaping political priorities. One lesson that experienced NOC chief executives share is the importance of involving all coalition members – not just the leaders – in understanding and committing to this development of a strategic direction and sound budgetary position.
Intentional and intensive relationship-building is time consuming but critically important. Coalitions are based on self-interested transactions; initial coalition relationships will often be transactional in nature. Coalition members – who were formerly opposition members – may be suspicious or unsure of senior officers and of members of other parties with whom it is proposed that they enter into a minority administration.
Chief executives and SLTs can, over time, build trusted relationships with coalition lead members; and they can support coalition politicians building trusting relationships over the initial transactional relationships. But these have to be intentionally built, through a web of bilateral meetings and through a pattern of wider informal meetings. Informal relationships can work through the premise of ‘no surprises either way’, confidentiality and an understanding of respective roles. Given the potential for coalitions to ‘shape shift’ to different partnerships and leaders, chief executives and SLTs can over time build relationships with emergent leaders and new councillors.
Alongside the importance of relationship-building, there is often a need to extend the processes and means of communication. Active and comprehensive – almost over-communication – often works well. Ensuring a single message from the officer side is communicated across the coalition groups (and at times with opposition groups too); not focussing solely on the coalition lead members but also all members of coalition groups; and, communicating across the range of informal and formal meetings. Consistency of communication is also important within the officer side. Once you have heard the same thing in three different meetings or from three different people, then the communication approach is working well.
Chief executives are necessarily attuned to the culture – or various cultures – of the council. Chief executives will want to consider whether the existing officer culture is ‘fit for purpose’ for a transition to NOC working. Does the culture need to change? In some parts of the organisation or across the organisation? How? Do senior officers and middle managers have the necessary skills and capacity for NOC working? What leadership styles may suit supporting coalition working? Where there has been a long history of majority party control in an authority, the transition may require an accompanying culture change programme.
Taking a learning and development approach can support identifying and developing what culture change is needed. And where there is little history of NOC working in the council, viewing the transition as a learning process can be helpful for both officers and politicians. Building in space for periodic rapid reviews is beneficial. Identifying member and officer development needs and designing and delivering a range of development and training opportunities works to gradually improve and strengthen NOC working.
Accessing external support and advice can be a highly valuable part of this learning approach. The LGA and other organisations can provide a range of support. The LGA political offices can provide support to coalition working, member peers to provide coaches and facilitation support. And the LGA principal advisers can also provide access to a wide range of advice, guidance and support.
Stage 1: Pre-election
Sections 3 to 5 outline the possible roles and potential actions that chief executives and the SLT could take at three different stages of transition to NOC: pre-election, early foundations and strengthening the coalition. This is the 30-step framework.
This section focuses on the pre-election period. It uses the chief executive roles outlined in section 2 to highlight potential actions and considerations. These are summarised below.
In general, the focus of this pre-election stage is on:
- reviewing the likelihood and nature of electoral and political change
- assessing the readiness of the council to work successfully in a NOC coalition
- undertaking any preparation work that could ease the transition.
Step 1 – Politics and politicians
- review of political geography – identifying marginal wards and those councillors who may be in tighter elections – what impact could this have on political numbers and control?
- assessment of likely councillor turnover – identifying who is not standing and potential number of new councillors post-election
- political scenario planning – working through potential options for post-election control
- review of manifesto commitments (see step 5 below).
Step 2 – Organisation and officer side
- how politically aware are your senior officers? – do any have senior management experience in NOC councils? – would it be beneficial to undertake political awareness training and / or to schedule sessions to work through potential implications of change of control?
Step 3 – Governance
- governance health-check – is governance currently fit for purpose? – are there any issues which need addressing?
- governance assessment regarding change of control – if the council is likely to change control to NOC or a different type of NOC – what are the governance implications? – are any constitutional changes required? – are there any manifesto commitments in this area?
- comparative analysis of constitutional arrangements in NOC authorities – if likely to move to NOC from majority control, undertaking an analysis of the constitutional arrangements of comparable NOC councils might be beneficial.
