The Contribution of New Institutionalism


The concept of new institutionalism as a theoretical perspective is understood to have allowed for a common approach to the political actions of the individuals. The theory acts in the same way as a market-based economic model helps in aggregating the economic behavior of individuals. Being a rational choice model new institutionalism also allows some measure of predictability of behavior especially in the political scenarios.

However, despite some limited success of its application in terms of assessing the voting behavior models, this theory seems to face some important obstacles, which deter the universalization of the theory as a sound political model. “Precisely defining interests, when both material and non-material influences create them; explaining the effects of identity, culture, and politics on interests and decision-making; and last but not least, explaining the dynamics of decision-making” (Hira, 2000, p.1) are some of the problems faced by the new institutionalist theory. In fact, a combination of these shortcomings could explain the failure of the political model of “Mayor and Council Manager” practiced in Stoke-on-Trent in the United Kingdom, which proved to be a failure and was discontinued from being adopted elsewhere in the country.

This study analyzes the contribution of New Institutionalism to the understanding of the failure of Mayor and Council Manager Model in Stoke-on-Trent in terms of political leadership and democratic enhancement. The study extends to the analysis of the salient aspects of the historical institutionalism, new institutionalism and a discussion on the limitations of the new institutionalism.

Mayor and Council Manager Model – an Overview

The council-manager form of government has the advantage of combining the strong political leadership of elected officials with the strong managerial experience of an appointed manager or administrator. The entire power and authority with respect to the administration lies with the elected body of legislator, which includes a mayor or chairperson and members of the council. The governing body appoints a nonpartisan “manager” possessing a broad administrative authority to run the organization. This model of governance was brought to functioning by the United States progressive reform movement at the beginning of the 20th century.

The purpose of devising such a form of government is mainly to combat corruption and unethical practices of local government bodies. The aim is also to promote an effective management of the local councils with high levels of transparency, responsiveness and accountability. Since the introduction of this form of government, the council-manager model has become popular in the United States and many other countries like, Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (Form of Government, n.d.).

This form of government has some serious objections also in that a substantial percentage of the discontent with the council-manager emanates from the subordination of the mayor in the system. A number of studies confirm that in such form of governance, the mayor has only a meager role to play while the council members and the manager take a predominant role in the policymaking activities. Council members and the manager take a lead role in the development of budgets and recommendation or initiation of policies and other developmental activities concerning the local area. The mayor’s position is often sidelined without much importance.

“While some forms show adaptations to the realities of the shared responsibility for policy—council, mayor and city manager—debate continues today regarding delineating administrative and policy functions in council-manager cities” (Voelpel, 2007, p.1). The objective of this study is to analyze the shortcomings of the mayor-council manager form of government, which made it unsuitable to the Stoke on Trent County and the logical explanation for the failure of the model based on the theory of new institutionalism

Aims and Objectives

The broad aim of this study is to provide an explanation based on the theoretical aspects of New Institutionalism for the failure of the Mayor and Council-Manager model of local government in the County of Stoke on Trent in the United Kingdom. The study attempts to accomplish the following objectives in the process of achieve the broad aim.

  1. To study the features of the Mayor and Council model with a view to analyze the reasons for its failure
  2. To make an in-depth analysis of the theories of institutionalism
  3. To establish a plausible new institutionalist theoretical base for the failure of the mayor-council manager model
  4. To make recommendations for further research in the connected field

Research Question

The study tries to find theory to supplement the research question:

While the Mayor-Council Manager model of government is operating successfully in several parts of the United States what is the underlying reason this form of government was not found in favor in the Stoke on Trent or in other Counties for that matter?

Research Design and Methodology

The objective of this section is to introduce to the readers the design and methodology adopted by this study to accomplish the objectives established.

Research Design

For any research in the realm of social science research design provides the bondage that keeps the research project together. The purpose of research design is to provide a structure to the research, by showing how all of the major parts of the research project namely, the samples or groups, measures, treatments or programs, and methods of assignment function together to attempt to address the central research question.

The research design may take the form of a randomized or true experiment, quasi experiment or non-experiment. It is necessary to have this three-fold classification for describing the research design with respect to internal validity. In general, the randomized experimental basis is the strongest for establishing a cause and effect relationship. Therefore, this study adopts the randomized true experiment research design for conducting the research.

Research Methodology

The methodology process of this study entails the collection, organization and integration of the collected data. Data collection will be the most important step in the success of this paper since it will lead to viable and credible findings.

This study will be based on the research on mayor and council manager form of government and the theories of institutionalism. Though the primary data through sponsored study by contacting various subjects through personal interviews and questionnaires will be ideal for the sake of hands on or firsthand experience, due to paucity of time and limited scope of this opportunity, the secondary data alone will been relied upon for the study. Nevertheless, the subject matter of the study justified the use of secondary research, which is invariably supported by primary data of previous research.

Review of Secondary Data and Analysis

Secondary research consists of the analysis of information and data gathered previously by other people like researchers, institutions and other non-governmental organizations. The data are usually collected for some other purposes other than one, which is being presently attempted or it may help both the collection of data for both the studies (Cnossen, 1997). When undertaken with proper care and diligence secondary research can prove to be a cost-effective method in gaining better understanding of the specific issue being studied and conducting assessments of issues that do not need collection of primary data. The main advantage of secondary data is that it provides the basis for designing the primary research and often it is possible to compare the results of the primary research with secondary research results (Novak, 1996).

Research Design and Purpose

Data analysis and review in the secondary research method involves the collection and analysis of wide range of information. In order to conduct an efficient research it is important that a statement of purpose is developed first and a detailed definition of the purpose of the research is arrived at. It is also necessary that a proper research design is evolved. The statement of purpose is to have a clear understanding of the reasons for collecting the kind of data and the type of data the researcher wants to collect and analyze. This will help the researcher to stay focused on the topic under study and prevent from becoming overwhelmed with large volume of data. Research design can be defined as a systematic plan, which shows the researcher the direction of data collection and analysis. The secondary data review normally involves designing the outline of what the researcher wants to study, the format of final report, list of type of data and a list of data sources that may be used for collection of data.

