It’s an uncertain time in local government. Unprecedented cuts in public spending have accelerated debates – and decisions – about the use of scarce resources and whether councils need to do less with less. The rhetoric, and statutes, of localism are driving parallel debates about how power and influence can be localised. The sector is emerging from a decade of intense inspection and performance-management which has helped make it one of the most efficient parts of the public sector, but arguably has also held back innovation and leadership.
Where’s the citizen in all this churn and change? After all, they are the primary stakeholders in local governance: as the users of services, as the payers of local taxes, and as the citizens (and voters) of that community. I’ve been somewhat surprised, in my recent conversations with councils, at the level of interest in public engagement and participation. I had expected the focus to be on making savings and transforming services – and it is – but councils are also sensitive to how difficult decisions might play with the public. And, taking a less cynical view, I think councils (some at least) are genuinely interested in the opportunities brought about by change: reinvigorating their public engagement, tapping into citizen energy and capacity, and greater personalisation in the design and evaluation of services. The Commission on the Future of Local Government is one example of the sector leading this re-examination of the role of local government.
In this post I’d like to argue about one important avenue for re-connecting councils with citizens: the role of the councillor.
Councillors are at the heart of any council. They are the elected representatives of local communities, and they represent the essential democratic connection between resident and the (potentially faceless) council. But this representative role alone is not sufficient. In the ordinary course of affairs councillors have to make difficult decisions that balance conflicting demands, and in these challenging times those decisions are going to get harder. They will be better decisions if informed by broad citizen participation, something that has long been argued for by respected local government commentators: “Participative democracy, far from weakening representative democracy, can strengthen it. ….People speak with many voices, expressing differing values and interests. The task of the elected representative is to seek to reconcile, to balance and in the end to judge” (Professor John Stewart, in The Nature of British Local Government, 2000).
More than that, if councils are genuinely seeking deeper public engagement, then councillors are very well placed to make that active connection. After all, here is an ordinary person, who lives locally, and represents local people on the council. One of the main conclusions of the 2007 Councillors Commission was: “key to effective local representation is the relationship and connections between councillors and their constituents”. In these challenging and changing times, the role that councillors play in actively connecting with their communities is more important than ever, something that emerged from discussions at the Local Society seminar in 2011.
But whilst many councillors work hard to advocate for and represent their constituents, there remains a general disconnect between residents and their councillors. Many people do not know who their local councillor is, let alone engage with them. A MORI survey in 2002 found that just a third of the public knew the name of one of their local councillors, and two thirds said they have never met their local councillor in person. This data may be dated, but I’d bet a small sum that it’s still valid.
How can councils work with their councillors to remake this connection with the public at large? Here are a few practical suggestions:
- Involve all councillors in an open discussion about the objectives and benefits of wider community engagement and public participation.
- Use councillor training to address softer issues, such as confidence, and to develop practical solutions to the challenges involved in engaging the public. Consider peer mentoring as part of this, and facilitate the sharing of good practice.
- Think about how councillors can engage with all of their constituents, not just with those who ask for help. Good old-fashioned door knocking, and good new-fashioned social media, might be two ways.
- Help councillors to manage public expectations, and make sure they have access to the information they need to support public participation. For example, do councillors have a good handle on the diversity of different communities in their wards?