England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Municipal Postcard: What we can learn from American mayors


Mayors and their role in the devolution process are still provoking debate. A recent trip to San Francisco made Janet Sillett wonder if there are lessons to be learnt from the mayoral system – or systems – over there.

The introduction of directly elected mayors by the first Blair government was clearly influenced by the American experience – so what can we learn from that experience now we are facing a new wave and type of elected mayors?

This isn’t a debate about whether they are a good or bad idea or appropriate for all combined authorities (a worthy debate but not for this article) – but if elected mayors are to be a condition for being given more devolved powers, then we need to think about what kind of mayors these will be, their roles, responsibilities and the nature of the relationship with other players.

There is no single blueprint for elected mayors in the US. Mayors do not all have the same level of formal powers and the balance of powers between them and the relevant council can vary considerably. Unfortunately, the concept of the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature in the American constitution allows the potential for the emergence of two possibly opposing and irreconcilable blocks. This might be said even to be undemocratic – as democracy implies both the ability to make clear decisions in the interests of the population, and the ability to coordinate the implementation of the principles contained in these decisions.

There needs to be a framework which doesn’t hold within it the potential for continual conflict. A system that identifies clearly who is charged with what – who is responsible for adding to the legislative framework and who is responsible, day to day, for supervising the implementation of the policies contained in that framework. Will the council have the right to amend, or even veto, a budget proposed by the mayor? We need clarity over the respective roles and responsibilities of our new mayors and the combined authority.

We want accountable and open government. Is the idea of a highly visible and influential mayor compatible with an authority’s council that may represent the wide-ranging interests of its citizens more effectively?

Does the American experience provide ideas? Possibly. Robin Hambleton and David Sweeting in an article for Public Administration Review in 2004 pointed out that how successful or influential an American mayor is does not necessarily depend on the formal powers they have – some have few powers but huge influence – for good or ill. They cite the classic example of a powerful ‘weak’ mayor as being Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago from 1955 to 1976: “his formal powers in relation to the council were weak, but a recent in-depth analysis suggests he was the most powerful local politician America has ever produced”. Might such a danger be reduced by giving the council the right to replace an existing Mayor only by itself electing a new one first? This would follow the constructive-vote-of-no-confidence parliamentary principle explicitly contained in the constitutions of Germany, Poland and Spain. It isn’t likely to happen for combined authority mayors here but is an interesting thought.

Hambleton and Sweeting refer to Professor Clarence Stone and his theory of facilitative leadership, which “is a move away from the power-oriented model of traditional leadership studies of mayors in local government. While leaders in the facilitative model focus on creating a vision and securing broad commitment and participation from organisational members, power-oriented leaders use formal powers and the resources of their office to achieve goals. The emphasis in the facilitative model is on cooperation rather than command, with leaders striving to secure broad, consensual participation rather than using formal powers of command to effect change.”

This kind of leadership seems to me to be the one most suitable for metro mayors, where they will be expected to bring together diverse interests – political, social, geographical, cultural. The mayor as leader proposes goals, persuades, negotiates and convinces other players – and exercises his/her executive powers to achieve shared objectives. In this context, the model set out in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, seems appropriate, where the mayor chairs and is a member of the combined authority’s assembly, but is also the executive leader of this authority. An agreed amendment in the Lords also reinforces this, which ensures that the consent of member authorities will be needed to the allocation of responsibilities to elected mayors.

Of course, there are other models that could work equally well, or maybe, better, (with mayors and without), but we are discussing here the model set out in the devolution bill. A debate on other models will no doubt emerge in the parliamentary progress of the bill and we look forward to that.

How the mayor acts won’t just depend on his/her formal powers and the statutes that underpin them, but will be influenced by the local context – the multitude of partnerships and the councils involved in the combined authority, the rest of the local public sector and residents. Decisions would be made after consultation and negotiation. The combined authority is, after all, rather a strange beast – not at all like most existing local authorities. For it to work effectively, it will need ways of reaching decisions through conciliation and persuasion. The mayor may not have the strong powers of an US super mayor or a mayor of a major European city, but will exert influence that could be vital.

However, this may be too optimistic. US mayors have much more financial discretion than is available to mayors and local government here and they have a range of tax levers. Devolution promises some more influence over finance but, so far, no new ways of raising income for investment.

To conclude, these are two lessons we can learn from the US – I am sure there are many more, but these are critical. First – that the respective roles of the council and mayor need to be clear and understood to maximise accountability and to minimise confusion, conflict or gridlock. The institutional framework must allow for the diversity of views whilst facilitating collaborative decision-making.

Second – the elected mayor and combined authority need fiscal discretion in order to deliver on the their ambition and the government’s aim to make a constructive difference in their localities.

This article was written after discussions with Dr Steve Bosworth, formerly a Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy and Science at the University of Portsmouth. Dr Bosworth is American.