Local government after Brexit: beyond the elephant and the rider

By August 5, 2016Local government

This article first featured on the NLGN blog

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses an interesting metaphor to describe the interaction, within the human brain, between our gut instincts and our reasoning faculties. In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, he describes the relationship as ‘the elephant and the rider’.

The elephant, Haidt says, is our emotional, intuitive, myopic response to our surroundings. The rider, on the other hand, sees things with rational objectivity and clinical detachment. The rider can exert influence, discouraging the elephant from taking a risky course. But the rider exists to serve the elephant, not the other way round. The elephant always, ultimately, has the final say.

As the local government sector deals with the fallout from Brexit – and all the messy implications for social cohesion that the referendum result will be likely to have – I think this is a good metaphor for how many councils I’ve worked with have come to feel and to operate in recent years.

On the one hand you have the residents. Their perspective is partial, their emotions are raw and their affinity with their family and immediate area is instinctive. They have the final, democratic say, because it is for their benefit that the council exists in the first place.

On the other hand, you have the local authority. This is an entity with statutory requirements, evaluative tools, economic models, KPIs, outcomes, targets and metrics. They are motivated by what, dispassionately, works best for the community.

It can feel to local authorities like they are the rider, and like the communities they serve are an elephant being ridden. The rider depends on the elephant for its strength and wisdom. And the elephant relies on the rider for its knowledge and perspective. But neither party fully understands each other.
Moreover, as the impact of globalisation, migration and the economic squeeze continues to affect communities, many councils feel that the role of rider is getting harder and harder. Misinformation can be passed quickly on social media. Rage can go viral before proper explanations have even been made. Local authorities often feel they’re losing control.

This sort of problem can occur when an activist group gets the wrong end of the stick about a regen project which is actually designed to help the poorest. And it can also happen whentensions grow around a new migrant community. Contagion spreads and cohesion is threatened.

In their capacity as rider in this uncertain terrain, councils often try to soothe the elephant – to tug the reins or to provide a peanut. But the elephant, they feel, will often ignore them and go with its intuitions. This is especially true when times are tough – when changes occur and impulses of fear and frustration kick in.

The elephant starts to feel the rider is just a burden on its back; the rider starts to feel increasingly frightened by the unruly beast beneath. Trust deteriorates.

Indeed, as the chart below illustrates, events like Brexit happen because the public increasingly trust common sense and gut instinct over the opinions of those who claim to be experts. In the instance of the referendum, the elephant effectively threw off its rider as a result.

This isn’t, by and large, the fault of local authorities, who often bear the brunt of wider frustrations with central government and national institutions. But, as organisations working at the coalface, it falls to them to deal with it.

trust vs common sense

Data from YouGov 

The solution to this cannot come through an orthodox council-resident relationship, based on a paternalist rider and a dependent elephant.

Instead it needs to come through mutual understanding. To solve problems like cohesion, councils need to feel much more comfortable explaining limitations, presenting choices and asking residents to put themselves in the shoes of the decision-maker. They need to trust that the communities they serve will listen to and engage rationally.

Residents, in turn, need to start to trust that their councils have their best interests at heart, and to try to understand the pressures and priorities they face.

In short, local authority riders need to have the confidence to get out of the saddle, dismount the elephant, and treat residents as equals in a way previous assumptions have often prevented.

Doing this isn’t easy for either party. Trust will need to be built through engagement and consultation programmes which not only listen, but which build a constructive, creative and informed relationship.

But, by dismounting in this way, councils and communities can avoid a bumpy ride. They can face up to the impending challenges on a more equal footing, and benefit from a greater shared understanding.

David Evans, Director, The Campaign Company and former Deputy General Secretary of the Labour Party