Justification of the Secondary Research for Current Study

Generally, the gathering and analysis of primary data would add value to the reliability of the results of the research. However, in the chosen topic of study of the new institutionalist theoretical base for the failure of the ‘mayor and council manger model’ form of government, there are no enough opportunities within the time and reach of the researcher to resort to research methods of interviews or survey through questionnaires. It is also not possible to randomize the samples as respondents to the survey as the population is too large to select the samples to supplement this research. The information if collected from different individuals from the public may not meet the validity criteria of the research.

Moreover, since the study proposed to derive the secondary data from published sources in electronic and print media the data become more reliable to be used for the purpose of the research. Since there is an abundance of literature on the subject and most of them can be considered as reliable sources the research has drawn the necessary information and data from the secondary sources.

Therefore, the secondary research has been considered suitable for completing the study. In addition, a case study of the council of Stoke on Trent (UK) will be undertaken to analyze the effectiveness of the ‘mayor council manager form’ of government between the periods 2002 until 2009. Several research studies have used case study as a research methodology. “Case study is an ideal methodology when a holistic, in-depth investigation is needed” (Feagin et al, 1991). Various investigations particularly in sociological studies have used the case study as a prominent research method to gather pertinent knowledge about the subjects studied


For cohesive presentation of the report, this paper is structured to have five chapters dealing with introduction and research method, review of the related literature, case study of Stoke on Trent, analysis of the findings of the research and a concluding chapter.

Review of the Related Literature

This chapter reviews the available literature on rational choice institutionalism, historical institutionalism and the limits in the application of new institutionalism. The objective of this chapter is to provide a deeper insight into the concept of new institutionalism so that its contribution to the failure of the mayor and council manager model can be understood in its prospective.


The new institutionalism based on the rational choice perspectives is a relatively new theoretical perspective that has been accepted at an increasing level by the social scientists. The new institutionalism can be seen as a historical modification to the rational choice theory, which received the attention of the social scientists during the beginning of 1970s. Both the concepts of new institutionalism and rational choice perspective are linked closed to the behavioral revolution occurred a decade ago. The history of “institutionalism’ as a branch of economics can be traced back to the early twentieth century.

In contrast to the new institutionalism, the advocates of traditional institutionalism believed in the path of dependency. Institutionalism in its original form encompassed the areas of the autonomy of the institutions, evolutionary economies and a holistic approach to economics, which considers cultural and political factors of motivation. In addition, the interaction between the factors and their organization also was the subject matter of institutionalism. The followers of the old school of institutionalism are regarded “as whimsical advocates of an unrealistic and basically empirical research programme which posed no challenge to the classical or neoclassical hegemony” (Gunnarsson, 1991).

The new institutionalism in contrast though rooted in the neoclassical economic theory, instead of replacing the neoclassical economics proposes to make some modifications to the rational choice theory making it utility-based neoclassical economic model devoid of some of its original assumptions. The new institutionalism thus has carried its focus to the assumption of zero transaction costs in the proposed economic model. New institutionalists therefore seek to integrate institutional analysis within a neoclassical economic framework and to include institutional change as an important variable to be studied (Gunnarsson, 1991). The following sections elucidate the salient aspects of rational choice institutionalism the base for new institutionalism and the historical institutionalism.

Rational Choice Institutionalism

The objective of rational choice institutionalism is to provide an analytical framework for scholars to enable them explore theoretical issues and to conduct empirical research on wider perspectives in the realm of political science. While the traditional institutionalism viewed the institutions constituting the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the government. As against this view, the rational choice institutionalism views the institutions as rules of a game, which may be formal or informal. North, (1990) identifies the formal rules of the game as the official laws and rules and informal rules are the norms and conventions, which are accepted by particular groups.

While historical institutionalism is interested in carving a deep and contextualized approach to the political issues, the rational choice institutionalism carries a different objective. For the rational choice scholars it is important that the institutionalism uncover the laws of political behavior and action. Rational choice scholars are of the view that once the laws covering political behavior and action are discovered it is easier to construct models around these constructs.

These models would facilitate the understanding and prediction of various political behaviors. Rational choice institutionalists follow deductive models to look into the real world to test the veracity of their model instead of looking into real world behaviors and finding plausible explanations for the phenomena they observe. For these scholars, creating, elaborating and refining the theory of politics is the first priority over understanding real outcome (Weingast, 1996).

Within the rational choice tradition, there are two approaches to explore the ideas about the institutions. The first approach considers the institutions as exogenous constraints or an exogenously given game form. In the second approach where the interpretation of institutions deeper and subtler the institutions are not considered as exogenously structured instead the rules of the game are assumed to be provided by the players themselves. These rules represent the ways in which the players would like to play the game.

Weingast (1996) approaches the theory of rational choice institutionalism with a view to understand the institutions and present a systematic way of studying them. In order to help this study, Weingast has suggested exogenous and endogenous analysis of the rational choice institutionalism. In the first level of institutionalism, the analysis extends to the effect of the institutions. This analysis by treating the institutions as exogenous explanatory variables, examines the cause and effect mechanism of the operation of the institutions.

According to Weingast (1996), the institutions can be considered responsible for shaping the policy processes and outcomes in a number of ways. In one of the examples, Weingast reiterates that powers and institutional forms shape the legislative-executive balance of power and policy choices. In fact, this is the central focus of this study dealing with the failure of the mayor and council manager model of political system.

In the second level of analysis the endogenous choice of particular institutions are covered with the exploration of the genesis and endurance of the institutions. The genesis of the institutions refers to the origin and development of various types of institutions and this analysis take in to account the role of political elites, conflicts and cooperation of different interest groups, historical process on the creation of institutions (Weingast, 2002).

It is the case with the second level of endogenous analysis that there are vast unexplored areas especially on the empirical level. “However, these two levels of analysis in combination provide analytical framework and methodological tool for analyzing the cause and effect mechanism of institutions and contribute to the understanding of the evolution of certain institutional forms” (Kobonbaev, n.d.p 4).

