Voters know almost nothing about their new mayors

February 06, 2017


Directly elected mayors can reset the relationship between citizen and state — but people need to know more about them

If the idea of a ‘shared society’ is to become a reality, we need to develop greater engagement between the state and the public.  The upcoming mayoral elections in some of our major cities offer a unique opportunity to encourage this engagement at a local level.

In her first speech of 2017, Theresa May spoke of people who try to raise their concerns but whose words fall on deaf ears.  But on 4th May 2017, for the first time, millions of 
people will get their chance to have their voice heard as they cast their votes for directly elected mayors in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, West Midlands, Tees Valley, West of England and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. 

For people to feel their concerns are being heard, that they have a better chance of benefiting from growth and accessing good jobs, and that they have a say in their local economy and community, a better relationship is needed between citizens and the local state.  Not only that, more engaged citizens, economically active and participating in society, have a key role to play in unlocking local and national productivity. Directly elected mayors offer the potential to help reset the relationship between citizen and state, with greater public accountability at the local level. However, our research shows the magnitude of challenge we face in in engaging the public with both devolution and directly-elected mayors.  

Our public polling across Britain shows that 80% of citizens know ‘just a little’ or ‘nothing’ about the plans to devolve powers to local government.  For those cities holding mayoral elections, the proportion who know a ‘great deal’ or ‘fair amount’ about devolution ranges from 21% for those who have Manchester as their nearest city, to 11% in Liverpool and 10% in Birmingham.  If devolution is to genuinely engage citizens at the local level, then this gap needs to be bridged.  

But public polling data are no substitute for insight.  So, to explore the issue further, last autumn, working with BritainThinks, we took 24 members of the public from across Liverpool City Region and the West Midlands to form a Citizens' Jury and spend time thinking, learning and understanding about devolution, the priorities for their city and consequently, what they wanted from their new mayors.

While the level of knowledge about the upcoming elections, and the candidates, was low, the Juries quickly recognised the potential benefits of devolution and of the new mayoral powers and, there was no shortage of animated debate about what the priorities should be for their cities.  

Unsurprisingly, education and skills emerged as the top priority for the Juries in both regions, echoing research on the different levels of educational attainment in different regions and the implications of this on a region’s productivity, and our own Global CEO survey, which consistently highlights skills as the key concern for chief executives across the globe.  

Jurors were especially concerned that children and young people should be provided with appropriate skills for the available jobs in their area.  While the focus often tends to be on high level skills, cities and places need to think about building a ‘ladder of progression’ from low to highly skilled jobs to reflect local labour markets and help get people into work - and then help them progress.  There are also some basic things that all major employers can do to raise awareness, engage with employees of the future and help bridge this 
divide between the skills they have and the skills they need to improve productivity, performance and personal potential.

The Jurors also explored what makes a good mayor. While commentators may talk of a ‘post-truth’ era, our research shows that integrity and honesty come first in the eyes of the public, followed closely by knowledge about the local area and understanding of the lives of ordinary people.  The public want a mayor that ‘stands for the common man’, ‘knows the challenges facing people and businesses locally’, and ‘a person that "knows" the city they represent and is in touch with people who contribute to the city’. 

They also wanted a Mayor who could represent their city on the world stage. This will become more critical than as the UK leaves the EU, with Mayors having a role to work with business to develop trade and export links and define a vision for their place in the global economy post-Brexit.

Of course, there’s more to citizen engagement than the turnout at the ballot box.  Ideas that our Jurors had for ongoing engagement ranged from a ‘My Mayor’ app, 
to the more traditional regular town hall meetings.  Critically, as well as broadcast communications, the Jurors felt that it was up to the mayor candidates to reach out, ‘walk in their shoes’, and spend time getting to know what everyday life is like for people across the city.

With the mayoral elections fast approaching, mayoral candidates and local leaders need to make the most of the opportunity to engage with citizens and together shape the future of their places.  

A version of this article first appeared in The Times Red Box.

Tina Hallett | Government and Public Sector Lead Partner
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