A study by consultancy Hoggett Bowers found the main reasons for chief executive departures included difficulties in personal relationships with their chair or a senior figure in a stakeholder organisation not successfully judging the “local politics”, and not recognising key power brokers.

Despite its importance, most middle and senior managers have never had any training or development in political skill.

‘The business case for closing a hospital or transferring a service may be very strong but it may also be very politically sensitive’

What is political sensitivity, political awareness or being political astute? It is being aware of and sensitive to the issues that will be important to important others even if they are not important to you. 

The business case for closing a hospital or transferring a service may be very strong but it may also be very politically sensitive. Recognising why and to whom is the first step. The next is taking this into account the way decisions are conveyed and the timing of announcements.

The clinicians may be on board and the trade unions reassured but the chair will also be concerned about the reaction of the local media and the local MPs will be sensitive to public option – keeping their seat may depend on how the issues is managed.

Need for sensitivity

The need for political sensitivity by managers has always been explicit in local government. In every person specification for a senior job in local government it will state the need for political sensitivity. This is usually taken to mean recognising that councillors are elected to represent local people and that local government services are accountable to local people via their local councillor.

Both officers and members (politicians) would claim to be motivated by the desire to make a difference. Both recognise that unpopular decisions have to be made to balance the budget but only members need to get re-elected. This difference explains why members have been known to vote for the strategy but speak out against its implementation.

Recent examples would be the closure of libraries. In other circumstances it is a case of accepting the business case but stating it is politically undeliverable. A few years ago this happened a lot in Labour run authorities, which wished to hold on to their elderly person’s homes. Another example would be the decision to build a waste incinerator as part of a strategy for removing the reliance on landfill sites but then joining a campaign against citing the incinerator in their ward.         

Politicians are very media sensitive, they seek the photo opportunity, they desire good press and they want local people to see what they are doing for them. However, good news doesn’t sell news papers.

The local press and radio also see themselves as champions of local causes for local people – often, it appears, in opposition to their elected representatives. They may be quick to present negative stories usually around well established stereotypes of bureaucracy and red tape, politically correctness gone mad and shocking waste of tax payers money.

This also helps explain why something a manager may consider trivial, a politician may consider very significant. A complex partnership agreement woven together over many months of skilful and patient negotiations can quickly unravel if the manager fails to appreciate the significance attached to the size and position of the council’s logo. To members frustrated that the public often doesn’t realise the council’s financial contribution to such partnerships the logo is a powerful symbol, not an afterthought.

The different perspectives that managers and members bring to a situation can be illustrated by their approach to the opportunities offered by a successful bid for money. A manager secures additional funding to transform and modernise a small number of libraries. Following a detailed study, a clear set of criteria is established to identify which libraries will benefit from this extra money. A politician wants to give a facelift to as many libraries as possible, especially in the wards controlled by their party, timed to coincide with local elections. A way foreward might be bringing forward the repairs maintenance programme for the libraries not benefiting from the successful bid.

Understanding the political agenda, having the strength to resist inappropriate requests, being astute enough not to be seen as obstructive and sufficiently creative to identify options are all part of the skills required to be a senior manager in health and social care.

Blair McPherson is author of Equipping managers for an uncertain future and People management in a harsh financial climate, both published by Russell House