There are several other areas where the rational choice institutionalism offers scope for further research. The areas cover emotions (Elster, 1999), cognitive science (North & Knight, 1997) and several other angles. The study and interaction of rational choice institutionalism with other forms of institutional analysis like historical institutionalism would be able to prove as more productive and synergetic in research in different areas of political science.

At the root, both the historical institutionalism and rational choice institutionalism offer very different understanding of social science. While the historical institutionalists use an inductive approach, rational choice institutionalists apply a deductive model of science to explore the concepts and ideologies of politics and the institutions. In the rational choice, institutionalism general principles and logics are applied in terms of games including settlers, prisoner dilemma and the like. Institutions in rational choice institutionalism are considered the rules of the game. Rational choice institutionalists are interested in exploring the nature of the game and the manner in which the game is played, while historical institutionalists are interested in finding answers to traditional questions like who the winners and losers are and the reasons for winning or losing.

Historical Institutionalism

The historical institutionalism and the rational choice institutionalism are the two contending research/theoretical approaches within the realm of the political science. There are many overlapping in these two analytic traditions found in the roles played by different institutions (Hall & Taylor, 1996; Rothstein, 1996; Thelen, 1999). The epistemological goals of advocates of these theories found them differ in their opinions and views in certain fundamental ways. However, in both the schools “institutions” are considered important for politics since the institutions structure the political behavior in both the cases.

Studies using historical institutionalist strategies adopt different ways and practices of addressing the issues. Some studies are found to be making comparative analyses, while some others analyze just one macro context. Similarly, some of the studies offer suggestive interpretations (Hart, 1994) while others offer explicit models and frameworks explained in more generic terms (Hansen, 1991).

Historical institutionalist’s primary concern is the specific real world political outcomes. They are more interested in understanding and explaining these outcomes. Historical institutionalists base their arguments in an inductive way. Prior to reaching the ideologies they have tested a variety of alternative theories like Marxist, Structural Functionalist, Culturalist and Rationalist. Fundamentally since their theory is not which is searching for evidences, historical institutionalists do not claim that the institutions are the only important variables for assessing the political outcomes or for the understanding of such outcomes.

On the contrary, historical institutionalists view the institutions as the intervening or structuring variables, which provide the basis for battles over interest, ideas and power. For them “Institutions are important both because they are the focal points of much political activity and because they provide incentives and constraints for political actors and thus structure that activity” (Steinmo, 2001, p 2).

According to historical institutionalism institutions represent the means to structure the political struggles rather than acting as the venues in which the political fights take place. Historical institutionalism thus sees the institutions as the points of critical juncture in a historical path analysis. This is so because for the historical institutionalists “political battles are fought inside institutions and over the design of future institutions” (Steinmo, 2001, p 2). In either of the instances, the historical institutionalists are interested in developing a deep and contextualized approach to political science and to politics itself.

Three prominent elements characterize historical institutionalism in contemporary political science. The first attribute is that historical institutionalists are concerned with finding answers for substantive questions that are of interest to common public as well as fellow research scholars. The second quality is that the historical institutionalists take time factor seriously with a view to specify the sequences and trace important transformations and processes of varying scales and temporality. This is attempted by them to develop explanatory arguments about important political outcomes or puzzles.

Thirdly, rather than analyzing one institution or process at a point of time, the historical institutionalists are interested in analyzing macro contexts and hypotheses that deal with a multiplicity of institutions and processes. Combined together these three distinctive features of (i) substantive agendas, (ii) temporal arguments and (iii) attention to contexts and configurations make the historical institutional approach render powerful and meaningful contributions to the understanding of the governments, politics and public policies (Pierson & Skocpol, n.d.).

Thus, historical institutionalism can be stated as neither a specific theory nor a particular methodology. It is distinguished from other social science factions in three different ways. First, it is the approach of the historical institutionalist to begin with real world empirical puzzles. The historical institutionalists are interested in real political choices rather than looking at abstract political generalizations or broader political theories.

For instance, the gaming theory or political philosophy might be interesting propositions for enabling one to have a clear understanding of the fascinating puzzles of political life. However, historical institutionalists are more interested in analyzing the real world events as to finding the explanations for occurrence of certain events or the reasons as to why certain things happened or not happened. Second point of difference is that the historical institutionalists understand and look at institutions as rules and rules are expected to affect the political outcome because the rules specify the actors and define the persons who could take part in a political choice.

Moreover, rules structure how actors behave in a political context and how they can shape their beliefs and preferences. Thirdly, historical institutionalists take history seriously. History here is referred to as a context, in which decisions are made that fundamentally affect these decisions or choices. It is the belief of the historical institutionalists that their dependent variable is deeply embedded in a context. Therefore, they believe that without a clear understanding of the context there could be no plausible explanations for any action or event (Steinmo, 2007). Next section of the chapter highlights some of the limits of new institutionalism in its application to political science.

Limits of New Institutionalism

Much of the initial research on new institutionalism treated the institutions as constraints on organizational behavior. The theory predominantly viewed the institutional effects to have their influence on the organizations to make them adopt to the very fields of which they form part. However, according to Clemens & Cook, (1999) this view of the institutions is not plausible. According to North (1990) the new institutionalists take into account the ideologies, altruism and self-imposed standards of conduct in models of individual behavior as informal constraints on behavior. However, these factors are expected to come into play only when the material costs of the related behavior are low. North also is of the opinion that culture is another aspect that the rational models have not considered in developing the theories.

North (1990) is of the view that some of the standard and necessary assumptions of rational choice models are questionable. One of the limits of new institutionalism is that the preferences are not always transitive, in the sense that the intensities of the preferences do not stay constantly over the period and there tend be shifts in the preferences, which make foundation of the concept shaky. There are also concerns about the framing effect in which the alternative means of presenting a problem result in different choices making it complex devoid of cohesiveness. There are also problems in formulation, manipulation and processing of subjective probabilities in uncertain choices (North, 1990).