Step 4 – Councillor-officer boundaries and respective roles
- are councillor-officer respective roles well understood? – are there good protocols in place? – how effective is practice? – are there any actions which can be taken pre-election? – what post-election work could be undertaken, particularly if there is a high turnover of councillors?
Step 5 – Strategic direction and budgetary position
- review of manifesto commitments of the political groups – are these within the current strategic direction/corporate plan and budgetary position? It may be appropriate for the chief executive to provide advice to political groups on this issue.
- councillor awareness of corporate plan and budgetary position – is there good awareness across political groupings and with all councillors about the current corporate plan and budgetary position? – would councillor briefings and training be useful pre-election?
Step 6 – Relationship-building
- if change of control to NOC is likely, how sound are relationships between senior officers and potential coalition partners? – does the frequency or length of meetings need adjusting?
Step 7 – Communication
- rapid review of communication with councillors (formal and informal) – will current structures and processes work if there is a change of control? – what further processes could be planned for?
Step 8 – Culture
- rapid review of councillor and officer cultures and councillor-officer culture – if moving to NOC or different type of NOC, are the cultures appropriate? – what changes could be made? – how?
Step 9 – Learning and development
- would political skills training for officers be useful? – at which levels? – covering which topics?
- is there a need for councillor briefings and / or training in particular areas, for example, finances and the budget?
- if there is likely to be a high councillor turnover, do internal induction programmes need to be re-thought?
Step 10 – External support and advice
- identifying possible sources of external support and advice
- early conversations with external providers and in some councils, implementing development and training packages and scheduling peer challenge.
There are a range of actions that chief executives can initiate which involve identifying potential future political changes produced by the election. For example, reviewing the political geography of the council area; identifying marginal seats and the potential impact on political groups and control. A move to NOC is often accompanied by a high turnover in councillors. Analysing which councillors are standing down and the potential for high turnover and changes in how power is distributed in groups is valuable. Senior officers might also undertake political scenario planning sessions; setting out potential future control scenarios and considering how the officer-side could best support each. Chief executives should review the political manifestos of the different groups.
In terms of the organisation and the officer side, there are two related priorities. First is assessing the level of political awareness and skills among the senior leadership and then taking any necessary actions to address any needs that have been identified. The second, is for the chief executive and other senior officers to share their understanding and thoughts about potential political change and facilitate discussions across officer teams about the likely consequences and what actions could be taken to prepare effectively. Experienced chief executives have commissioned external political awareness training programmes to sharpen political awareness and skills.
Regarding governance, there are a wide range of possible actions which can be taken: a governance ‘health-check’ to identify any ‘wrinkles’ in the current arrangements; checking manifesto commitments for any possible implications for constitutional arrangements; and, undertaking a comparative analysis of the constitutional arrangements in comparator authorities with NOC control. It is likely that the monitoring officer will lead on actions in this area. There is such a tight timescale between the election results and the ‘hard stop’ of the annual full council that anticipating likely changes and undertaking preparation work can be highly valuable.
As with governance, an assessment of the effectiveness of councillor-officer relationships is useful in the pre-election period. Do all parts of the organisation demonstrate good behaviours? Do all political groups? Are protocols and codes of conduct ‘lived’ and not simply pieces of paper? If there are any problem areas, what actions could be taken in this pre-election period? The design of internal councillor induction programmes provides a great opportunity to address what constitutes ‘good practice’ in councillor-officer relationships. This can have the advantage of setting reasonable councillor expectations of officers right from the beginning. Chief executives can upgrade internal councillor induction programmes and consider using external providers.
When anticipating potential political change, chief executives will often consider likely impact on the council’s strategic direction and budgetary position. They may well analyse manifesto pledges against current strategy and budget. One experienced NOC chief executive identifies pledges which are outside the current corporate plan and budget in order for the SLT to work through potential implications. Another chief executive provides feedback to group leaders on manifesto commitments which would be currently outside the council’s budget and policy plans.
