Spring elections bring challenge and change for local councils


Andrew Travers shares his insights on how council officers can make the most of this day – and be prepared for the changes that elections might bring.


Wednesday, 3 May

By Andrew Travers, ICC Director.


Spring elections are a major event across the UK – an opportunity to get everyone involved in community action, a challenge to do things better and a chance for change. For local councils particularly, all of these apply.


Local elections are a vital part of our democracy. Everyone who puts an ‘X’ in a box on May 4th hopes their vote will make a difference to local quality of life. But good electoral outcomes also depend on local authorities’ capacity for organising and administering them, facilitating the winners’ transition to power and helping political teams to design and deliver the means to make good their manifesto promises. And this year brings the added challenge of the introduction of the new voter ID rules.


From the start, any election must be a whole organisation event. If you are a Returning Officer, you know that an election’s success goes far beyond your direct elections team. Everyone needs to be involved, particularly finance, IT, FM and streetscene teams, but also the hundreds of people who will deliver the election-day and count. But involvement needs to feel organisation-wide, not least to deal with unexpected events. The places that do it well put it front and centre of the management team and everyone manages the risk.


Because of course, there is risk to manage. In a small minority of cases something can go spectacularly publicly wrong. But beyond that there’s a bigger risk to manage. Should the process go wrong – teams not ready, delays in the count, recounts that don’t happen or happen when they not needed – the impact can bleed into and affect trust in relationships with members and stakeholders. It can set the wrong tone for a whole administration and have lasting resonance about the competence of the organisation.


It’s important to remember too, that the success of a new administration depends on how well you’ve prepared for its arrival. You’ve got to work out, in a way that fits with local politics and relationships, how you’re going to analyse and consider opposition manifestos, if there’s a serious likelihood of change, and start to think about and prepare for that change. You want to have a pre-existing good productive relationship with the opposition group. Suddenly ingratiating yourself during the pre-election period is uncomfortable for both sides. But let’s be honest – building that relationship that can be difficult when the political discourse has been harsh. And of course, the process of building an opposition relationship isn’t formalised in any way. There’s no textbook for all this. The best advice is to get close to your peers, listen to their experiences, and share your concerns. All those conversations will tell you something useful.


There’s also no textbook for an incoming new administration. They won’t have had a huge amount of preparation, other than knowing what they’re inheriting. There are no lessons in how to behave as a Leader or how you get your Cabinet elected and formalised. So it’s your job to support it through this important governance period. Both you and your monitoring officer need to be ready to help politicians translate the work they want to do and the early decisions they have to make into the formal work of the Council – from confirmation, to handover, to AGM. Again, this is a moment to listen to experienced colleagues.


You will also, at this point, be starting to have discussions with the Leader and Cabinet officers about how they want to familiarise themselves with their brief. Make sure that all Directors are booked in for time with them. Then you will need to help them work out how to translate their manifestos into something they can actually do. The real world programme comes out pretty early on! These conversations are key to build confidence that you have the machinery and the team competency to do what’s required to deliver change. You’re in for a bumpy transition if the incoming team thinks the structure is fatally flawed. And don’t forget – even when the same party wins, a different leader can mean as big a change as a different party in terms of adjustment in programmes and policies.


Elections are a huge moment for councils, political parties and residents. Respect the magnitude, prepare well, and enjoy the day (and night)!