Bringing politics into the 21st century

By Martin Ford | 06 February 2019

What skills does a modern councillor need? While the role of councillors in representing the will of the people remains the same as it has for decades – if not centuries – the communities they serve have in many cases changed beyond all recognition.

District Councils' Network (DCN) delegates attending The MJ/Gatenby Sanderson round table working lunch ahead of the DCN member board meeting discussed a host of relevant issues. These included the business acumen needed, the willingness to accept new technology, the training required and the barriers faced in increasing members’ diversity in gender and age. One of the first answers to the question posed proved to be the most succinct: ‘Heroism and bravery’, coupled with the ability to ‘break down barriers’.

But most of the delegates agreed that recruiting people to stand in council elections in the first place had become more difficult in recent years.

One said finding people with the ability to get to grips with local government concepts was proving to be an obstacle: ‘To get people with skills is difficult. People don’t understand the difference between finance and funding. To attract those people into a district council is difficult.’

Proximity to the capital, with its economic and social lure, coupled with time pressures, has caused problems for another council.

The leader said: ‘We hold two-thirds of the seats and we are still desperately short of candidates. We have the same problem with officers. The idea of attending meetings is very unattractive, while officers can hop on a train and in an hour they are in London on a far higher wage.

‘We have culled a lot of the old guard and accept we might not be able to replace them. We have to find a new way of working.’

Misconceptions about the role of the councillor, its voluntary nature and an ‘undervaluing’ of members were said to be common.

A rueful delegate said: ‘We have cast-iron seats people should be queuing up to stand in.’ Another agreed: ‘Everyone has problems attracting people to be councillors. We elect by thirds, so we only need to find 11 people.’

Yet another delegate added: ‘We have struggled to recruit people to stand for us. We have struggled to recruit younger people and it’s hard to find ladies willing to stand.’

Indeed, a lack of diversity turned out to be a common theme. A delegate told the meeting: ‘When I joined the council, it was very aggressively male.

‘Now, all our council meetings are recorded and go out on Facebook – I’m amazed people watch it. I find it hard to get women to stand because it’s so aggressive and Facebook has become the place for Mr and Mrs Angry, who know nothing about what they are talking about.’

Conversely, one leader of a council in which women accounted for 40% of members, instead complained of a dearth of young councillors.

‘There’s an age profile problem, he said. ‘A lot of people haven’t got the time or can’t afford to do it. The work is a lot more than it was 10 years ago. For cabinet members, it’s like a career.’

A leader put forward technology as a potential solution to recruitment issues: ‘My own council were entrenched, we have to come into the new digital world. As we have been recruiting new candidates, we have been desperately trying to find younger people, who might not be able to attend all meetings. People don’t have to come to every meeting, they can phone in.’

Someone else pointed out: ‘International businesses don’t fly across the Atlantic all the time. We are so behind the game here.’

But others foresaw flaws with putting trust in video calling and similar technology.

‘You don’t know if someone’s got a gun to their head if you’re voting,’ said one delegate, while another suggested: ‘People will think “I can’t be bothered to drive in”.’

Yet another suggested it was simply not necessary. ‘Lots of people here have evening meetings that are very inclusive. They are the norm in districts,’ they said.

There were those among the delegates, however, who had no such problems with attracting a broad range of council candidates: ‘I’m really proud of my council. When I became leader there were four females out of 40 members. I can proudly say 50% are younger than me and a third are female.

‘We have an amazing relationship between officers and councillors and that’s key to all we have achieved.’

Another said: ‘I have people coming to me asking to stand as candidates. They all look like the people who voted for them because they are very excited by the situation we find ourselves in. My problem isn’t my councillors, it’s the organisation I have taken on – a council that is very last century.’

Frustrations with councils beyond the debating chamber were far from uncommon, judging by the comments throughout the discussion.

‘If we don’t change our organisation, we are not going to attract people,’ said another.

‘There have been huge changes in local government over the past few years, therefore the skills need to change. It’s not an easy transition – we still have people who think in terms of typewriters and carbon copies.’

‘Many officers don’t deliver good training – planning officers are very boring, and so are lawyers. Let’s get away from PowerPoint presentations and make them enjoyable to go to,’ the meeting was told. ‘Let’s look at what industry does – it’s done through technology,’ a delegate pointed out.

‘The Local Government Association could create a resource base for us and roll it out. Move away from everyone sat in a council chamber, watching a PowerPoint presentation.’

Others had issues with training, but laid the blame squarely at the feet of the members themselves. ‘There’s a small group of councillors who do a lot and a large group who do very little and coast,’ a leader revealed. ‘Take-up of training is very low and those who don’t turn up are the ones who need the training.’

Another said: ‘Some people get elected as mouthpieces for the malcontents they represent and that’s all they want to do.’

The opposite was true in other areas, according to some delegates: ‘As a council, we are good at training councillors – we believe it’s important people know what they can achieve. People think they will change the world when they first join.’

There were different philosophies on the skills required of a leader, with greater emphasis being placed on different aspects of the role among the delegates.

One of them said it was about taking politics into the 21st century to help voters understand why councillors took particular courses of action: ‘We are making increasingly complex and difficult decisions. We need to develop media skills and cultivate relationships with radio presenters and newspaper editors. We need people who control social media conversation, rather than respond to it.’

Another agreed: ‘There’s a lot more we can do to project our organisations, not just for the organisations’ benefit, but for the community and economy. The essence of political leadership is dreaming the impossible.’

For others, having experienced years of austerity, it was more about the financial aspects: ‘We are not just running the council, we are running a business. While we are first and foremost the leader of the council, we have to get the message to members it’s not the old days where a leader is running a political party – we are running a business.’

But that approach was not popular with all leaders: ‘In business, you do what costs less or makes more money. We have to run a business as well as being empathetic,’ pointed out a fellow delegate.

‘If my council wants me to be a chief executive, they have to pay me as a chief executive. Too many people feel they have to do that,’ said another.

Sometimes leaders emerge who don’t have the skills required. One delegate sounded a warning: ‘The head of paid service has to take on a leadership role sometimes. If they have a weak leader, they will stagnate for years.’

But from others, there was optimism about the opportunities for local government leaders: ‘It’s exciting times, particularly for districts – we don’t have those demand-led services, so we can do more than we have ever done before. We are the only part of the sector that can do that.’

The MJ / Gatenby Sanderson round table attendees:

John Fuller, South Norfolk DC

Mark Crane, Selby DC

David Neighbour, Hart DC

David Chambers, Malvern Hills DC

Andrew Bowles, Swale BC

Peter Fleming, Sevenoaks DC

Tom Beattie, Corby BC

John Ward, Waverley BC

Kate Allsop, Mansfield DC

Bridget Smith, South Cambridgeshire

Harvey Siggs, Mendip DC

Matthew Lee, South Kesteven DC

Gillian Brown, Arun DC

Isobel Darby, Chiltern DC

Heather Jameson, Editor The MJ

Jon Houlihan, Local government sector lead, Gatenby Sanderson

Jody Goldsworthy, Senior partner, leadership and talent consultancy, Gatenby Sanderson

Pippa Rugman, Policy and research officer, District Councils’ Network

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