New data suggests a dramatic decline in public confidence in the Mayor

In March the Bristol Civic Leadership Project announced that Bristol council’s leadership had become more visible since 2012, presumably because of the Mayoral system. Some politicians celebrated the research as demonstrating the popularity of Marvin Rees’ leadership, while others commented that visibility does not necessarily mean quality. 

Unfortunately the Leadership Project published only a 4 page analysis in 2020, as opposed to 57 pages in 2013 and 65 pages in 2015. Hidden in the announcement was the fact that much of the latest data was not being released. The Leadership Project also chose not to remind the public that they had done three large-scale surveys – in 2012, 2014 and 2018. Instead, they compared only the situation in 2012 and 2018.

The effect was to hide a dramatic decline in public confidence in the city’s leadership between 2014 and 2018.  Since Marvin Rees assumed office, confidence, trust, sense of ability to participate, in fact every single indicator available in the latest results (which can then be compared with the 2012 and 2014 results) shows there has been an extraordinary decline in public perception of the mayor and the city’s leadership under Marvin Rees.

I have taken every piece of the 2018 data which was made available in the 2020 publication, and compared it with the earlier results.  This means, simply – no data cherry-picking. The results are striking.

The most positive aspect of the introduction of the mayor’s role has been to raise the visibility of city leadership.  Yet while there was a big improvement under ex-mayor George Ferguson, things have gone backwards under the current mayor Rees.  Here are the results of polling of a representative sample of Bristol Citizens:

Strikingly, the sense of democratic participation increased under Ferguson, but fewer citizens now feel involved and able to make a difference than before the mayoral system was introduced:

Finally, trust in the council’s decision-making capacity, which improved during the Ferguson era, has dramatically declined to levels inferior even to the supposedly muddled and disunited pre-Mayoral days:

These results reflect polling of ordinary citizens – 658 respondents in 2012, 1013 respondents in 2014 and 680 respondents in 2018.

In addition to consulting ordinary citizens, the Leadership Project consulted three groups of leaders: councillors, community and business leaders, and public management and professionals. 

Councillors have been less than happy with the introduction of the mayoral system, not surprisingly as power has moved away from them towards the mayor.  Still, on a couple of issues there has been a step-decline under Rees, and in no case an improvement.

Strikingly, fewer councillors feel that responsibility for making decisions is clear now than ever before:

Democratic accountability and checks and balances are seen to have dramatically declined under Rees:

More councillors are now unhappy with how well their constituents’ views are represented:

The most gung-ho supporters of the mayoral system were the community and business leaders:

But more of them now feel that the clarity about who makes decisions is lower now than under Ferguson and lower than even in pre-mayoral days:

Particularly marked is the change during Rees’ tenure in the views held by the third group of leaders surveyed, the managers and professionals.  They saw an increase in clarity of leadership under Ferguson, but now see a decline to even pre-mayoral days under Rees. Their views are particularly surprising given that Ferguson operated largely un-assisted for much of his tenure, while Rees has brought in several expensive managers.

The Bristol City Leadership Project did not make their full results available in March, or we could have explored these issues in more depth.  Why they chose not to is unclear – possibly, they wanted their audience to concentrate on contrasting “before the [institution of the] Mayor” and “after the Mayor”.   But this is a pity.  For example, the poorest segment of Bristol’s population had the highest expectations of improvement from the introduction of the mayoral system in 2012, and were most disappointed by what it actually delivered in 2014 (which may have contributed to Ferguson’s defeat).  It would be interesting to know where they stand now. 

In any case one thing is clear – mayor Marvin Rees can take little comfort in the results.  Nor can supporters of the mayoral system. The system appears to have performed less well than hoped, particularly under the current mayor, as reflected in a decline in leadership ratings on every single measure between 2014 and 2018.