The main contentions against the application of new institutionalism are that it is hard to isolate casual mechanisms in institutional theory because it relies on the historical tracing of political events. The theory failed to address the issue of the precise point at which the institutional logics compete with each other. Similarly, the theory also does not address the specific conditions under which the challengers and entrepreneurs are able to form new rules. It also does not explain how the incumbents retain power during the periods of instability. In the new institutionalist view, though there is much different alternative equilibrium, the theory did not find any means of explaining the reasons for the political systems to move from one equilibrium to the other.

While the historical institutionalism seeks to find out the reasons for institutional changes in terms of social and political volition, the new institutionalism seeks to explain the changes as merely of another instance of maximization. Ingrm & Clay, (2000) point out to the fact that the behavioral assumptions of new institutionalism amount to bounded rationality and imply transaction costs which assumptions may frustrate the collective ends in the absence of institutions. Under these assumptions the preferences are not treated as endogenous which weakens the base of the theory.

Case Study – Stoke on Trent

This chapter presents the case study on the adoption and functioning of Mayor-Council Manager form of local governance adopted by Stoke on Trent County in the United Kingdom. The emergence of local government structure in the UK and the failure of the mayor-council manager system of governance in Stoke on Trent are also discussed in this chapter.

The Emerging Idea of Elected Mayor across UK from 1990s

In the theories that deal with the importance of leadership, considerable explanatory power has been attributed to the agency of individuals who are at the top of the organization structures. On the other hand, the institutionalist theories talk about the explanation on the structure of constraints in an institution and the socialization of actors into the norms and procedures of an organization. The role and position of a mayor in the United Kingdom could be seen from both these perspectives. The concept of mayor representing a single person executive in association with a city or urban area in the United Kingdom is similar to the various models of elected mayors in the United States.

In 1989, there were no regional governments or any other form of governance structures because Margaret Thatcher’s regime abolished the local governance structures with the objective of reducing the size and scope of government. However, the necessity for obtaining Structural Funds crated the necessity for reinventing appropriate regional structures (Greasley & Stoker, 2004). The UK government passed the Local Government Act 2000 for providing the conditions for the emergence of stronger political leadership in English local authorities. The intention of the Act was to encourage stronger leadership through “the restructuring of formal institutional constraints and powers written into new council constitutions” (Greasley & Stoker, 2004, p.1). The principle underlying the Act was the assumption of the creation of institutions, as they have the ability to allow leadership to flourish and perform.

Under the Act, all the local authorities were to present to the government their plans for restructuring their political management arrangements. The Act gave the local authorities four forms of governance through council members to choose from;

  • a mayor and cabinet,
  • a leader (not directly elected) and cabinet,
  • a mayor and council manager, and
  • a streamlined committee system.

The Act also provided for the approval of the elected mayoral options through referendum (Greasley & Stoker, 2004).

As per the provisions of the Act, under a streamlined committee system it is mandatory for all local authorities having a population of more than 85,000 people to establish a separate executive from among the group of elected councilors. This option paved the way for the emergence of a common informal tradition of leadership group within the councils. However, the Act also provided an alternative form of governance under which the local authorities could establish a separately elected executive mayor.

This represented a more radical institutional option for establishing leadership. Though the presence of executive mayors is common in other Western jurisdictions, for the local governance in the UK it represented a radical departure from the past practice. Nevertheless, the legislative launch of mayoral elected mayor positions has been under inauspicious circumstances, which impeded the very purpose of passing the Act (Greasley & Stoker, 2004).

There were wide spread opposition to the concept of elected mayoral options within the context of the local government and even from some of the factions in the ruling labor party. There was no consistency in the position of the government over the policy relating to elected mayors as the government with different proposals at different points of time. There was also not much of an enthusiasm among the public on the deliberations relating to the constitution of the local government bodies. These factors made the number of mayoral positions to significantly less, restricted to few local authorities only. The referendums carried out for deciding on the elected mayors also did not evoke a good response among the public and the option for elected mayors was lukewarm with only few of the respondents to the referendum finding favor with the elected mayor concept.

Therefore, it can reasonably be concluded that the launch of the policy relating to the elected mayor cannot be considered to have been glorious. The concept of directly elected mayor has been observed to be one with a partial quality from the beginning with a strong urban bias. Besides, the public support for the policy in advance of the referendum could not be assessed properly rendering the introduction of the policy of elected mayor to be treated with caution (Greasley & Stoker, 2004).

The turnout for the mayoral elections was found to be significantly lower than the local government norms. The candidates also belonged to ranks of politics and public affairs instead of people external to these areas. The turnout reflected the low salience of mayoral elections to the electorate as well as the elected representatives to the Parliament. This implies that local authority mayoral concepts have not evolved any radical change in the perception of local authority politics at national level.

No compulsion was placed on the local councils to adopt elected mayors and this resulted in only a few local bodies resorting to elected mayoral concept. The objective behind this idea was to counter the departmentalism existed as a long-standing problem in the English local government. The departmentalism arose because of the practice of the councilors working in specialized committees. In addition, the specialist professionalism of the officers who staff in departments has also added to the departmentalism (Elcock, 1994). “The elected mayor is one way to develop and enforce co-ordination and most English mayors claim success in doing this.

However, English local authorities are very large organizations by international standards, which might provoke doubts as to whether a single person can adequately command and co-ordinate their activities, although most of the present mayoral authorities are fairly small by English standards” (Fenwick & Elcock, 2004, p.521). It is argued that the elected mayor concept could speed up the decision-making processes resulting in improved co-ordination. However, the fact that the councilors were not exposed to executive position made it difficult for them to fit into executive roles. The role of non-executive councilors has developed un-evenly which was a problem that the mayors have to face and from the perceptions of the mayors, it is the deliberate attempt of the councilors to protest against the new arrangement (Fenwick & Elcock, 2005, p.63).

