Place leadership and the role of the third sector and civil society

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  • 1 University of Basel, , Switzerland
  • | 2 University of Milan-Bicocca, , Italy
  • | 3 The Open University, , UK
  • | 4 Edge Hill University, , UK
  • | 5 University of Wolverhampton, , UK
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Only relatively recently, place leadership has become an important debate in the leadership studies and public administration literatures. From a place leadership perspective, there is clearly a potential role for third sector organisations and the voluntary engagement that citizens can play for places through different activities, such as for example social innovation, public services provision, volunteering, civic engagement, advocacy, enhancement of the quality of life, strengthening of social bonds and social cohesion. However, the topic of civil society and third sector organisations is still neglected in research and public policy debates on place-based leadership. Our special issue aims at filling this gap.

Abstract

Only relatively recently, place leadership has become an important debate in the leadership studies and public administration literatures. From a place leadership perspective, there is clearly a potential role for third sector organisations and the voluntary engagement that citizens can play for places through different activities, such as for example social innovation, public services provision, volunteering, civic engagement, advocacy, enhancement of the quality of life, strengthening of social bonds and social cohesion. However, the topic of civil society and third sector organisations is still neglected in research and public policy debates on place-based leadership. Our special issue aims at filling this gap.

Introduction

Only relatively recently, place leadership has become an important debate in the leadership studies and public administration literatures. This debate documents an increasing recognition of the role of various stakeholders in networked collaboration, and of the collective effort needed to achieve democratic and social outcomes at a variety of scales, including locality, town, city and region (Hambleton, 2014; Sancino, 2016; Bolden et al, 2019). A core contention is that leaders lead and influence places but their leadership is also shaped and constrained by the discrete nature of those different places (Budd and Sancino, 2016; Jackson, 2019).

A growing body of research in place-based leadership1 notes the limited ability of the available theoretical approaches to clarify and explain the factors influencing the development of places due to their variability (Sotarauta et al, 2017). No two places are the same, as public services and leadership are historical products of particular sociopolitical legacies. Nor are places facing exactly the same challenges. Having said that, leadership is now increasingly seen as a significant element in how places seek to find innovative ways of providing public services, and attempting at least to enhance local and regional performance (Beer et al, 2019). As a result, leadership, (place) identities and the economy are more and more interlinked (Koning and Waistell, 2012).

Place-based leadership is unique in analysing various factors in the development of places. These factors include geographical levels, social, civic and political relations, and networks. It can relate to neighbourhoods and cities, but also regions (for example, Collinge and Gibney, 2010a, 2010b; Sotarauta and Mustikkamäki, 2012). The advantage of the place-based leadership approach is that it analyses multi-agency and multi-level activity (Horlings et al, 2018). Thus, it can help to explain differences in various institutional and cultural contexts.

From a place leadership perspective, there is clearly a potential role for third sector organisations (TSOs) and the voluntary engagement that citizens can play for places through different activities, such as social innovation, public services provision, civic engagement, advocacy, enhancement of the quality of life, and the strengthening of social bonds and social cohesion. However, research on place-based leadership and public policy debates still neglect the topic of civil society and TSOs.

The collection of papers in this themed issue discusses and defines, broadly speaking, two types of voluntary engagement in place leadership. The first concerns voluntary civic leadership in which individual activists take the lead (see Barton et al, 2021; Dang and Seemann, 2021; Potluka and Fanta, 2021). Initiative represented by individual leaders from TSOs characterises this type of voluntary engagement. Although it is a collective leadership type of place leadership, the individual leaders are in a position of speakers representing the opinions of their groups. The second type concerns third sector leadership in which TSOs or socially connected groups collectively engage in place leadership (see Lough, 2021; Pagani et al, 2021). In this type, collective leadership overlaps the individual one. Distinguishing two types of voluntary engagement follows the turn from individual leadership to collective leadership, mirroring a significant development as in general leadership scholarship (Terry et al, 2020).

Place leadership

Place leadership can be considered simultaneously as a theoretical perspective, a multidisciplinary research stream and a policy theme. It follows that there is no single accepted definition of place-based leadership as that will depend on which of the three general meanings is being used.2 The first meaning refers to a conceptual perspective that takes place as the point of departure and observation for understanding and explaining leadership. For example, you may take the perspective of a favela (or conversely a gentrified neighbour) to understand and explain the meaning and effects of (place-based) leadership.

