Directly Elected Mayors-a platform for shifting local and central relations or a pipedream of no consequence?

April 23, 2019


Maragall, Hildago, Bloomberg, Livingston, Quirk, Daley…all names which have had a significant impact on major cities across the globe, some with real powers and executive responsibilities others that have used the bully pulpit that comes with being the most popularly elected person in their city…and some the most popularly elected person in their country. Names that even outside their own cities will be recognised across the globe and not just by those interested in politics and local government. So mayors can be transformative,  provide great leadership, influence how things get done…how our own everyday life develops.

In Ireland we too have had such mayors, even if elected to largely ceremonial positions. Alfi Byrne who served nine terms of office in Dublin City back to back from 1930, Jim Kemmy who served 2 terms of office in Limerick and brought down a government, and most poignantly of all, George Clancy, Tomas McCurtain and Terence MacSwiney who died as mayors of their cities, in the cause of Irish Freedom. Different types of Mayor but also people who so  profoundly have impacted the lives we now lead as we mark 120 years of democratic local government and a centenary of national democracy.

As we mark these memories it is more than significant that we see proposals coming forward from government to potentially roll out one of the most fundamental political changes to the country with the move towards plebiscites in Cork, Limerick and Waterford that might set the platform for the introduction of executive mayors into these cities, potentially in the Dublin Region and maybe even generally across the State over the coming decade. In the following briefing LGIU Ireland examines the government’s proposals and draws upon relevant experiences from other countries that have moved in the direction of executive mayor. We examine in detail what is proposed and consider whether this is a fundamental change drawing upon the experiences associated with the development of executive mayoral responsibilities in other countries from which we may learn relevant lessons.

The Irish Mayor

The role of the mayor has to be seen in the context of the highly disaggregated system of public management in the State. More often than not people argue that the Irish public service is highly centralised and, in part, this maybe the case but of greater significance is the multi siloed organisation of the State  underpinned by layered levels of administration. What this means is that the local government system in Ireland has a very limited mandate with restricted roles in many of the services normally associated with local government, especially in countries that make up the OECD. Ireland is not so much centralised as siloed which means that we have on-going challenges to bridge those silos resulting in, at times, confusion and unnecessary costs across the various layers of public administration. In most other OECD members there is generally one, democratically elected, public body responsible for citizen centred services, and it operates and is paid for at local level under, broadly speaking, 4 models of leadership:

a) The directly elected executive mayor supported by a local elected assembly

b) An indirectly elected mayor chosen by a democratically elected council

c) A cabinet led council body with a non executive mayor

d) A Council body working alongside a professional management regime where council responsibilities are allocated on the basis of policy and executive function.

The Irish system currently broadly fits in within the last of these models  with examples of same being found in many of the smaller cities and counties of the United States. Germany and other mainland European countries tend to draw upon the first model. The French model is largely that of the second model while much of local government in the UK, Australia and New Zealand is based, but not entirely, on the third model.

However a more critical difference between Ireland and pretty much the rest of the OECD is that of the narrow mandate of local government in Ireland. As noted above, in most advanced countries it is the local authority which has responsibility for effectively all citizen centred services ranging from primary education to primary healthcare, services for older people and young people, economic and rural development, transport, culture and in some limited cases local policing. In some countries, in the effort to gain economy of scale, local authorities have come together to operate regional based but locally owned utility services including waste management, broadband, water and waste water, etc. Some act as agents for other local authorities and the relevant state or regional government and, even in the case of France once among the most centralised countries in the OECD, services on behalf of the State itself. What this means is that mayors in such countries have a remit underpinned by either direct or indirect local democracy and upon this platform rests the political capacity to fund local services and initiatives.

In the Irish case, notwithstanding the accumulated international evidence, local government has had a history, until recent local government reforms under “Putting People First”, of losing responsibility for service provision. The result is that while professional and political platforms in the local government system have been considerably strengthened, the system is the most constrained within the OECD.

So the current role of mayor is largely limited to (but in fairness not unimportant) a local ceremonial role. The chief executive and supporting staffs focus on delivering the limited services of the system. Individual councillors focus on representing local voices and concerns and, more often than not, are intermediaries who address immediate issues for their constituents. This rarely allows them to become immersed in their policy responsibilities. As the old cliché goes, policy never got anyone elected.

What is proposed?

The detailed policy proposals adopted by government are at once exciting, comprehensive and potentially transformative. On the other hand they could be interpreted as yet another series of reforms that always seem to come forward before a local election to be soon set aside after said election. So some will withhold their expectation of actual delivery of this policy initiative. The move to advance a series of plebiscites has taken many by surprise. It is clearly being driven by the national political level and, to date, there has been very little debate on the proposal, something which hopefully will be corrected shortly. Whatever the driver for this initiative it has to be welcomed. A huge disservice would be done to the value and importance of local government to this country if there was to be no robust argument about the initiative and the future nature and extent of local government. As already noted earlier, in most other OECD countries, local government is the primary public service body at local level. In that role it is funded and responsible for local decision-making on the nature and extent of local public services. Developing this in Ireland is well past time and the idea of introducing a mayor has to bring with it a substantive discussion in this regard.