US experience of Mayor and council manager model of Local Government

A less traditional approach to comparative policy studies looks at the lessons that a country can learn from the experiences of another country, in addition to just copying or adopting the policies. The consideration by the United Kingdom to adopt an elected mayor policy from the experience of the United States can be considered as such an analysis. In the year, 1991 UK government through a consultation paper outlined the case for making radical changes in the existing arrangements and introduced several options. One of such options was the council manager system as was prominent in the local government system in the United States (Stoker & Wolman, 1992).

The council-manager system similar to the strong mayor form emphasizes the appointment of a strong executive instead of an elected one. In the council-manager form, an elected council chooses a professional city manager. The city manager would report to the council and he is made responsible for the executive functions. In the council manager form drawn on the American business corporation model, the city council is responsible for making policy decisions, while the council manager is responsible for administration. Just as in the business corporations, the board of directors sets the company policy and the salaried managers are the decision-makers on a day-to-day basis, the councilors make the policy decisions and the council manager is expected to make the decisions on the day-to-day functioning of the council (Stoker & Wolman, 1992).

Though there are mayors appointed in the council manager system, the powers of such mayors are considerably less than the powers given to the mayors in the mayor-council systems. In almost 62 percent of the municipalities in the United States, the mayors in the council manager systems are elected directly. In 36 percent of the cases, the mayors are chosen by the council. In some limited number of municipalities, the council member who could get highest number of popular votes is automatically made the mayor. In almost 85 percent of the council managers system, the mayors are council members as against 33 percent in the mayor council system (Stoker & Wolman, 1992, p.244).

There are different limits set on the powers of a mayor in the council manager system. However in most of the cases, the function of the mayor is found to be mere symbolic or ceremonial, without strong authority. In many other council manager municipalities, the mayor plays a policy leadership or a coordinative role and the council manager functions as an executive leader. However, theoretically, the council manger system distinguishes between the policymaking and administrative functions, in majority of the cases the city managers play an important role in the policy as well as administration (Ammons and Newell, 1988).

The city council managers were found to play a key role in making policy recommendations and in many cases were involved in bringing political coalitions. The non-executive role of the mayor in the council-manager system includes the functions of ceremonial presiding of state functions. The other functions include acting as a liaison with the city manager, being engaged in the efforts to set goals for both the council and the manger and serving as the promoter or ambassador for the city representing the city to the outside world (Svara, 1988). These functions are different from the executive functions of executive, problem solver, boss and caretaker performed by the mayors in the mayor-council form. (Yates, 1977; Kotter and Lawernce 1974, Stone et al 1979)

Economical and Political History of Stoke-on-Trent

Stoke-on-Trent (shortly known as Stoke) is a city in Staffordshire County in the UK. The city was formed in the early 20th century by amalgamating six independent towns and a number of villages. The city comprises of Hanley, the primary commercial centre, Burslem, Tunstall, Longton and Fenton. Stoke has trace of history in the pottery industry of the UK. Though originally the region was industry-based, now it has become a center for service and distribution centres. The city has an elected mayor who will function until May 2009, as there is a change in the local administration to a council led system.

North Staffordshire where Stoke is situated is a world center for ceramics which industry is thriving since the 12th century. The city was hit by general economic decline during the 1990s and several factories, collieries, and potteries were made to close down. The unemployment rate went up. Economically the city is placed in an advantageous position as it is surrounded by some affluent locations. The city offers competitive environment for new business opportunities. Tourism is also flourishing in the area with more than five million people visiting the place yearly.

The city is among one of the twelve English districts, which has an elected mayor and adopted mayor and council manager system. The directly elected mayor system was approved by a referendum of the people with 27.8 percent of the people turning out for the referendum (Guardian, 2008). The local referendum conducted on the 3 May 2002 elected the mayor system with a voting of 28,601 votes to 20,578. Mike Wolfe who contested in the election as an independent candidate became the first directly elected mayor of Stoke. He beat the labor party candidate George Stevenson with a narrow margin of 300 votes. This election took place on the 17 October 2002. Mike Wolfe won 12,603 votes while George Stevenson could get 12,329 votes only (BBCNews, 2002).

The next mayoral election was conducted on the 5 May 2005. This election returned Mark Meredith the current mayor from the labor party. The 2005 election assumed significance in the light of the fact that about 10% of the ballot papers became ineligible (BBC News). Mike Meredith in an election, which had a turnaround of 50.79%, polled 27,253 first preference votes against the total votes of 36,961 (Nagatomi, 2005). The elected mayor provides overall directions to the council and acts as the principal spokesperson on behalf of the council. The policy framework of the council is decided by the elected mayor working with the council manager (chief executive) (Democracy, 2005).

The council manager and the Chief Executive Officer is not a politician but an executive, working closely with the elected mayor and helping him in the preparation of policy framework and budgets. It is the function of the council to set the budget and capital-spending programme for the council. The other function is to set the key policies of the council. The decisions taken by the elected mayor and the council manager and the chief executive officer are overseen by the councilor through Overview and Scrutiny Committees (Democracy, 2005).

Again, there was another poll in October 2008, to vote on the modification of the mayoral system to mayor and cabinet from the existing council manager system. There is also the position of a Lord Mayor, which is purely a ceremonial position. The position of Lord Mayor is decided based on a voting by the elected councilors with the candidate being chosen from the councilors. The people voting in the referendum with 21,231 to 14,592 people chose to replace the elected mayor with a council leader and cabinet in line with most of the other local authorities (BirminghamPost, 2008). The turnaround for the pools was 19.23%.

This is the first occasion in England, where the voters wanted to abolish the elected mayor system. The poll was conducted following the change in the rule, which eliminated the elected mayor and council manager system in Stoke. The referendum was made to choose between a council leader and cabinet or an elected mayor cabinet.

Development of Elected Mayor with Council Manager in Stoke on Trent

Until April 1, 1997, Stoke on Trent remained as a part of Staffordshire County with respect to its administration. The local government responsibilities until that point of time were shared by the county council and the city council. From this date, Stoke administratively became independent of Staffordshire and took the form of a unitary authority and the city council was made responsible for all the local government responsibilities including those provided by the county council earlier. Still Stoke remained a part of Staffordshire geographically and for all ceremonial purposes.