It is also worth anticipating what officer support may be needed to ensure that post-elections any new councillors and returning councillors in new positions of control are fully aware of the council plan and budgetary situation. Will certain political groups new to control need more support than others? It is possible to provide councillor briefings to increase councillors’ knowledge generally on the strategic and financial position of the authority prior to elections. Increasing strategic and financial awareness across all political groups well before the pre-election period – before annual budget setting – will pay dividends if there is a change to NOC.
Regarding relationship-building, many chief executives undertake one to one meetings with all group leaders. This provides a basis for a closer relationship if new groups come to power and helps to build trust. If change of control becomes more likely, then more frequent, and longer meetings may be helpful. And in some authorities, if change of control seems likely the chief executive may decide to widen the involvement of the SLT with opposition groups. Maintaining the position that ‘all officers serve the whole council’ is critical. Some experienced NOC chief executives reflect that it was useful for them if their original appointment was supported by all political groups.
In terms of communication, it is valuable to undertake a rapid review of whether the current communication methods and approaches would be ‘fit for purpose’ under NOC control. Often, they will not be sufficient as coalition working requires investing in enhanced communication for example preparing draft protocols on sign off of council communications. Can you put plans in place which can be quickly actioned after the elections if necessary? Similarly, a rapid review of the appropriateness of the organisational culture/s for coalition-working can be undertaken. Again, this would focus on: how would we need to change to be ‘fit for purpose’? What plans could we make now? Culture change is usually a long-term process and it is worth making early plans.
Learning and development provides one possible avenue for changing culture. As mentioned above, political skills training for officers can help to prepare for the various consequences of change of control. Investing in good quality officer and councillor development programmes – internal or externally provided – will pay dividends during transition to NOC control. Another option is increasing councillor briefings in key areas such as finance, key policy areas or in effective councillor-officer working.
Chief executives also can begin to source potential external guidance and support. The LGA’s principal advisers are a valuable resource to discuss post-election support including support for councillor induction.
Stage 2: Early foundations
The ‘Early Foundations’ stage covers the period from election day to four to six weeks later. This stage is often characterised by extensive meetings and negotiations, ‘furious’ relationship building and, hopefully, the emergence of a shared coalition agenda and priorities. And there can be some tension between a sense of urgency to agree plans and prepare for the annual council meeting and the need to take time to build sound foundations. Some of the coalition groups will need more time than others to work through how best to operate in a coalition. The chief executive plays a pivotal role in much of the activity in this stage. Part of their role will be assessing early priorities – what can and needs to be actioned quickly and what needs either a slower pace or is a lesser priority.
Step 11 – Politics and politicians
- analysis of election results – working through implications
- supporting initial NOC discussion – providing access to meeting spaces
- chief executive may act as a broker and facilitator between different groups
- supporting development of a deal and potential written agreement
- not neglecting the former majority party politicians.
Step 12 – Organisation and officer side
- sharing political intelligence
- working through implications
- ensuring continuing effective relationships with key partner organisations.
Step 13 – Governance
- supporting initial discussions on formal and informal governance arrangements
- preparing for annual council.
Step 14 – Councillor-officer boundaries and respective roles
- induction programme to include councillor-officer roles and relationships, protocol, and so on
- chief executive and senior officers to talk through respective and shared roles with leading coalition members (and wider group members)
- continuing to emphasise that officers work to all councillors and for the council as a whole.
Step 15 – Strategic direction and budgetary position
- supporting councillor-only and lead member / senior officer discussions about key political priorities and impact on budget
- undertaking away days and half days – or scheduling these to take place over early summer
- being attentive to pace of developments – some coalitions and groups within the coalition may need longer to consider key issue.
Step 16 – Relationship-building
- intensive relationship-building period
developing informal meetings structure
Step 17 – Communication
- communication protocol where possible
- very active communication both informal and formal.
Step 18 – Culture
- gathering information on likely impact on culture and actions which might be useful as go forward.
Step 19 – Learning and development
- working with lead members to assess the learning and development needs of coalition groups, any new opposition groups
- assessing development needs of officers
- any immediate support / development needs of key players?
- finalising internal induction programme and implementation.
Step 20 – External support and advice
- prioritising external support for councillors and officers in the early stages of NOC, for example, a mentor or coach for new council leader and deputy, peer members to support coalition development, facilitation support for away days.
