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The importance of political skills

Written by: Gemma Stevenson-Coupe is associate consultant at Solace
Published on: 17 Oct 2019

When recruiting executive level roles for local authorities, it’s always been a challenge to know whether candidates from the private sector transcend well into the public sector, particularly within the political environment of a local authority. It’s been a topic of conversation which has arisen time and time again over recent years.

Local authority senior managers are now more flexible than ever in their considerations around candidate skill set, acknowledging that a candidate with experience of working in a variety of different sectors will be able to bring knowledge and experience that is perhaps missing or uncommon in their own.

Running a local authority in today’s political and economic climate often requires a skill set quite different to that of years gone by and so there are skills gaps in areas like commercialisation, income generation, transformation and being digitally smarter, where local government may need to look outside the sector for talent.

So if there’s a need for specific skills that private sector candidates can offer then, as recruiters, we need to ensure we are considering how to most effectively transfer candidates into the sector. With a strong search campaign we can attract a wide range of candidates with cross sector experience but with this transference of skills, we need to consider the one critical factor that makes a local authority different to a private organisation…politics.

It is widely accepted that managing the member/officer political interface is more of an art than an exact science. Manzie and Hartley’s paper Dancing on Ice: leadership with political astuteness by senior public servants in the UK comments that officers must be able to ‘navigate the different interpretations of “political”’. So officers must be able to understand and deliver on a number of ‘diverse interests’ yet remain a-political themselves. They need the ability to operate in a ‘context of dual leadership’ where they lead in their own organisational role but they must also ‘subordinate their own leadership to that of the politician.’

A former chief executive of a district council recently commented that, in his experience, when member and officer relationships are robust, there is a strong platform from which to drive and energise change and transformation. His view was that ideally members and officers look to work together to develop a political brief. The officer would look to support and focus the ideas and thoughts of the members with the view of interpreting and feeding back the best course of action.

Being able to identify potential problems is essential and knowing how to manage this, both in a public and private working environment, will serve the officer well. He went on to say that members are looking for reinforcement; they don’t necessarily look for challenge in a public environment –more for constructive challenge in private.

So it’s critical that the officer is self-aware not just of their own emotions and actions but also aware of the context they are operating within. Their self-awareness becomes a tool to manage relationships, show empathy, interpret and read body language as well as to cope with challenging situations knowing when to influence, work collaboratively and manage conflict.

Listening to a local authority leader speak recently about his own leadership journey, he shared the importance of making well informed decisions and how he looks for officers to present the facts around a potential change as well as options for him to work through. He appreciates consistency in the member/officer relationship as well as building and gaining trust through one another’s legitimacy.

This feeds into Manzie and Hartley’s observation of ‘dual leadership’ in that the ‘politically astute professional has to feel and breathe the politician’s objectives sufficiently to reflect their goals in their own leadership with due regard for legal, policy and financial frameworks, efficiency and staff motivation.’

Although some private sector candidates may have in abundance self-awareness, stakeholder management skills and the ability to influence and negotiate, it’s the dynamic of ‘dual leadership’ which is unique to local government. It brings with it a complexity to managing relationships and essentially getting things done. This is a dynamic which private sector candidates are unlikely to have been exposed to. At Solace we offer support in a number of ways for private, public and third sector candidates who are transitioning into a local authority environment or who are progressing in their local government careers and gaining more exposure to working with members. We run a political skills session to support individuals to understand the nuances and relationships in a local authority. We also provide mentors who are experienced officers or members who can guide individuals on their journey in this political world.

During any recruitment process, there is a judgement call for the hiring authority to decide whether the benefits they will gain from the skill set of a private sector candidate can outweigh the learning curve they will undoubtedly experience in becoming genuinely politically ‘astute’ – in every meaning of the term.

Gemma Stevenson-Coupe is associate consultant at Solace