In the month of October, the city council introduced a new constitution according to which changes were made in the procedures to be followed and decisions to be taken in respect of the council activities. The purpose of the modification was to make the decisions of the council transparent, efficient and accountable to the local people. The constitution was adopted by the council for the first time in the UK and was unique for Stoke. Instead of a Cabinet arrangement, the new system was to have an Elected Mayor and Council Manager and Chief Executive. Both the elected mayor and the council manager work in close coordination for preparation of budget proposals and policy frameworks (Carmichael et al, n.d.).

The decision making process is different depending on the nature of decisions as to whether they are everyday decisions or key decisions. Key decisions, which are significant in terms of the financial involvement or the number of people such decisions affect, are taken by the council manager. Everyday decisions are taken by the senior Council Officers responsible for Council services. However, such decisions must fit within the overall policy framework and the budget. The Council consisting of 60 Councilors oversees and scrutinizes all the decisions taken before their actual implementation (Carmichael et al, n.d.).

Decision-Making System in Stoke-on-Trent City Council
Figure: Decision-Making System in Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

The function of the Council is to scrutinize the performance, budget and examine the complaints and issues. This function is discharged through a consultative process. The “Council Assembly” provides an additional forum for the councilors to discuss and debate single issues. The role of councilors therefore is overview and scrutiny of the performance of the Council and it is considered important in the governance of Stoke, where the powers are more concentrated in the hands of the mayor and the council manager.

For the successful functioning of the mayoral model of council manager adopted by Stoke there was the need for a good relationship to be established between the mayor and the council manager. This relationship was to be based on honesty, trust and commitment from both the parties for excellence of services. However, this relationship cannot be considered of equals. While the decisions are taken by the council manager, the policy frameworks are decided by the Mayor.

This system gives rise to a democratic deficit. Though unique in nature, the council manager system implemented in Stoke proved to be unpopular with the councilors, as they have not been given any role in the decision-making process. The Mayor-council manager model of Stoke has always been considered as a failure because of its hollowness that makes it politically unworkable in a majoritarian political culture. The ruling labor party has been rocked by instability and discipline issues, which are a common phenomenon in most of the councils where the mayoral form of governance is, followed (Stevens, 2006).

The system of mayor-council manager adopted by Stoke has been subjected to several criticisms in its functioning. The first argument is that the system is overly centralized in the decision-making process. This opinion is particularly that of the councilors who had the experience of working under the old Leader with Cabinet system and committee forms of decision-making. The councilors are of the view that they have only a little role in the process of decision-making, despite their enlarged role in the overview and scrutiny committees. The councilors are of the contention that important decisions like the appointments of senior staff are taken without consulting them.

Another argument is that the possession of considerable powers by the unelected Council Manager is quite inappropriate and it weakens the accountability. These criticisms are getting stronger in view of the fact that the elected mayor is an independent candidate. Essentially Parties that worked under decision-making committees are now made this power withdrawn due to the abolition of the committee forms of decision-making. This had given the councilors only a backseat role, which affects the enthusiasm of the councilors to work in the mayor-council manager format (Carmichael et al, n.d.). The councilors do not even have the option of removing the mayor as he is directly elected to the office of the mayor to remain in the post until the next election. This has led to lack of political leadership in managing the city council.

With the working of the Cabinet and mayor model, there might have been an involvement of at least some of the councilors, which would have been a different situation than working under the mayor-council manager system. In the council manager system, it is an executive consisting of two individuals (one paid employee and one directly elected mayor), which take the major decisions and this clearly indicates the lack of political leadership and democratic deficit. Though, the model was lifted from the United States with the objective of getting speed and efficiency in the decision making, this did not happen in Stoke, because people who have disenfranchised from the system could easily find ways of delaying or creating diversions in respect of particular issues concerning various issues of the Council.

With the functioning of the Mayor-Council Manager, system of administration there appeared to be a widespread disillusionment with local politics as observed by the Commission on Stoke-on-Trent Governance. This has brought into existence a feeling of hopelessness and despair despite the presence of reluctance on the part of the councilors to take active part in various council activities. Without the representation of a competent and dynamic political team of councilors, representing the local people, the people feel let down by their elected representatives in important issues.

The breakdown of the traditional party structures, which led to the present fragmented party council, has contributed to low level of political activism, which weakened the effectiveness of the parties attending to the community needs. The loss of traditional structures, which encouraged political engagement, civic responsibility and elected office led to a political vacuum. This vacuum was filled by minority groups and individuals distancing the councilors and active participation of the political parties in the administration of the city council.

Failure of Council Manager System and It’s Abolition

There were several weaknesses identified with the system of mayor-council manager. The decision-making was too centralized, and this made the executive becomes overloaded leading to slowing down of the process of decision-making. The decisions turned out to be poorly thought out and ill conceived due to the rush on decision-making. The number of checks and balances on the actions and decisions of the executive had the effect of limiting the executive freedom and this undermined their capacity.

Even though, the Council found it too difficult to control the executive, there were delaying tactics like calling the decisions in. The Council could also block the decisions of the executive by trimming the budget and reducing the resources available in their disposal. The system therefore had the shortcomings of lack of deliberation, varied accountability and a completely centralized system, which made the system suffer from democratic deficiency and lack of political support. According to Borraz and John, (2004) should “mayors fail to accomplish what is expected of them, this could further weaken the legitimacy of local government” (p 115).

The weakness of the political leadership in the Council of Stoke led to a poor performance of the Council. In the year 2007, The Audit commission under its Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) system gave one star to the City Council of Stoke and rated it as the worst council in England (Stoke-on-Trent Governance Commission, 2008). From this point of time, several measures were taken to improve the governance arrangements in the functioning of the Council, including the introduction of the Mayor’s Advisory Panel and restructuring of overview and scrutiny arrangements. An excellence board was set up to assess the performance of the Council.