Allowing for the above the Proposal clearly specifies a dynamic role for an elected mayor.  It sets out 6 key principles as follows:

1) Added value: the directly elected mayor must add value, by performing substantial functions in addition to having a representative role for the entire local authority area.

2) Subsidiarity: under the principle of subsidiarity, national government should not take action where action could as effectively be taken at regional or local level. Accordingly, it is proposed that as much responsibility as possible could rest at local authority level in respect of arrangements for directly elected mayors, for example, regarding oversight of the mayor.

3) Empowerment: the directly elected mayor should be as empowered as possible to perform their functions while remaining appropriately accountable. The elected council should retain its functions to the greatest extent possible, adapted as appropriate, and should, if possible and feasible, gain additional responsibilities.

4) Accountability: the directly elected mayor should be subject to accountability that is necessary, proportionate and reasonable, taking into account the mayor’s democratic mandate and direct accountability to the electorate.

5) Oversight: Given the broad-ranging nature of responsibilities proposed for the role, the proposed oversight arrangements should be robust, wide-ranging, and located at local level in the first instance.

6) Duration of mandate: the directly elected mayor should hold office for the duration of the local government electoral cycle (normally 5 years), rather than 1 year as under current arrangements. A shorter cycle for the first filling may be required if the office is to be established in advance of 2024.

The role of the directly elected mayor will be to represent the entire local authority area locally, nationally and internationally. In doing so the mayor will bridge the diverse roles of local government so that there will be a migration of many current executive functions from the chief executive to the mayor. S(He) will work to ensure that the elected council will apply its responsibilities in policy development and adoption while also overseeing the continuing role of the chief executive who will retain responsibilities for planning decisions, allocation of individual housing, procurement and staff management, roles similar to their counterparts in most of the OECD. Being an ex officio member of the elected council means that council numbers will increase by one in each case but the mayor will not have a casting vote on matters pertaining to initiatives prepared under his/her name, in other words the mayor cannot vote twice. So, broadly speaking, the mayor will be like that of many other OECD countries, the difference being that as Irish local government has such an extremely limited role, he/she will not have the same broad political responsibility that would be found in other advanced countries.

Another interesting issue will be that of oversight and the proposals include a comprehensive suite of reporting arrangements that will be a feature of life for any incoming mayor. This is also the case in pretty much every other OECD country, which frankly undermines the concept of autonomous local government anyway within the OECD. Nonetheless, there are some differences, principally in the fact that across the OECD there are processes for local to national engagement, generally through the national representative bodies. Such processes result in agreed compacts which address service delivery and performance on a multi annual basis between the relevant mayor and state/national level. In the absence of such requirements there will be difficulties that will arise in regard to the balance between the mayor and national authorities. A point to which this briefing will return below.

Some might complain about the level of oversight suggested in the proposal. However what is proposed falls well behind what is currently expected in other local government systems. Ironically what this means is that there are occasions when the local government system in Ireland can actually be less centralised than is generally the case elsewhere in the OECD. While this is changing with the introduction of the Planning Regulator, for example, it remains the case that in the absence of agreed national performance standards local authorities can continue to take very diverse views on what is expected of them by the national policy maker and this, it seems, is not going to change.

The mayor at corporate level

Among the more interesting experiences those working in advising FDI coming into Ireland have is that, unlike most other countries, the most critical person to engage with at local level is the chief executive (CE). This reflects the central role the CE has in the Irish system. For many in the FDI Investor community they will have the expectation of engaging with the mayor. So suggesting meetings with a CE and not a mayor can, at times (although less so more recently), be construed negatively as, of course, such investors come from experience of systems where the mayor is the most important person…even than the national minister!!!

The proposals do envisage that this will change with the mayor taking ownership over corporate responsibilities such as development of the council corporate plan, operational reporting and business planning etc. This will clearly place the mayor at the heart of the organisation and does impact on the potential of the mayor to be the ceremonial face of the organisation which may be the reason behind the idea of a yearly selected deputy mayor coming from the general body of councillors, not unlike the current process for the existing mayoral role.

The mayor will also have a substantive role in preparing the annual budget as well as the 3 yearly capital investment plan but as, is the case at national level, the chief executive would become the accounting officer. At national level it is the secretary general who plays the role of accounting officer to  national political process.

A further proposal, perhaps foreshadowing a long-term political objective in ‘Putting People First’ to migrate other public service responsibilities to local government, is the completion of an ex post evaluation of the role of mayor at the end of term of office along with a report to the Oireachtas.  This might result in allocation of further responsibilities to the mayor as it has in other mayoral roll outs internationally.

The mayor and the chief executive

Clearly the move towards a mayoral model, as envisaged, will result in a significant shift in local political and executive relationships. As noted above, the relationship is expected to be one similar to that of Minister and Secretary General. Good news perhaps for chief executives in their building of an unparalleled experience in dealing with political expectations and personalities so perhaps the group of CEs will become a national go to reservoir for positions of incoming secretaries general…especially so given that the chief executives have an unequalled experience in actually delivering services within a political context.