The second meaning, the multidisciplinary research stream, refers to several, connected but quite dispersed, academic disciplines that are researching place-based leadership to expand their field of knowledge (Sancino et al, 2021). So, here you have, for example, regional studies focusing on place-based leadership to explain economic outcomes of regions (Beer et al, 2019) and public administration linking place-based leadership with local governance, public services or politics (Hambleton and Howard, 2013; Potluka et al, 2017; Sancino and Hudson, 2020). Even the international relations discipline has begun to focus on cities and city networks as new political actors (Acuto, 2013).

The third meaning points to policy debates around what are the best governance configurations to lead cities and/or rural areas, often pointing to some key figures such as the role of mayors and/or governance arrangements such as combined authorities or city regions (Roberts, 2020). More recently, place-based leadership has also been associated with debates around the split in votes for populist leaders between rural and urban areas (Rodríguez-Pose, 2018). However, for the purpose of this introductory essay, what is perhaps surprising is the relative absence of the third sector and civil society in the academic and policy debate on place-based leadership.

The third sector role in place-based leadership

Activating citizens in relation to the public sector may take many forms. People can be involved in improving public goods, in co-producing public services and in participating in the definition and implementation of public policies and/or innovative solutions (co-creation). In the case of this themed issue, we were particularly interested in the role of civil society and TSOs in dealing with collective issues and in relation to the public sector (Brandsen et al, 2018; Potluka, 2021).

Place-based leadership approaches tend to underline the importance of collective leadership (Sotarauta and Mustikkamäki, 2012). The interaction among key stakeholders may start in informal networks and develop into official networks and working groups combining the economic, social and environmental objectives of various stakeholders to drive the transformation of places. These strategic networks often cover not only traditionally accepted public sector representatives (or companies), but also third sector and community leaders (Stough, 2010; Horlings and Padt, 2013; Sotarauta and Beer, 2017; Hambleton, 2019). Particular combinations of social relations make communication and dialogue about visions among stakeholders one of the most important attributes of successful places.

Sharing power is also an important issue in place-based leadership. Although political power is likely to remain firmly in the hands of elected politicians, there are indeed other types of power. Activist, or civil society, leaders can use other types of power: information power; the capacity to engage others in social networks; and the capacity to provide expertise when solving place-based problems (Sotarauta, 2016).

Formal political support and funding from public budgets could be a weak point of TSOs as they do not have direct influence on them. In some countries, local political initiatives are dependent on obtaining support from formal political parties and/or political movements. For example, a recent study of capital cities in Central and Eastern Europe suggests that, although the governments try to centralise the political system, about two thirds of local politicians across all parties are members of local TSOs. Furthermore, about one third of the local politicians are directors or members of the boards of TSOs (Potluka and Perez, 2019). Such an engagement enables TSOs to gain political consideration through their political networks and also public funding for their projects (Egdell and Dutton, 2017).

While bottom-up engagement brings new ideas and new solutions, it can transform from informal leadership to a formal one. This happens, for example, when informal networks become formalised and the boundaries between them and the public sector begin to blur. In such a case, informal place leadership begins to adopt principles and procedures of formal leadership.

Certainly, the issue of devolution and the governance and ‘leadership’ of place remains a contested area. For example, in the United Kingdom (UK), following the 2010 general election, the new coalition government sought to dismantle the regional infrastructure created by the previous New Labour government and its predecessor the Conservative government (1979–97). Both governments had subscribed to area-based approaches to economic and spatial planning as well as ‘urban regeneration’. New Labour introduced different models of municipal governance and launched a number of initiatives aimed at drawing in the third sector as corporate partners. Nonetheless, in these initiatives the distribution of power remained unaltered, even if a cadre of professionalised workers in the third sector was supported and sponsored into new roles in these new settings.

The decision of the coalition government to continue to support ‘city regions’ seemed to go against its rejection of the regional approach adopted earlier (Durose and Rees, 2012). Arguably, it was an experiment in creating new forms of governance (those that opted in had to accept city mayors) but one that did not radically change the status quo. For example, sceptics pointed to the lack of real power being transferred and, in the context of austerity, to the shifting of the focus of blame to the city mayor for defending the cuts implemented at the central level (Diamond, 2014). The implications of new city, and ‘city region’, mayors have been much discussed in the political science literature, but the implications for the third sector remain again under-explored (Rees and Rose, 2015; Beel et al, 2018). The under-developed nature of systematic and longitudinal studies of third sector leaders makes this an important area to examine, given their presence on strategic boards and agencies and the formal infrastructure in place not just in the UK but also in a number of advanced economies.