These measures showed some improvement over the period. A Stoke-on-Trent Governance Commission was appointed to enquire into the functioning of the Council of Stoke-on-Trent. According to the Commission though there were signs of improvement a number of issues still remain to be sorted out for ensuring a consistent performance.

The Commission invited evidences from people of all occupations, and held a series of hearings with wide range of people from different backgrounds, age groups and cultures to arrive at a conclusion on the future of the Mayor-Council Manager model of governance in Stoke. From the representations received and based on the public views gathered by it, the Commission made several recommendations including the abolition of the existing model of governance and suggesting an all-out election at the earliest opportunity.

The Commission remarked that the recommendation to conduct fresh elections is the cornerstone of a series of proposals made by the Commission for revamping the entire governance system in Stoke-on-Trent. The Commission felt that this is the best suitable alternative for stabilizing the Council’s operations, enabling the Council to make forward planning and for evolving medium term strategic thinking, which needs to be considered in the best interests of the people of Stoke. The Commission’s recommendations included formation of single member wards, a smaller Council, further devolution of governance and improvements in community engagement. Strengthening of the political machinery in Stoke was one other aim of the Commission in making these recommendations.


The objective of this chapter is to analyze the case of the failure of the Mayor and Council-Manager model of governance in Stoke-on-Trent from the new institutionalist perspective. The chapter also highlights the analytical capabilities of both historical and new institutionalist theories and suitability of any of these to describe the situation in Stoke best.

Institutionalist Theory of Mayoral Leadership

March and Olsen, (1989, p 18) observe, “Political institutions define the framework within which politics takes place”. The authors put forth the argument that rules are the means by which an institution affects the behavior of individuals connected with the institution. According to March and Olsen (1989, p 23) rules have the ability to define the relationships among roles in the matter of specifying the role of one incumbent in relation to another role.

Based on this analogy, research in the realm of mayoral leadership indicates that the form of city government defines the basic roles and types of leadership that can be offered by the mayoral role. Svara (1987: p 225) suggested strong mayor-council and council-manager types of mayoral models to have formal preconditions for mayoral leadership styles. These styles represent an executive style and a facilitative style of leadership respectively. According to Svara, (1990), a mayor carries higher chances of being successful if he/she follows a leadership style that is more compatible with the form of government existing in the City.

The essence of this discussion is that using a particular form of government creates a set of institutions. These institutions create formal rules that can structure and influence the behavior of the actors in the ways of influencing the role of one actor owes to the incumbent of other roles as suggested by March and Olsen (1989). “Although it is possible for a mayor to use a leadership style different from the one supported by the formal rules, doing so may violate the logic of appropriateness and potentially erode the trust that supports the formal institutions in the city’s political system” (Wheeland, 2002, p.26).

This has what has happened exactly in the case of Stoke-on-Trent when the City decided to adopt a Mayor-Council-Manager type of governance. While the formal rules support an executive style leadership in the form of strong mayoral model, the city adopted the council-manager model, a facilitative leadership style, which eroded the trust in the political system that supports the functioning of a formal institutional approach.

New Institutionalist Approach to Mayoral Models

The new institutionalist approach adopts a nuanced, rounded and ultimately more informative way of researching institutions and the behavior of actors within the institutional settings. Lowndes (2001, p 1953) states “new institutionalists concern themselves with informal conventions as well as formal rules and structures; they pay attention to the way in which institutions embody values and power relationships; they study not just the impact of institutions on behavior, but the interaction between individuals and institutions”.

The new institutionalist approach describes local authorities as a mix of institutional rules (Lowndes and Leach 2004). National legislation, local constitution, organizational culture and political parties are some of the sources from which these rules emerge. These rules may be formal in the form of written in legal terms or informal which are unwritten reflecting the conduct of the parties involved in the action. Lowndes and Leach (2004, p 561) argue that in the setting of local authorities formal statements made define the basic parameters for initiating actions and these statements specify the actors to be involved in the process of decision-making, the roles to be played and the issues that would be affected by such actions. The new institutionalist approach bases its argument on ‘rules in use’ rather than ‘rules in form’.

According to this approach, political institutions are those, which are lived by political actors. The strength of these actors does not rely upon rules embodied in pieces of paper or other physical forms of governance. These informal elements are considered as more than the personal habits of the actors but are shared among the actors and the actions that can be articulated by the actors themselves.

From the above discussion, it becomes clear that the new institutionalist approach is the one that only narrates the circumstances that prevailed and led to the failure of the mayor and council manager model in Stoke-on-Trent as against the historical institutionalism, which has the capability of analyzing the reasons for the failure of the model. Based on the new instittutionalist approach it can be stated that the presence of informal elements in the form of centralized decision-making power in the hands of the executive consisting of the mayor and the council manager the mayor-council manager describe the actions of the people involved in the model.

In this case, the rules for the action of the mayor and the council manager emerge from the national legislation and the local constitution. The new institutionalist approach therefore studies the results of the actions of the political models rather than analyzing the reasons or finding the answers for the substantive questions as to reasons for the failure of the mayor – council manager model in Stoke.

Historical Institutionalism and Council-Mayor Model

On the contrary, the historical institutionalism is concerned with finding answers for substantive questions that are of interest to common public as well as fellow research scholars. Another important feature of historical institutionalism is that it takes the time factor seriously with a view to specify the sequences and trace important transformations and processes of varying scales and temporality. The historical institutionalism is interested in developing explanatory arguments about the important political outcomes. Historical institutionalism is also keen in comparing different macro contexts and hypotheses in the endeavor to find the plausible explanation for the development of a particular political outcome.

Because of these qualities, the historical institutionalism can be considered as the best one to describe the failure of the council-manager model in Stoke. As observed earlier, substantive agenda, temporal arguments and attention to contexts make historical institutionalism provide meaningful contribution to the understanding of the failure of the mayor and council-manager model form of governance in Stoke-on-Trent.

