Department of
Political Science Working Paper Series 2005/2006
“From Local Government to Local Governance”
- Tony Larkin
No. 3
Profile of Author
Tony Larkin is Director of Services with Wexford County Council
responsible for the Planning & Development and Community & Enterprise
functions of the local authority. With almost twenty-five years experience in
local government he has also served in the HRM, roads, housing, sanitary,
and motor taxation functions of Wexford County Council and for a period
with Bray Urban District Council. Tony has a B.A (Public Administration) and
an MSc. (Mgmt) in Organisation Behaviour. He won the Sir Charles Harvey
Award for outstanding performance in business management post-graduate
education in 2002. Tony has written a number of academic papers on current
trends and issues in local government.
[email protected]
* This paper was first presented at a local government management
conference in Cork in 2004.
© Department of Government 2006
As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of Cork City Management it is fitting that we
celebrate the very significant achievements that the management system has brought the
local government system. The successes of the system can in no small measure be
attributed to the strong partnership forged between the democratic and management
systems in local government. The main focus of our contributions here is obviously on
the management side of that partnership.
A feature that uniquely distinguishes Irish Local Government from the British
inheritance, the management system has both stood the test of time and achieved the
goals set out for it. I will not review the successes of the management system here as this
area is being ably covered by other contributors. However the challenges of the 21st
century will be different from the last. We live in complex and turbulent times. It is
appropriate to examine the new challenges and consider whether the skills and practices
that served well in the past are in themselves sufficient for the future. It is my task in this
paper to consider how the changes underway in local government and its environment
will affect the management styles needed for success in the future.
In this paper my references to the management system refer to the management team and
occasional references to the work of the county manager in particular are drawn from
personal observation, but obviously not direct experience, of the impact of changing
structures and working practices in recent years.
It is my opinion that most change in structures is occurring as a result of the increasing
complexity of the local government system. I want to briefly examine some of the
sources of this complexity before looking at the way managers have changed the way
they operate in response.
It is apparent to all practitioners and observers that the complexity of the local
government system has increased, and continues to increase, at a rate unknown
heretofore. There are many causes of this but four sources in particular are uppermost:
Increasing workload arising from economic growth;
Legislation, Procedure and Policy framework;
Organisation Structure;
Changing Operating Environment.
Many of the issues involved will be known to you but I will review some of them briefly
to provide a context for considering the issue of management styles into the future.
Economic Growth
I do not intend to dwell on the impact of economic growth on local government as it is
well known to you.
It is not difficult to understand the impact of a very large
infrastructure programme on our roads, water and housing departments. The regulatory
workload arising from growth is also putting pressure on the planning and environment
departments in particular.
The state sector, including local authorities, has contributed in a very significant way to
the achievement of Ireland’s economic success over the last decade or so. However that
very success has increased the challenge for local authorities in meeting the needs of our
citizens. They expect, rightly, that their public services will be of the highest standard
and commensurate with our recent success. However we must now meet the challenges
of congestion, over-stretched infrastructure and environmental pressures using structures
and practices evolved in a different era.
Necessary change is underway, and must
continue, if we are to succeed, and failure is not an option if Ireland is to maintain its
competitive position.
Legislation, Procedure and Policy
It will come as no surprise to any practitioner that compliance with legislative/procedural
requirements is dramatically more complex than heretofore. Although there has been a
welcome codification of much of the historic legislation affecting local government there
is no doubt that the scale and complexity of the legislation has increased significantly.
My own functional area of planning is a case in point, but the same is true for housing,
environment and indeed most areas. This new law is being operated within a very
litigious society where recourse to law is a norm.
The range and scope of our reporting and accountability framework is also increasing.
Traditionally this was confined to the council, local government auditor and the
Department of the Environment.
Today it also extends to EU, EPA, Office of
Environmental Enforcement, Regional Authorities, Regional Assemblies, the Freedom of
Information Commissioner, Ombudsman, Controller and Auditor General, LANPAG,
Sustaining Progress Performance Verification Group, Equality Authority, Health &
Safety Authority et al. In a personal sense senior managers are personally exposed under
legislation in a manner unknown heretofore.