Moreover, we know that, although creating and maintaining local and informal networks can have an immediate impact at a policy level where city leadership exercises discretion, this does not always secure a set of sustained changes (Pearce, 2010; Diamond, 2012). Indeed, especially in the UK as a consequence of the austerity measures introduced after the global financial crash by the Conservative-led coalition government (2010–15), those non-state agencies established more than 40 years ago to support voluntary or community-based projects have lost significant infrastructure and the capacity to maintain their role (see Barton et al, 2021). There have, however, been some initiatives that have been aimed at creating non-state agencies with a limited remit and subject to different regulatory powers. These developments can be seen as weakening the relative authority of ‘city hall’ in very limited ways. Arguably, the fragmentation of the authority of local state institutions is an intended outcome for those who advocate a neoliberal approach. It follows on from a period of change and innovation at the local level in the UK that parallels a number of developments elsewhere (especially in the United States and within Europe).

The lessons learnt from a period of both innovation as well as actions taken to protect local services in the 1980s are worth examining. The ‘going local’ approach adopted by a number of Labour-run authorities was to use alternative economic strategies and experiments encompassing participatory approaches to local decision making and this offered a distinctive alternative to the Thatcher government. Participatory approaches also informed the practice and priorities of the New Labour government after 1997. These approaches also shared a common assumption that while non-state agencies might be part of new service delivery, decision making still remained at ‘city hall’.

Returning to a broader European scale, this is a relevant issue in light of the current attempts of the European Commission in promoting participative approaches in implementation of the Green Deal. Finding solutions to places’ problems requires innovative approaches and flexibility. This makes activists and TSOs valuable stakeholders, not least because TSOs have the advantage that they are less bound by formal procedures and thus they are able to come with innovative solutions (see, for example, the case of social innovation in Gundeldinger Feld in von Schnurbein et al, this issue), although such lessons are not necessarily transferrable to other jurisdictions without taking into account local specifics.

Contribution of the themed issue

All the papers in this themed issue have in common a focus on the role of the third sector and civil society in determining the local development, sustainability and resilience of a place(s). Potluka and Fanta (2021) investigate how third sector leadership influences local development in rural areas. Dang and Seemann (2021) explore the characteristics of collaborative housing initiatives that lead to a positive attitude towards such projects. Lough (2021) focuses on how place-based leadership can enhance community resilience, pointing to a specific type of place-based leadership, which is bottom-up ‘organic’ leadership. Pagani et al (2021) investigate the local leadership of civil society from a positional and reputational perspective. And Barton et al (2021) outline the history of two environmental partnerships from the perspective of third sector leaders.

The papers focus on different scopes of place-based leadership, such as: community resilience; public value co-creation through collaborative housing initiatives; the local development and attractiveness of a municipality to new residents; environmental governance and regeneration; public services delivery; and local advocacy. In other words, they all assume place-based leadership as an antecedent, tool, resource and so on that is part of formal and informal systems of governance and has effects and consequences for relevant public outcomes. The unit of analysis of these studies varies from communities (Lough, 2021), cities (Pagani et al 2021) and cross-sectoral partnerships (Barton et al, 2021; Potluka and Fanta, 2021) to initiatives/projects (Dang and Seemann, 2021).

Four papers out of five treat place-based leadership as a driver/enabler (simplified we may say this as the X of Y), while Pagani et al (2021) treat place-based leadership as a consequence (as the Y of X). Specifically, Potluka and Fanta (2021) explain that the presence of third sector leaders taking part in local intersectoral partnerships has the potential for local development and to attract new residents thanks to the higher social capital they generate. Dang and Seemann (2021) find that elements related to the social sustainability of places (civic engagement, inclusion, integration and diversity) are more important than economic factors for participating in collaborative housing initiatives. Barton et al (2021) provide some key features for cross-sectoral partnerships to work (for example: accountability and openness; creativity and risk taking; early confidence building and national advocates; and limited financial gains) and find that the incorporation of a charity at the heart of these programmes is fundamental to making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Lough (2021) shows that bottom-up and centralised governance processes have different but complementary roles to enhance long-term community resilience. And Pagani et al (2021) investigate place-based leadership as a consequence, finding that place leaders belong to three different main spheres:

  • the third sector, which deals mainly with public services delivery and advocacy/representation work;

  • the community, which deals with initiatives directed towards people who are part of a specific ethnic/interest group and sheds light on the multitude and diversity of civil society; and

  • faith, which brings back one neglected area and source for place-based leadership, which is the role of religion.

