Friday, 10 June 2011

Eric Pickles' "new favourite word", doppelspitze

When it comes to localism, it seems the government is now only too willing to look overseas for its cues.

Take for instance Eric Pickles' "new favourite word", doppelspitze, which refers to the former system in several German länder, prior to introducing elected mayors in the 1990s, when it became apparent that an elected politician didn't need to share power and prominence with a costly salaried chief executive.

In recent weeks we have seen Leicester's newly-elected mayor and former council leader Sir Peter Soulsby enter office and propose the abolition of the city's chief executive post pretty much on arrival after swapping Parliament for city hall. Perhaps he was taking his cue from the logic of the localism bill applied in London, where Leo Boland, the chief executive of the Greater London Authority, concluded that his own post was superfluous given the existence of a directly elected London mayor.

That's not to say that antipathy to doppelspitze is without precedent even here in the UK. For instance Doncaster's troubled mayoralty concluded early on that a 'managing director' might be more appropriate for an authority where supposedly the buck stopped with the mayor.

So far, so European.

But what of other countries like Japan? Interest in the idea of merged mayoral posts and chief executives also abounds here, where, since the introduction of a uniform system of local autonomy introduced in 1947 under the US sponsored post-war constitution, elected 'chief executives' (as referred to in Japanese) exist in both the municipal (city and town) and prefectural (county, roughly speaking) tiers as mayors and governors respectively.

As elected city chiefs, Japanese mayors act as both political leadership and head of the administration and are required to appoint one or more vice mayors, who can either come from within the local civil service or be seconded from a central government ministry on request of the mayor.

Executive leadership has become more of a pressing issue in recent years following the wave of municipal mergers (from 3,000 a decade ago to just over 1,800 today) and continued efforts towards decentralisation, with mayors now seen as more than just community leaders. Japanese academics refer to this as a 'presidential' style of local governance, though curiously there is some debate in these quarters about introducing "the British system" of local authority 'chief executives', as well as replacing elected mayors with indirectly elected ones in order to encourage more collegiate governance.

With respect to day to day administration, the vice mayor of the city or town acts as both lead official and their voice on earth, communicating policies and directions to the bureaucracy and the local elected assembly.

We might recognise this as a de facto local authority chief executive in all but name, but it is regarded as more akin to the US city manager model and is not considered the 'head of paid service' like in the UK.

It is, however, important to appreciate certain facts of the Japanese system, where the local civil service is hired on career length contracts from graduation and work as generalists on the basis of regular and almost guaranteed promotion, culminating in a top-tier of service heads below the vice mayors working near to retirement.

British mantras about leadership and performance are simply not present within the local bureaucracy. It's also worth noting that lack of female participation, despite some political efforts at national level, remains stubbornly persistent in Japan, withonly 15 female city mayors and six vice mayors (out of 1,800 nationwide).

So while there's no question of Japanese mayors having to share the stage with a marzipan layer of well-remunerated chief execs, there would probably be zero interest from Eland House in introducing the jobs for life local civil servants required for making it work, nor much appetite in provincial town halls for the arrival of a Department of Communities and Local Government civil servant from London to oversee their administration.

Andrew Stevens is UK editor for and also works at the Japan Local Government Centre in London (with thanks to Irmelind Kirchner and Mamika Kambayashi)

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