Notwithstanding this interesting potential, the role, in the public eye at least, at local level, of the chief executive will change. As in other systems the profile of the chief executive is likely to considerably reduce as the mayor becomes the front face of local service delivery. Some may well be happy with this but what of those at national level? The proposals are relatively silent on the issue of local to national relations. One thing Irish local government has suffered from, to the detriment of the system overall, has been the lack of a coherent voice to counter national centralising initiatives and moves to restrict the role of local government. This, in part, explains the restricted role local government undertakes in Ireland relative to other OECD Countries.

Relations with the elected council

It is likely that elected members at local level will be uneasy with the prospect of an elected mayor effectively coming between them and their relationship with the chief executive and staff of a council. Whether this is the case or not in reality, experience from the efforts of the then Minister for the Environment and Local Government in 2001, Noel Dempsey, would suggest that the fears of local elected members will be real. Notwithstanding the proposed requirements of having minimum majorities on budgeting etc the mayors will, as the current chief executives find, be increasingly challenged to manage their councils. Invariably in other jurisdictions this has posed difficulties but also it should be noted that where councillors and mayors share common objectives (as is also the case for chief executives currently) the extent to which there are clashes can be limited.

Relations with the national level

Also the question of meeting local electoral expectations in areas outside of the immediate mandate of local government arises. As noted earlier Ireland, while having one of the most successful public services in the OECD, also has one of the most disaggregated. This means that there are many organisations in an already crowded public policy environment at local to national level. Now comes along a powerful local democratically accountable voice who will be seeking to have a clear leadership role within their cities and ultimately maybe counties.

Lessons from across the globe suggest that elected mayors will not be silent in regard to major issues of concern to their electorates, even in areas not the immediate responsibility of local government. Where does this leave the national policy makers and indeed the local Oireachtas representatives? Arguably Oireachtas members will be the most impacted over the medium term as has occurred in other countries.  A good thing many will argue as it should free them from dealing with many local issues and encourage them to apply a national focus. Time will tell.

Equally, as the State has finally got to the point of aligning national planning to delivery of national infrastructure what of the role of the regional assemblies  and the process of metropolitan planning, something which, no doubt will be of immediate interest to a metropolitan mayor as is the case generally elsewhere.

What about those in the State Agencies who may well be quite comfortable operating at arms length from the national policy process? The HSE might well be really happy to have the extensive experience of the outgoing Fingal Chief Executive as it begins to realise the potential impact of having a powerful body of local mayors in urban centres across the State to deal with.

The proposals adopted by the Government acknowledge these factors and clearly there has to be much debate about these as freeing up a mayor to engage with such crucial aspects of local long term planning across several governmental mandates alongside the possible migration of responsibilities from the centre to the local will fundamentally alter the overall configuration of public services in Ireland. This, over a period where the population are getting older (if not wiser), more diverse and alongside an industrial and public service transformation never previously witnessed anywhere.

A further point applies to the very real issue around local political expectation on the part of a mayor confronting those of the national political level. These have been a feature of local to centre relationships in other smaller countries which have executive mayors. Such issues tend to also apply in federal states, albeit that if a federal level government shares a party allegiance with the local mayor and not the state or provincial authority this can work to the benefit of the local mayor!

Another useful lesson from across the OECD is the question of the local celeb getting elected. In instances where the re-introduction of mayors has occurred, most notably in England and Germany, this has not proven to be a significant concern. Generally, national or regional political parties have been the source for political leadership at local level in those countries. In some instances there have been local celebs elected but more generally what is occurring, especially in France and eastern European countries, are people being elected as mayors with more extreme political views.  Whether this would be the case in Ireland clearly remains to be experienced.

In the Irish case, given the existing experience of local activists being elected to national parliament, it may well be the case that such people may see their future at local level given the powers of the mayor relative to the relatively restricted role of Oireachtas backbenchers.


Coming at a time of commemoration, particularly of the deaths of Mayors Clancy, McCurtain and especially McSwiney, the initiative to roll out an executive mayor role into Irish Local Government system is both exciting and compelling. It is also extraordinarily brave. One hundred years on it is easy to forget the impact of those deaths. McSwiney was the Mandela of his day. It can be hard for us to imagine but his death, as a mayor of a city within the British empire and at the hands of that empire, had huge international impact, ultimately resulting in Irish independence and the breakup of that empire as leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru and others drew inspiration from that terrible time.

So Mayors count. They counted in Ireland then, then counted in post communist Europe and continue to count across most of the OECD.

Are we to see similar impacts from this initial step forward. Time only will tell but if lessons from Ireland’s past, from the experiences of Europe post the second world war and the on-going lessons of North American Mayoral and City Governance teach us anything what we can be fairly certain of is that with the prospect of an executive directly elected mayor Ireland will be:

                                ”all changed, changed utterly: a terrible is beauty is born”.