The complex relationship between place-based local leadership and non-local external leadership and the power dynamics among civil society and government are key issues, either apparent or immanent, in all the papers, calling for more critical studies on those elements. For example, as Lough (2021) highlights, there is a difference between leadership by local communities and manufactured place-based leadership by governmental forces.

Finally, all the papers conclude that the third sector and civil society in their multiple roles have a comparative advantage in providing a social infrastructure made up of, for example, intermediation, representation, connection and bonding, which are fundamental to improving creativity, quality of life and human capital, which are at the root of economic competitive advantage (Feiock et al, 2008). Moreover, a tension, which is not new in studies on the third sector, arises from a place-based leadership perspective too, which is how much the sector is absorbed in doing things that provide public goods and services that are not provided by the state.

Concluding remarks

The origins of both civic and third sector leadership start from individuals who are motivated to improve their living conditions in their neighbourhoods, towns and cities. Although they may invest primarily in efforts for their benefit, such civic leadership activities have high positive externalities for neighbours. Moreover, generally speaking it is accepted that local activists know local needs very well. Knowledge of people’s actual needs (or social problems to be solved) is a crucial aspect for the successful design and implementation of any public policy (OECD, 2001).

In this respect, as Guthey et al (2014: 262) have noted, ‘a shift towards place-based thinking may lead to scholarly research and management practices that deal more effectively – at local levels – with such thorny issues such as social justice, global climate change, alternative energy and economic inequality to name but a few’.

Place is one key element of our multiple overlapping identities. We believe the concept of ‘place’ should be taken more seriously in understanding and explaining the activities of the third sector and more broadly of civil society. For example, the idea of meaningful experience(s) is one of the key constructs of the concept of ‘place’ (Agnew, 2016). In this respect, it is through the act of taking care of the place and its communities, wherein the experience of the third sector and of civil society is often initiated, legitimised and nurtured. Thus, adding the meaningful experience(s) and the place lenses to interrogate examples of contemporary leadership is particularly illuminating, especially to describe, understand, explore and explain dynamics of leadership within and across the third sector and civil society.

Although the papers published in this themed issue show that the role of third sector leaders is important and positive for local development, we are also aware of the limits of this concept. The third sector leadership discussed in the papers usually focuses on local issues and does not cross the boundaries of a locally demarcated area (for instance, neighbourhoods, urban districts, cities or micro regions). Future research should question the instrumental role of the third sector and civil society to enable place-based leadership as a tool for economic development, and critically review that perspective. For example, civil society leaders may well harness the potential of place to generate meaningful experiences with an inclusive rather than exclusive purpose – but our empirical grasp of such phenomena is limited.

Future studies might also deal with the issue of power in the relationships occurring among the third sector, business and the state. However, this requires moving from a sectoral perspective towards complex interactions that cut across sectors (Dekker and Evers, 2009) and towards a better recognition of the role of public purpose and place at all its levels (Jackson et al, 2018), from the neighbours to the planet, such as for example in the fight against climate change.

Notes

1

In this article, we use the terms ‘place-based leadership’ and ‘place leadership’ interchangeably.

2

Some definitions of place-based leadership have been attempted by Stough (2010) and Hambleton (2015). The first speaks about place-based leadership as ‘the tendency of the community to collaborate across sectors in a sustained, purposeful manner to enhance the economic performance or economic environment of its region’ (Stough, 2010: 177). Hambleton (2014) defines place-based leadership by contrast explaining that place-less leadership is a leadership that is not concerned with the impact and consequences of its decisions on places and communities.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest.

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  • 1 University of Basel, , Switzerland
  • | 2 University of Milan-Bicocca, , Italy
  • | 3 The Open University, , UK
  • | 4 Edge Hill University, , UK
  • | 5 University of Wolverhampton, , UK

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