I was reminded of how difficult a job it is to be a councillor, and hence this blog entry, by reading the social media comments made by some of the public in response to a contested local planning issue about a Waste Transfer Station in Milton Keynes, where I live.
I had a day off work and was idly sitting on my sofa surfing local news and then read a stream of comments criticising the councillors on the MK Council Development Control Committee who had voted to approve the development. What incensed me was not the criticism of the decision, but the fact that it was very personal, attacking the integrity of the councillors–with allegations of corruption and offensive personal insults. I then ended up in an online argument in defence of the councillors and the decision-making process.
Nationally an IPSO Mori Poll conducted in January last year found that just 16% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth compared with 22% trusting estate agents and 31% who trust bankers, so social media abuse unfortunately isn’t surprising. Social media has created amazing opportunities for councillors and councils to improve engagement with local residents (see blog here about how councillors are using social media https://johnpopham.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/councillors-and-social-media-could-they-be-youtube-stars/). Yet social media also makes it more obvious and visible that a real lack of trust exists.
I’m not a politician. I just work with them and wanted to share some of my own observations in defence of councillors.
3 Myths about local Councillors
- They get a massive salary funded by the taxpayer—wrong. Councillors don’t receive a salary. They get a basic allowance to provide some compensation for their time which is set locally. For example, where I live each councillor gets under £10,000 a year. This is considerably less than the UK average annual salary of £26,000.
- They don’t do much, just attend a few meetings—wrong. Councillors work long unsociable hours. One of the big differences between me as a local government officer and the councillors I work with is that I can leave the office and leave it all behind. Councillors don’t have that luxury. The public know where they live and have their phone number. Growing up, I got used to my mother, who was a councillor, having to deal with ward issues late into the evening and was trained in taking messages as well as making cups of tea for visitors.
It is hard for councillors to have any time for themselves, as the role is demanding—helping people find solutions and information on accessing services; campaigning on local issues; helping scrutinise decisions by participating in review groups on different issues from street lighting to care for the elderly; and serving on committees such as Development Control (who make planning decisions like the one that prompted me to write this post).
- They are in it for themselves, the status and glory—really? So, we have established that there are no excessive financial perks from being a councillor; we have established that the general public don’t have a high degree of trust in politicians; and that the role involves working anti-social and possibly long hours.
I have worked with many councillors, from all parties, and all carry out their role in slightly different ways depending on many factors such as personal style, expertise and interest. Some councillors focus their energy on specific campaigns or local issues; some on strategic issues such as joint working with the health sector or improving overall value for money; some on scrutinising policies and performance; some on doing the best they can to help individual residents in their local area—or some doing all of the above.
There is one thing that all of the councillors I have had the privilege to meet and work with, despite their differences, which is that all have had a passion for making a difference to help improve their communities.
The caveats: This blog entry is a personal reflection on my new job role it is not representative of any official council policy position. I take full responsibility for the content.
I’m genuinely excited about going to work tomorrow. Tomorrow is my first official day as Head of Member Services at Buckinghamshire County Council. Since Christmas I’ve been working to set-up the service with the support of the new team. It has been a busy period—recruiting new staff; developing the vision and priorities for the new service; stopping legacy work that’s no longer a priority; working out the detail of the new roles; reviewing the Constitution and building a new single team (as well as securing some desks for us to work from). For me personally, and I know the existing teams, we have all juggled the old and the new responsibilities to get us to this point and I’ve been impressed with the commitment and professionalism that the team has shown in this transition.
I don’t expect anyone externally to notice that there is a new service and I don’t really think anyone should, as what’s far more important is the opportunity this creates for us to deliver some real changes that matter—nothing earthshattering but small, gradual and relentless steps forward. Steps to promote and champion the role of County Councillors; promote good governance and public involvement in decision-making.
To really make a difference in improving organisational governance we need to be pro-actively engaging with officers across the Council—providing advice, guidance, training and support. We need to make it easier for the public to find out about decisions—providing information in plain English. We need to design new systems and processes to help County Councillors find information at their fingertips so they can help the residents they represent get resolutions on local issues.
We have this amazing opportunity to do all of these things, and I know we can deliver all of these new priorities above within our resources by working differently. For example, from day 1 we will make better use of the team’s time by having one officer providing policy & procedural advice to a Select Committee rather than two separate officers (this new approach is based on the parliamentary model which I in my experience was very effective and valued by MPs). This will be an immediate significant saving in officer time (which means for example an additional staff member being free to deliver a training course to officers on decision-making or conducting research for a Select Committee rather than observing a meeting).
I know some people will be sceptical about changes and ‘efficiencies’ (and as an experienced policy adviser I too have expressed such scepticism upon occasions!). My experience and view is that there are times when the efficiencies are real, ethical and actually essential for focusing efforts on the delivery of outcomes rather than processes. I’m confident that we have the right foundations for a successful service, building upon the successes of the existing two teams—scrutiny and democratic services. I’m looking forward to the new challenges, opportuntiies to work with new people and the anticipation of the year ahead.
If you are interested in following the progress of the new Member Services team please follow our new twitter account @Bucksdemocracy
Like many, I’ve been inspired by attending the local democracy conference in Huddersfield.
For various reasons I haven’t ventured out of Bucks and County Hall for possibly a good couple of years (for work that is!). Having worked in Westminster I overdosed on networking and conferences and realised that often they cost a fortune and I learnt very little.
This event intrigued me however. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m passionate about democracy and here was an event about everything I care about and it was free!
The whole thing really was a world away from Westminster. I loved the mix of people from officers, councillors to community activists which led to some interesting exchanges of views.
I took a lot of ideas away and a list of practical actions, but also something much more important. It reinvigorated my view that a council democratic services function should and can be much more than providing support to council committees (whilst this is of course very important). It needs to be a service with a mission to champion local democracy, helping connect residents with elected members, as well as members with residents.
With the pressures of income generation, workload and processes it’s easy to lose sight of the end goal.
Well done to Kirklees Council for taking the lead in proudly advocating for a visionary and ambitious mission to promote local democracy.