In terms of the political landscape, the immediate focus will be on election day and the results. The chief executive can ensure practical help is available to support initial NOC discussions across political groups, for example providing access to meeting spaces. One chief executive arranged for meeting spaces to be available at the election count.
Often, chief executives will help broker and facilitate deals between different political groups. In other local authorities, deal-making would remain a councillor-only activity. And in some, chief executives may help secure LGA councillor peer support to aid this process. Very often, the chief executive plays an important role in facilitating coalition group development: there is a real danger that political cohesion and forward momentum can stumble if the chief executive does not realise that they may need to ‘step into’ this role. Coalition-working will usually experience some problems and blockages, and these will also require chief executives to periodically ‘step into’ the brokering / facilitating space.
Although most of the energy and time will be expended working with the new coalition partners, the chief executive may also need to help support the previous controlling group in its transition to opposition. When groups have moved from long-standing majority control to opposition they can enter almost a grieving period, unsure of their new role. If this ‘grieving period’ becomes extended and there is an absence of effective opposition and challenge, it can hamper good governance in the council.
On the officer side, SLT members will need to share political intelligence and work through the potential implications of the emergent coalition and how they can best support the coalition. They will also be involved in bilateral and collective meetings with lead members of the coalition, building the foundations for good relationships. Sharing political intelligence would involve considering which lead members might benefit from greater support; would coaches be helpful? Have some coalition groups had a large influx of new councillors or new leadership? Should support to certain groups or individuals be prioritised? Depending on how long a coalition takes to ‘bed in’, the SLT may need to give more attention to key external partners to ensure continuity.
In terms of governance arrangements, changes may need to be made in constitutional arrangements. Fundamental constitutional arrangements might need longer to work through; and, the chief executive and monitoring officer may need to broker longer timescales for such change. For example, in the 2019 elections the long-standing Conservative majority control at Cheshire East was replaced with a Labour – Independent coalition. Part of the agreement for joint working was a move to a committee system. The authority took a year to plan and prepare for the committee system.
The monitoring officer will likely be focussed on whether there needs to be any short-term constitutional changes; new committees or groups; and, changes to standing orders or protocols prior to the annual full council. And new informal structures will emerge to support coalition working. NOC control usually produces a greater range of informal meetings and mechanisms as agreement has to be built across groups and with the officer side.
In terms of the councillor-officer relationship, experienced NOC chief executives talk about the importance in the early days of repeating and re-emphasising the mantra of ‘all officers work for the whole council’. Early supporting actions would include an internal (or external) induction programme which includes clear guidance for councillors on the respective roles of councillors and officers, the code of conduct for councillors and councillor-officer protocols. Senior officers can have early, honest conversations with their respective lead member concerning how to work together effectively; an early ‘sit down’ discussion is often mutually beneficial. And, usually the chief executive would meet with coalition group leaders and similarly discuss respective roles, shared roles and how to work together effectively.
In terms of the strategic direction and budgetary position, the early weeks of coalition working will need to focus on developing a shared agenda and common purpose across the coalition. This means building on the original ‘deal’ to develop a fuller political agenda. The chief executive would usually play a key role in facilitating this process. It is common for away days or half day sessions to be organised to work through the impact on strategic direction, corporate plan and priorities and the budgetary position. Some discussions will be councillor only, others councillor-officer. External support might be engaged to help facilitate this process.
The process of discussions surrounding strategic direction and finances, and wider discussions across councillors and officers about their respective roles – and simply the need to ‘get to know each other’ drives a period of intensive relationship-building. And, as stated above, a web of informal meetings often emerges. These are crucial in the short and long term; developing effective relations is central to successful coalition working. And these informal meetings provide the structure to support this; one chief executive speaks of these as the ‘stilts of coalition-working’.
Alongside relationship-building, there will be expanded and active communication. Councillors and officers will both want to ensure clarity of discussions and decisions across the coalition groups: lead coalition members will usually understand the importance of a ‘coalition position’ on key policies and decisions; similarly senior officers will want to ensure they are providing a ‘single message’ on officer advice and guidance. It can be helpful to agree a coalition communication protocol which sets out the process for agreeing media releases.
