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Thursday, 29 October 2009

Northern Territory course on 'Negotiating the Overlap'

Working with local government people - members and managers - from the Northern Territory at Darwin City Council yesterday. Still not a politician-manager pair from the same council among our delegates but, all the same, two elected members to enrich discussion. We started, after introductions, by showing a few icebreaker clips of Mayor Col Dunkley and his hapless General Manager Greg Dominelli from Grassroots - the TV comedy (clip) superbly crafted by Geoffrey Atherden who, as he teases local government, recognises its problems, even allowing the occasional bout of wit and public integrity, in contrast to Yes Minister - brilliantly hilarious though it is. Then I talk about our intentions for the day invoking Chatham House Rule:
To further develop appreciation of techniques, processes and procedures that can be used by those leading in a political environment and an understanding of how the roles of political and managerial leaders are changing, and how this applies in your council
I ran through the ideas and research that supports them, especially Mouritzen and Svara's and their focus on the emergence of 'overlapping relations' between politicians and administrators. I speak, following Max Weber, of the default tension between democracy and bureaucracy, of 'danger zones', of the 'fuzzy area where politics and management necessarily mingle to address the 'wicked' problems of modern local government, and the challenge of creating bridges between the political and the managerial without breaching codes that recognise the need for division of labour in the work of government and negotiation between individuals in political-management space.
A break for refreshments and we show four video clips - two from John's Australian research. We offer interpretation leading into discussion, comparison and analysis. (I'm hoping that we'll be able to stream the Australian clips on this blog.)
Looking at the political-management conversations takes us to lunch and continued chat. After this we introduce a model of political nous - political skills for managers and members - from the paper Kim James and I wrote in the 1980s. Then the group works on critical incidents testing themselves and the Owl Fox Donkey Sheep model. After this comes an opportunity to reflect, without our earlier interpretation, on a filmed conversation between the Shire President and CEO of Toodyay (made May 2009).
"We're moving from known knowns, through known unknowns to something else. A political-management relationship, notwithstanding its universal features, is unique to the individuals and their setting. This is raw data. What are we seeing here? Observe, conjecture, discuss and comment. You tell us. Remember that 60% at least of interpersonal communication is non-verbal and the way words are said, rather than what's said. Remember too that when you comment on other people, you're also commenting on yourself."
This is about encouraging observation, independent thought and judgement. Once people get the idea there's intelligent and sensitive discussion. I say I wish the people in the film could join us to supplement shared learning about negotiating the overlap - as on some courses in UK they do. Finally, after a swift tea break, we encourage reading skills using 'responsible gossip' to map the political environments of two of the participating councils.
John and I were delighted at the creativity and competence applied to this process, given minimal time for rehearsal; especially the willingness to adopt, at least in the classroom, the practice of 'responsible gossip' for maintaining shared understanding of one another's political environments. I'd argue this can be done with formal maps and photos of elected members (reverse for member's mapping of managers) but John introduced me to doing it by 'mudmapping' (def: a map drawn on the ground with a stick, or any other roughly drawn map, in this case butcher's paper and felt-tip)
... not quite like that but this image I've stolen looked good, especially as I've not been that close to the ground of this mighty continent. ** ** We're both aware that people attending our seminars are from separate councils - what's sometimes called 'stranger groups' - though many know each other. The most focused way to deliver this kind of training and development is as an organisational intervention, working in-house with one council, designing a bespoke event that draws on, for instance:
- an interview on film with a lead politician and manager - ideally CEO and Leader (Mayor or President in Australia) - but also a choice of other working relations between a politician and a manager. This is to create training material - a film case study of leadership at the apex - but also to learn more about how, in that organisation, the relationship works between two specific individuals (being invited to do this is usually the open sesame for effective work, as avoiding it signals a difficulty that suggests alternative leverage, so long as someone wants to proceed)
- the collection of locally relevant critical incidents. This entails being told stories of dilemmas that arise, and redrafting them to contain the challenge without insensitively divulging specific personalities or identifiable events
- an overview of current codes of conduct in that council as they relate to member-officer relations
- the assembly of mapping kit for exploring the local political environment including passport sized portraits of councillors, a map of the council’s area showing electoral divisions, post-it noted for jotting issues arising in particular areas, a guide to the roles of councillors e.g. Mayor, deputy, committee chairs, and other CV notes about them in the public domain, and, vitally, one or more facilitators from the CEO down able to engage in responsible gossip about the issues and personalities inhabiting the council’s political environment.
** ** ** John's use of the term mud-map took me to a process described by Pamela Croft in a 2008 paper by Bronwyn Fredericks:
The process maps out the connections to place revealing sets of relationships including the physical, physiological, social, spiritual and metaphysical. It also maps the botanical, colonial and the Indigenous layers of memories within the landscape sites. The tracks of animals and peoples, connections and relationships to spaces and places, symbols, patterns and colours are all recorded. It is all connected and we are connected. p.5 in Fredericks, Bronwyn L. (2008) Understanding and living respectfully within Indigenous places. World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium Journal, 4(2008). p.5
* * * We strolled later to the seafront for a delicious meal overlooking the azure blue sea of a place hardly 600 kilometres from the Equator. Among the jetty supports swam small sharks, crabs, a ray, and barramundi. A notice asked guests not to feed the fish or the crocs. The heat had a tropic solidity I preferred to the air-conditioned interior of the busy restaurant.
On the walk back to our hotel John greeted a figure in the dusk walking the same way as us, in a brown study running a sheave of paper against the fence. "Peter?" called John. "Oh hi John. Hi." We crossed over to greet. I was introduced to Prof Peter Shergold, learning later I'd shaken hands with possibly the most senior adviser to Australia's previous government, author of the previous PM's emissions trading report, now at the University of New South Wales.

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