From a traditional theoretical perspective, the politics-administration relationship defines the separate responsibilities for local elected officials and the appointed administrators in the process of administration. These responsibilities include the making of the policy and implementing them. This dichotomy model has given rise to continuous debates and discussions on the council-manager government model. There are other normative models developed as opposed to the dichotomy model like the one developed by Svara (1985). Svara (1985) identified that the elected officials and appointed administrators take part in four different dimensions – mission, policy, administration and management.

However, it is imperative that elected officials should have dominance in the formulation of mission of municipal government, and the manager should control the administration and management and there should exist an extensive power sharing between the elected officials and administrator in the policy realm.

Using a historical institutionalist approach, the failure of the mayor and council-manager model in Stoke can be analyzed by studying the decision-making process in relation to input, throughput and output legitimation. As far as the input legitimation is concerned, for enabling the executive (mayor and the council manger), the mayor is elected directly by the electorate and the council manager is selected by the Full Council. This implies that while the consent for the mayor is accorded directly by the citizens, the consent for the council manager is obtained through a representative and indirect process. Another feature is that consent is given to the executive through the representative process by the Full Council to deal with the budget and policies; of course, subject to the overall framework the Council has established.

Here the legitimacy of the input by the mayor is subject to several limiting factors. First, the turnout in the mayoral election was low with less than 25% of the electorate voting for the selection of the mayor. This therefore questions the extent of popular consent for his candidacy. Second, there is very less contact between the mayor and the electorate, which leads to the breach in the trust placed on the mayor. Moreover, the mayor is elected for the fixed term of four years and in between the elections, there is no way that the mayor can be removed from his office. Therefore, “Consent is given to the Mayor in an infrequent, single-shot one off manner. Also, as theorists of deliberative democracy point out, as voting need not entail much public deliberation, the representative process may not provide genuine, informed consent”(Fishkin, 1991).

In the matter of throughput legitimation, while the executive are the key decision makers, both the mayor and the council manager are subjected to public review with regard to their decisions. They both have better visibility through media and they are bound to offer explanations defending their decisions. The executive takes the decisions subject to the overall policy framework, which the Full Council has agreed and such decisions are subjected to the review of overview and scrutiny committees formed from among the councilors. The Council manager is accountable to the Full Council and can be suspended or fired by the Council for any deviations in the policies affecting the public.

Despite the strong nature of the controllability of the executive, especially the council-manager offered by this model, there are some qualifications, which make the control impossible or diluted. For instance the ability of the Council to fire the council manager is seem to be of something representing a nuclear option which the council never inclined to use. There are complaints from the councilors that they lack control over the executive despite the formation of overview and scrutiny committees. Therefore, it follows that while the executive have been made accountable to the Council for their activities in so far as giving an account, the Council is unable to exercise full control over the activities of the executive.

As far as the output legitimation is concerned, the model of mayor-council manager model of decision-making is based on the virtues of strong alignment of council manager having a comprehensive bureaucratic control combined with the political leadership offered by the mayor. The objective behind this form of governance is to guard against the departmentalism or silo mentality among the elected officials in an effort to lead to joint decision-making process towards a politically defined vision. The bureaucracy is expected to be placed to gear the services of the local authority to meet the needs of the local community with great intensity.

There is also the emphasis on the speed in the decision-making so that the municipality can work in the direction of public-private partnerships and other schemes for furthering the wellbeing of the local citizens. However, in the case of Stoke-on-Trent this has led to a centralized decision making which overloaded the executive leading to poorly thought out and ill conceived public policies receiving massive criticisms from all angles. There was also the limitation on the executive freedom activated by the checks and balances on the activities of the executive. This grossly undermined the capacity of the executive. Even though, the Council found it difficult to control the executive there are delaying practices by limiting the resources available or calling in the decisions of the executive. There was absolutely no participation of the political system in meeting the public objectives by taking part in the decision-making process.

From a historical institutionalist perspective, the system of mayor-council manager model in Stoke-on-Trent failed due to lack of deliberation, calling into question the extent of consent, varied accountability and a centralization of the system.


In general, the mayors can perform successfully if they are able to act in ways that are compatible with the formal institutional features that define the extent of their authority and responsibility so that they would be able to protect the trust among elected officials as well as citizens. Although the formal institutional features alone do not determine the success of the mayoral models, the institutional perspective forms the foundation on which the practice of politics can be analyzed to develop a comprehensive theory of mayoral leadership. The current study reveals that the strength of the mayor emerges from both the legal competencies they hold and the norms, practices, and standard operating practices they adopt in the administration of the municipal government.

Another finding of this study is that the support of the party group of councilors as well as the support from the wider local party is an important source of power for the mayor. Support of the parties signified through group cohesion and allowing the executive to perform freely would go a long way in strengthening the mayoral powers both in short term and medium term. In the long-term, it is the support of the local parties coupled with the electoral success would ensure the continued performance and power of the mayoral candidates. It is worth noting that in the administration of municipalities, rules in use and rules in form are mutually inclusive and form a mixture of formal and informal regulations.

While some are written and derived from legislative measures, others are built upon habits and conventions, which necessitate the imprint of party political system in the municipalities. Therefore, any system of governance in the local authority must recognize the fact it has to adhere to a fundamental institutional rule that characterizes the municipal administration.

Since the current mayor and council manager, form of governance arrangement has been abolished by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act, there is the need to opt for a new executive model of governance at the time the next mayoral election is due in May 2009. There are two options available to the citizens of Stoke –

  1. directly elected mayor and cabinet and
  2. indirectly elected mayor with cabinet.

However, as pointed out by the Stoke-on-Trent Governance Commission that the issue of governance in Stoke-on-Trent does not relate only to the executive model of leadership. There are so many other fundamental matters and issues, which need to be addressed so that any form of executive model would prove successful in the administration of the municipality. Making reforms in the direction of reducing the number of councilors, making single member wards, devolution of governance to the local level and improvements in community engagement would make the political system thrive in the City in addition, would contribute to either model of governance.


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