New companies legislation has also
increased the complexity for managers sitting on boards of limited companies (I myself
sit on three) which are usually undertaken as an ‘add on’ to our duties.
It is clear therefore that the straightforward legal framework of our youth has been
replaced with a complex minefield of legislative requirements, which make it both more
difficult and more imperative to manage.
It is also evident that there is increasing complexity and uncertainty in the policy
framework within which local authorities operate.
Ireland, like most western
democracies has experienced the movement towards New Public Management. Better
Local Governmenti (BLG) has clear indications in that direction with the emphasis on
professionalism, customer service, value for money etc. The trend to Public Private
Partnerships (PPP) is another element of this thinking. Managing such partnerships is a
new skill for local government managers and is a complex field. I will return to this point
Simultaneously we are increasingly working through social partnership structures, e.g.
sustaining progress, which are determined at national level but impact at the level of the
Increasingly also we are expected to acknowledge and work within a
framework of participative democracy.
Organisation Structure
In organisation theory terms I think it is fair to say that the typical mid-size local
authority was traditionally a ‘simple structure’ (Mintzbergii) or ‘directive organisation’
(Mackechnieiii) in form. Organised in two broad streams, technical and administrative,
all staff reported to the county engineer or the county secretary and thence to the county
manager. Communications were up-down with all executive decisions of consequence
being taken by the county manager. The county manager represented the ‘face’ of the
executive to council and, generally speaking, was personally accountable for all
outcomes in the authority. He was also the innovator, change-agent and provided all
significant strategic leadership. Management style was generally ‘directive’ in nature.
The authority operated with a very small ‘technostructure’, typically a small finance/data
processing staff and a personnel administration function usually housed in the ‘general
purposes’ department or similar. Middle-management structures were lean and typically
had only two or three levels from management to the operating core.
Figure 1 - Simple Structure
This organising form is quite typical in the public service generally and it suited local
government well for a very long time. By the late 1980’s early 90’s however it had
started to fray. The complexity of the council’s operations and the quantity of decisionmaking as a consequence was outgrowing the individual capacity of one man (they were
all men!) to manage. The range of new responsibilities put the ‘simple structure’ under
strain and a new form started to emerge. Initially this featured the beefing up of existing
structures; expansion of the role of Asst. Managers, creation of Finance Officers,
upgrading and increased specialisation in the support functions. DP became the IT
department, Personnel Officers became commonplace and the middle layers saw
By the mid-1990s these adhoc reforms were given shape and direction in BLG. This
ended the dual structure and replaced the management team under the County Manager
with Directors of Services.
As a consequence, local authorities have adopted a
programme structure under effectively programme managers. Simultaneously there has
been significant strengthening of the middle layers and increasing professionalisation of
If we look at the organising mode of the typical council today I believe that the original
simple structure is now taking on a more machine bureaucracy form (Mintzberg2). This
organising form is quite common in government systems and brings significant
advantages – efficiency, reliability, consistency, precision etc. However this organising
form has a strong control bias and a tendency to standardisation. It is no co-incidence
that local authorities are seeing numerous performance management systems being
introduced; purchasing procedures, operating plans, budget-management programmes,
quality programmes (ISO 9002, Excellence through People), ICT protocols etc. While
these are well and good in their own way the urge to standardisation and control will give
rise to its own problems, chief among which will be co-ordination problems and friction
with line departments. It is likely that line department staff will increasingly come to
identify with their own departments rather than the wider organisation, leading to
significant goal-displacement. There is some anecdotal evidence that this is already
occurring but I am not aware of any study of this issue as yet.
Figure 2 - Machine Bureaucracy
For the manager these issues raise a key challenge. It is necessary to optimise the
strengths of the new structures allowing specialisation and increasing efforts to secure
efficiencies, usually under the ‘value for money’ programme. However, in doing so we
must avoid fragmentation of the organisation. It is chiefly the task of the management
team to ensure that organisation-wide goals and objectives are pursued.