In the early weeks of NOC, it is highly unlikely that the chief executive will prioritise specific work on culture change. However, it is likely that in these early stages the areas which would benefit from intervention and action will emerge; cultural blockages and blind spots will become more obvious. And these can be tackled in the medium to longer term.
In a similar way, a learning and reflective approach will begin to identify where the greatest development and support needs are; which groups and individuals would benefit. Similarly, the chief executive (often through discussion with group leaders and other senior officers) can work to source external support. But in the early weeks this would necessarily be focussed on the areas of highest need.
Stage 3: Strengthening coalition-working
The ‘strengthening coalition-working’ stage is from four to six weeks after the election to the end of the first year. The chief executive will be working with coalition group leaders and senior officers to embed successful coalition working and building on the early weeks to deepen relationships and build trust. Much of this stage will hopefully involve making adjustments and ‘nudges’ to resolve problems and enhance the benefits of partnership working. And simply learning what will work best in the NOC context. However, coalitions rarely produce a steady linear direction of travel; disagreements will arise and the chief executive can play a central role in how these can be resolved in a positive way.
Step 21 – Politics and politicians
- generally, supporting the strengthening of coalition-working
- where necessary, continuing to broker and facilitate across the groups
- anticipating potential crunch or divisive issues for the coalition and supporting them in resolving these
- when things go wrong – they will – supporting ‘steadying the ship’ – focus on the learning but have ‘honest conversations’ where necessary
- as the year progresses, in councils with elections by thirds, are there likely to be changes to coalition or opposition groups? – is control likely to change? (potentially, back to steps 1 to 10).
Step 22 – Organisation and officer side
- is the chief executive and senior officer pattern of informal meetings with the coalition (and opposition) working well? – does it need adjustments?
- are the bilateral relationships between senior officers and coalition lead members working well?
– is the senior leadership team working closely and sharing their experiences and ideas for improvement?
Step 23 – Governance
- implementing any necessary constitutional change
- where more fundamental constitutional change is being considered, potentially setting up a working group to investigate options
- being attentive to behaviour in formal meetings: are councillors and officers understanding their respective roles?
- particular preparation and attention to full council meetings
- ensure informal meetings structure supports formal meetings (are there any wrinkles or problems?)
Step 24 – Councillor-officer boundaries and respective roles
- role modelling and ‘signalling’ appropriate officer roles in a NOC situation
- providing guidance to senior and middle managers about officer roles
- where necessary, having confidential ‘honest conversations’ with coalition lead members and opposition councillors about councillor-officer roles.
Step 25 – Strategic direction and budgetary position
- further work on supporting the coalition to shape a coherent and robust political vision and priorities
- making in-year adjustments to corporate plans and budgets where necessary
- identifying with the coalition key actions to be made within first year
- undertaking ‘horizon scanning’ and key strategy/policy sessions with coalition periodically
- developing longer term strategic and budgetary plans with the coalition
- prepare the ground well in advance for budget setting.
Step 26 – Relationship-building
- continuing to invest in intentional relationship building – widening and deepening relationships across groups and into the heads of service level of officers
- facilitating relationship building between coalition partners and key partnership organisations
- facilitating the movement from transactional relationships to relationships based on trust.
Step 27 – Communication
- maintaining the mantra of ‘communication, communication, communication’ – over-communication is often the norm and to be expected.
Step 28 – Culture
- as the coalition progresses, identifying any potential challenges relating to culture and taking actions to address.
Step 29 – Learning and development
- building in six-monthly or 12-monthly improvement focused rapid reviews
- as the coalition develops and opposition groups take shape, and formal meetings take place, identify further development needs
- there may be collective and individual development needs
- a range of coaching, specialist councillor briefing and training sessions may be required.
Step 30 – External support and advice
- consider widening, where necessary, the use of external support from the initial priority areas for example:
- would all coalition group leaders benefit from a coach?
- do opposition group/s need support?
- are there particular areas of need, for example, understanding local government finance, strategy development, performance management, effective scrutiny?
