Broadcast and national press coverage of local elections is a numbers game. Total numbers of seats held by each party, swings to and fro, councils lost, gained or hung and the added juice this year of an emergent fourth party. And these numbers are normally just the starter to the media’s main course: how all this translates into seats at Westminster.

But every one of those councillors elected last Thursday is much more than a sub-Westminster statistic. They each represent their bit of the county on the county authority. They will be making or scrutinising decisions on issues as diverse (and important) as care for vulnerable adults, transport and energy infrastructure, and planning for school provision. They will be working with other organisations to promote jobs and growth, and will be doing their best to balance a wide range of demands upon increasingly scarce resources.

This is important stuff and yet public engagement with local government is woeful. Turnouts last Thursday seem to have been averaging in the thirties. Research by Ipsos MORI in 2005 found that almost two-thirds of people in England have never met any of their local councillors. Apart from leaflets and a loudly-hailed drive past, I heard from none of the county council candidates in my ward and don’t expect ever to hear from my elected county councillor. I suspect my experience is typical.

Councils need to get better at reaching out to their citizens. Many are doing interesting things in pockets, but councils are a long way from having a culture of citizen engagement and dialogue. The solutions to this are many (and it’s very important to appreciate the diversity of conversations that should be taking place) but a good starting point would be sustained commitment from the member and officer leadership and supporting all councillors to be active community engagers.

There are plenty of myths about public engagement – that it’s too expensive, it will open the floodgates and that difficult issues can’t really be opened up to public discussion. But as our Fairy Tales publication shows, these are myths. Done well, public engagement makes for better decision making and helps local authorities to navigate the trade-offs that come with difficult decisions. This is going to become increasingly important as local government funding continues to shrink dramatically in the years ahead.

Councils do things that affect the lives and well-being of people: real individuals, families and communities. Those people should be at the heart of local governance, not just in terms of designing services that are more responsive, but in helping councils to make difficult decisions about how to allocate resources. It isn’t just an electoral numbers game, this is real.

Image by srqpix