Local Governance
Today we live in a ‘shared-power’ world (Brysoniv). No individual agency has the range
of responsibilities and resources to adequately respond to society’s deepest problems.
Economic development and combating social exclusion in particular require a coherent
response from a range of agencies if success is to be achieved. Across western countries
we have seen a range of programmes to promote ‘joined-up’ government and increasing
blurring of the boundary between state and non-state, central and local, and of the
boundaries between agencies. This trend has created significant problems however for
governmental systems.
Chief among these are problems of co-ordination and joint
In responding to these pressures there is a move from Government to Governance.
Rhodesv (p.15) defines governance as ‘self-organising, interorganisational networks
characterised by interdependence, resource exchange, rules of the game and significant
autonomy from the state.’ Governance is a broader term than government ‘with services
provided by any permutation of government and the private and voluntary sectors.
Interorganisational linkages are a defining characteristic of service delivery’ (Rhodes
Network governance will challenge many public service agencies. Network organisation
will also challenge traditional relationships between agencies themselves, and between
agencies and the private and voluntary sectors. These relationships, based largely on
hierarchy and power, will change.
Working through ‘networks’ has become
commonplace in local government. From alliances with other authorities, often through
organisations such as LGMSB, LGCSB or regional authorities, to local interagency
structures such as the city/county development boards, local government managers are
increasingly operating in environments where the ability to exert influence is more
important than the ability to exercise direct authority.
While these reforms are under way, a separate but linked reform initiative based on New
Public Management (NPM) principles, is impacting the public service. Emphasising
efficiency, effectiveness and value for money, this initiative is reorienting managers in
public service agencies in the direction of performance management and management by
In Ireland the NPM agenda is generally labelled under the Strategic
Management Initiative programme. Although I cannot explore this issue at great length
in this paper, I believe that the NPM reforms offer enormous benefits to the public
service in Ireland, and to local government in particular. However we need to be aware
that, although the expansion of social partnership/governance and the objectives of NPM
are not mutually exclusive, they are in conflict to a certain extent.
Democracy by its nature is less than optimally efficient. There is a cost to be borne and
that cost needs to be understood. There is often a public perception that Irish local
government is ‘inefficient’. In my opinion, the perception of inefficiency stems from two
factors. Firstly local government carries on its business in the full glare of the media and
public gaze. Local government issues dominate the local media (except in Dublin) and
local government affairs are often the subject of public discourse. As such, any missteps
are cruelly exposed in a way that those of other agencies are not.
Projects and
programmes that produce success however are frequently attributed to, and claimed by,
the centre.
More significantly from the perspective of this paper however, the perception of
inefficiency comes from the inability of local government to ‘guarantee’ delivery of
national policy in a timely manner. This almost invariably comes from the conflict
between local democracy and national democracy, not from inefficiency in the
organisation. For example, national policy may promote restrictions on rural housing.
However, local elected representatives, responding to local public opinion may refuse to
back this strategy. This is not inefficiency – it is fundamentally a struggle between two
branches of the democratic system and is about the boundary between the primacy of the
common good over local interests. It is often portrayed and perceived as the council
unable to ‘deal with’ it’s planning and development issues.
An organisation headed by the democratically elected representatives of the people will
never be as directly efficient as a single-purpose agency, largely unaccountable at local
level for it’s actions. Is that desirable? This is a value judgement, and in Ireland we have
traditionally chosen to place efficiency ahead of democracy when such issues arise.
There has been a steady drift of powers and functions from urban local authorities in the
name of efficiency and a reliance on single-purpose agencies to by-pass the messy
‘inefficiency’ of the local government system. We can see the impetus to continue this
trend in the current calls for a national waste management agency, a national agency to
build public houses and regionalisation of water and sewage infrastructure. This is not to
argue that inefficiency in local government should be tolerated, simply that we
discriminate between inefficiency caused by management failure and that resulting from
the extra cost imposed as a necessary part of a system based on democratic governance
by elected representatives.
If we cannot discriminate in this way then the additional burden of the BLG structures
may result in the local government system being increasingly labelled as inefficient,
despite our best efforts.