- would certain tiers of officers benefit from political awareness training (for example, heads of service or middle managers)?
In terms of politics and politicians, the chief executive will continue to support good relationships across the coalition groups. NOC chief executives often reflect that they work to identify potential problems before they arise: what ‘red line’ issues might prove tricky? Are there any upcoming crunch issues which could cause divisions? When problems and tensions arise – because they usually do – then the chief executive can act to ‘steady the ship’, focus on the learning rather than blame and help where possible to put problems into perspective. For example, coalitions do need to have discipline in terms of keeping to a ‘coalition line’. Coalition group members who regularly vote in full council against agreed coalition policy will undermine trust within the coalition and its cohesion. However, occasional disagreements may be unavoidable and can often be politically ‘tolerated’ and ‘accommodated’.
There may also be times when coalitions ‘shape-shift’, either where a group leader may change or where there is change amongst the coalition groupings (new groups come in or some groups leave). This can produce a more substantive challenge and the chief executive may find themselves in a stage similar to the ‘Early Foundations’ stage, with intensive negotiations and meetings.
In terms of the officer side, the chief executive will be assessing what is working well and what needs attention: are the bilateral meetings between lead members and senior officers working well? Does anything need adjusting? Are the senior officer team working well together? Sharing the learning and intelligence?
There would be the same ‘evaluative’ approach in terms of governance. For example, how well are council meetings, committee meetings, cabinet meetings and any other meetings going? What is behaviour like at full council? Are councillors and officers fully understanding their respective roles? What improvements can be made? The monitoring officer, working with group leaders, may be making constitutional changes not possible in the first few weeks or may be looking at planning more fundamental constitutional changes that the coalition want implemented.
In terms of councillor-officer relationships, senior officers would model and ‘signal’ the appropriate, respectful approach to councillors which is so important in terms of embedding good councillor-officer relations and culture within the wider organisation. After the intensive early weeks of the coalition, senior officers could take time to work with their heads of service and middle managers to reinforce appropriate behaviour and share their insights into how the coalition is developing. If there are some challenges in member-officer relationships, the chief executive can hold ‘honest’ confidential discussions with lead members or senior officers.
There would also be more time to deepen the conversations surrounding strategic direction and budgetary position. It can be useful to have an agreed list of coalition ‘actions’ to achieve within the first year (including some early wins). This can help to build confidence in the coalition and its ability to deliver. Continue to provide space for ‘big picture’, strategic discussions; time for blue sky thinking and ensure that not every meeting of the ‘top team’ takes the form of a long agenda of decision items. Encourage the coalition to be ambitious; some early wins may help in providing the confidence to tackle tricky ‘crunch’ issues. As you move towards budget setting time, ensure the coalition groups have time to work through proposals – often more time that would be needed in majority control. Budget setting is a good litmus test for a coalition.
In terms of relationship-building, the early foundations can be extended in a number of ways. Lead member / senior officer relationships can be deepened and widened, in particular by extending relationships across the membership of the coalition political groups and further down the senior officers through to heads of service (and beyond where appropriate). Coalition lead members can be supported in developing relationships with key external partners. And, over time, senior officers can support coalition relationships moving from transactional to trust-based relationships.
The approach to communication will be ‘more of the same’; continuing to ensure active, intensive communication and, at the same time learning and adapting practices. In contrast, the chief executive might now have the time and opportunity to directly address any needed cultural changes.
Moving on from the early coalition period, the learning and development work can be expanded. This could include planning six-monthly, nine-monthly or yearly rapid reviews of key aspects of coalition working. It could also involve extending the range, type and audience for learning and development programmes. This may involve extending the use of external guidance, training and peer challenges.
This 30-step framework has been developed to support chief executives in the transition to NOC and in developing successful coalition working.
At each of the three stages outlined above, the chief executive plays a pivotal role in managing and supporting successful political, organisational and cultural change.
The framework outlines the likely impact of a move to NOC: new relationships are nurtured, governance arrangements are re-framed and informal meeting structures expanded. And, in NOC control, the chief executive will be working particularly hard to anticipate problems and opportunities to ensure successful coalition-building.