Managing politics in unprecedented times

Alumni were treated to a rare opportunity this month: a Chatham House breakfast briefing with London Legacy Development Corporation Chief Exec Lyn Garner.

Hosting a small group at LLDC’s Stratford HQ, Lyn shared her vast experience working in London local government, including her golden rules for managing politics.

Lyn Garner, Chief Executive, London Legacy Development Corporation

A combination of climate change, a fragile post-recession economy, uncharted territory for the EU, a rise in populism and, of course, Brexit, have created a “unique, unprecedented context” for those working in local, regional and national government, according to Lyn – and are putting added pressure on politicians.

In London, recent events have had a significant impact on regeneration. The well-publicised collapse of the Haringey Development Vehicle and the inner-city inequalities highlighted by the Grenfell tragedy, for example, have brought the need for meaningful community engagement by councils sharply into focus.

Getting regeneration right has never been more important, but in some places “it has become a dirty word” says Lyn, with public perception of development and levels of trust particularly low.

To achieve key goals, engagement and communication with stakeholders at all levels have become vital skills for officers. This includes elected officials in their role as council leaders and arbiters, as well as the public they represent.

Working in senior roles in different boroughs, at the GLA under two mayors and now leading a development corporation, Lyn has had her fair share of contact with politicians and their drivers. “Politicians work in four-year cycles, and often much less,” says Lyn, “this means they are often people in insecure jobs working in challenging circumstances and facing rising expectations.”

It isn’t enough to understand the political arena either. Social media channels give commentators and politicians a platform for expression ranging from legitimate concerns and campaigns to personal attacks. In recent times, this often means individual over collective focus.

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Officers must work closely with councillors to gain their buy-in and public support for projects, helping to generate a consistent narrative that emphasises the legitimate benefits of regeneration for a community; officers can be a bridge between politicians and the public to translate council leaders’ vision into practical projects.

Consistent communication from top to bottom can help councils “reclaim regeneration” as a concept, says Lyn, keeping the benefits to the community at the centre of project messaging.

Although often challenging, working with politicians is an essential part of any career in local government as well as essential skill in influencing more generally.

Lyn’s four golden rules for managing politics:

  1. Understand the context and current pressures, and what drives political decision-making
  2. Know the council’s internal political dynamics – there may be individuals or factions influencing decision-making and policy; attempt to seek consensus
  3. Try to marry the ambitions of politicians with the policy and legislative delivery framework, and find opportunities to achieve both
  4. Remain objective and maintain a professional distance

Above all, Lyn stressed the importance of building trust with councillors. Keeping them briefed (verbally and in writing) and using informal cabinet briefings to raise issues that will help address problems sooner and strengthen relationships, helping both parties achieve their goals.

Regeneration has an impact on all parts of the administration and the rules above can equally be applied to working with senior officers and other departments – keeping legal, procurement, finance and housing colleagues involved and clear on the benefits of delivery.

This breakfast briefing is part of a series of FoL Alumni Network exclusives hosted by some of London’s most senior leaders sharing insight and experience in small-group sessions. See our events page to get involved in our next event.