Implications for management style
I believe that the management style in local government, as in other organisations, is not
so much a product of the individual managers’ preferences but of the environment in
which they operate. Today the increasing complexity of the environment and the tasks to
be undertaken have made a management style heavily based on team-work and
partnership working arrangements the most desirable one. Increasingly also the multiple
different fora where senior local government managers and elected representatives must
operate has enhanced this trend.
Today’s structures are characterised by increasing delegation, not just of functions, but
also of autonomy to set council policy within the context of the stakeholders with whom
we engage.
We are responding to diversity of our client base with widespread
experimentation in organising structures, roles and responses in an effort to deliver
satisfactory outcomes. Across the country we are seeing a surge of improvement in the
achievement of our key tasks – civic leadership, regulatory government and infrastructure
provision. All this at a time of unprecedented economic growth, and unprecedented
change and turmoil within the local government sphere itself. The organisation no longer
operates with ‘one-face’ but many, as we respond to the many challenges that come our
However, these trends have the potential to create significant organisational disquiet and
conflict. This may be between county managers and senior managers as they struggle to
understand the ground rules of the new operating mode. It may also be between the
executive and the elected representatives, some of whom may not welcome this new style
and structure and may wish to see a return to the better understood certainties of the past.
More often the conflict will arise from the different policy preferences of the various
directorates which will tend to cause friction at the interface of directorates. This will
lead to the need for a strong ethos of a management team with common organisationwide goals among senior managers.
Confrontation and conflict in the management team over policy is relatively uncommon
within local government. However it is not necessarily a bad thing if it results in better
development of the council’s policy. Robust airing of views ensures that all aspects of
policy are fully explored and points of view taken into account.
These trends will be accelerated by the increasing professionalisation of the workforce in
local government. Historically the employment of professionals in local government has
been primarily in the engineering related fields. Increasingly however there has been an
influx of other professionals into the service including planners, social workers,
scientists, accountants, HRM professionals, ICT personnel etc. This trend will continue
and will increase the internal debate about policies and best practice. The management of
these tensions will require strong leadership.
We also have to consider the increasing importance of performance management and
objectives to promote efficiency. Increasingly councils will be measured and
benchmarked against each other and against the private sector. The public sector no
longer has ‘rights’ to it’s sphere of influence and the growth of PPP and other initiatives
will challenge local government to prove it is ‘as efficient’ at service delivery as a range
of potential competitors. Managing a public sector organisation in this environment will
require new skills and considerable leadership ability. New techniques and practices may
improve efficiency and effectiveness in terms which can be measured, but the world of
the public manager is more complex. Mintzbergvi points out that ‘assessment of many of
the most common activities in government requires soft judgement – something that hard
measurement cannot provide’.
It is possible to argue, I believe, that local government is currently in what Greinervii
called a period of revolution where ‘traditional management practices that were
appropriate for a smaller size and earlier time no longer work’. If this is the case I
believe that we are at the end of the ‘Direction’ phase of evolution where directive
techniques ‘become inappropriate for controlling a more diverse and complex
organisation’ (Greiner p.60).
Greiner’s 5 Phases of Growth
Phase 1
Phase 2
Phase 3
Phase 4
Delegation Co-ordination
Phase 5
Red Tape
Size of Organisation
Age of Organisation
In order to be successful as an organisation we have moved into the next phase, which is
characterised by delegation and decentralisation. However as Greiner notes it is difficult
for top-level managers who were previously successful in a directive style to give
responsibility to lower level managers. Also lower level managers are not accustomed to
making decisions and acting for themselves. Changing this culture and supporting these
changes will be a key management task in local government during the short to medium
The transition from old organising and cultural patterns will be difficult and not all
members of the organisation will make the transition at the same pace. Management’s
task therefore will be to foster the new culture while marginalising the elements of the
old which are no longer appropriate.
Increasingly senior local government managers will face inwards less and will more
frequently be focussed externally. Boyleviii considers that increasingly managers in the
public service will be faced with two management challenges:
Managing within organisations, with increasing devolution of powers to internal
units and strengthened centralised strategic control;
Managing across organisational boundaries. The focus here will be on managing
network forms of organisation, with strong strategic leadership from the centre
and provision by a range of providers which can effectively and flexibly meet
service provision needs as they arise.
The City/County Council will be increasingly expected to play a leading role in the
creation, purpose and maintenance of these networks. The County Development Board is
the most visible current example but in recent years a variety of others have been
established. These include areas where local government might not traditionally have
ventured, e.g. economic taskforces, childcare, sport, social exclusion, rural development
and community networks. The council will need to develop a clear vision for its future
role or risk becoming a reactive organisation in place of playing a leading and proactive
role. The development of this vision will chiefly be a task for the county manager and
other senior managers.
The development of this ‘networked’ framework can be viewed as a system of strategic
alliances between public sector agencies themselves, and between public sector agencies
and the community or private sectors. The development of strategic alliances however
‘politicises’ the role of managers, making it essential for them to be able to manage
diverse external constituencies in addition to their internal management role.
To return to Greiner’s model for a moment we must also remember that each phase of
development is at once a result of the previous phase and the cause of the next one. The
growth of local government in its origins gave rise to a leadership crisis, resolved by the
introduction of county management. The complexity and turbulence of modern times
caused a need for delegation and decentralisation, now implemented under BLG.
However, we must remember that this phase will also give rise to its own problems which
will be a need for increased investment in techniques and tools to co-ordinate activity in
an organisation now consisting of increasingly specialised units. Just because our time in
the second phase was lengthy we cannot assume that our time in the current evolutionary
phase will be so. There is anecdotal evidence that control and co-ordination of diverse
functions is becoming a keen issue for senior management. The development of more
formalised systems for planning, monitoring and reporting will be essential.
It is clear that key challenges face local government managers:
Leading the organisation through the biggest change in culture and organising
mode in half a century;
Moving from a style of management that emphasises personal control of activity
by senior managers to one that supports and manages the activities of newly
empowered middle-managers and drives that delegation down through
organisation levels;
Developing the tools and working practices that ensure effective co-ordination
and resource allocation across newly autonomous units;
Empowering and leading the council’s interaction with a wide range of
stakeholder groups in new and amorphous ‘networks’ inherent in modern local
It is early days to make any judgements on the new local government structures in these
terms as yet. The necessary changes have been evolving in the larger authorities for
many years and have been accelerated dramatically by BLG. A good start has been made
but many challenges still lie ahead. Ultimately achieving the kind of fundamental change
envisaged will depend on the people in the new structures working to make them
successful. It will depend in particular on the management and leadership ability of the
local government manager.
Within the organisation today’s managers operate in an environment that emphasises
leadership but also teamwork. The metaphor is less the captain of the ship and more the
manager of the football team; responsible for selection, tactics, training and discipline but less a participant once the game begins than heretofore. This trend will continue and
grow in the future.
Outside the organisation, the local government manager is more involved than ever
before in managing a complex network of strategic alliances - some permanent, some
fleeting, across a wide range of diverse stakeholders. The manager will increasingly be a
primary influencer of policies far outside the traditional remit of local government.
The last ten years or so have seen enormous changes in the role, function and operating
style of senior management in local government. Even more changes, as yet unforeseen,
are yet to come. The management system has proven its resilience and capacity to
change and I have no doubt that it will meet the challenges ahead.
Better Local Government – A Programme for Change.
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Mackechnie, Geoffrey (1994) Organisational Forms and Organisation Performance,
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– Tackling Public Problems in a Shared-Power World, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass
RHODES, R.A.W. (1997), Understanding Governance: Policy networks, Governance,
Reflexivity and Accountability, Buckingham, Open University Press
Mintzberg, Henry (1996) Managing government, governing management Harvard
Business Review, Boston, May-June 1996 p79-80
Greiner, Larry E. (1998), Evolution and Revolution as Organisations Grow, Harvard
Business Review May-June 1998, Boston
BOYLE, Richard (1995), Towards a New Public Service, Dublin, Institute of Public

Local Governance