Here’s an interesting little conversation I have been having with somebody (Them) who is kind enough to follow my Twitter tweets & ramblings (can you ramble in 140 characters or less?)
The first post refers to a leaflet produced by the City andCounty of Swansea Council, as a way of giving their taxpayers a better understanding of what a councillor does. I think the leaflet sums the role up perfectly and, despite being produced sometime ago, I also think that nothing it says is either out of date, or irrelevant to today’s modern councillor.
The exchange of views that followed come from a council employee and offers some very valuable insights from their perspective. The council has thinned out its management considerably over the last year or so and those that remain, at the senior level, are shared with another council inNorfolk. Furthermore, until the recent round of local council elections changed their political colour and thinking, we were on course to link up with a second council, thereby expecting those shared managers to work across three geographically dispersed councils.
When the ‘coming together’ proposals were being discussed, I was a dissenting voice, questioning the thinning out, combined with part time nature of the shared management model. Of even more concern to me, was the potential for generic managers. These were seen as the way forward for some of those positions currently filled by managers with specialist knowledge of the service. Under-pinning all of this was something called, new ways of working, a concept I have yet to fully grasp in all of its implications and one that, in my opinion, has yet to have any real meaning for many members.
Part of the new ways of working philosophy, was a belief that executive members would step-up and start taking a more hands-on approach to their portfolio holder roles. I asked for, but never got, the provision of a structured training programme for those executive members expected to take on this ‘new way of working’, which of course brings me back to the comments made below.
I expect that there are a number of executive members in councils around the country who are relishing the opportunity to be more hands-on, I certainly am. However, in the absence of any meaningful training, am I and others, doing any good, or are we just making life more difficult for departments already struggling with a leadership deficit?- only time will tell I suppose.
Dave Mckenna @Localopolis Final plug for my post on explaining the Six Roles of the Local Councillor to the public http://bit.ly/KGZe24
Them: Role of councillors is changing rapidly with the advent of customer services, Web interface and social media: time for reform?
Me: Yes, but that doesn’t change basic role of the councillor, helping people with ‘the system’. Some think themselves above that.
Them: With councils ‘shared management’, councillors need to assume more of an executive role and take ‘ownership ‘ of their patch.
Me: maybe so – for now. Poachers turned gamekeepers not good for the democratic process. Some relationships already too cosy.
Them: A proactive opposition is supposed to be the Democratic balance to combat political ‘cosiness’, isn’t it?
Me: Don’t agree. Having a majority trumps a robust opposition. Keeping em honest is not the same as stopping em going native
Me: members need to walk the tightrope of showing leadership, but not becoming part of the system and blind to service failings
You make some very good points here Roger. My own view is that Senior officers are generally recruited through a robust and challenging selection procedure, which demonstrates that they are capable of carrying out the duties of the post. They are appointed because they have the required education and skills. Members on the other hand are elected wiothout any regard for talent or ability. No one can become an experienced town planner overnight. Members should concentrate on politics and once they have made decicions leave it to the professionals to implement them. When Members dabble in management the end result is often a mistake – e.g. Red Lion Quarter.
The point being that Councillors are just going to have to do more (like the rest of us). Probably, as you infer, at the executive level (since there are few executives left): ‘shared management’ means generic, middle managers commuting from their home base (mostly Norfolk) to oversee their ‘system’ responsibilities here in South Holland; and you can’t expect them to really ‘care’ about anything else other than what their job responsibilities require – managing the ‘system’. Whereas previously a local council manager would naturally ‘take some ownership’ of his/her patch with a degree of personal investment and initiative. This meant, for example, that Spalding could legitimately function without the scrutiny and dedication of a local parish council; no more is that the case. A major example is the fiasco of the Red Lion Quarter project management which ‘nobody’ was accountable for (and still isn’t); a minor example of this attention vacuum is the deteriorating condition of the ‘Welcome to Spalding’ road signs (which, one could argue, epitomises the deteriorating condition of the town). Councillors should be encouraged, indeed, be expected to ‘up their game’ and ‘take ownership of their patch’; and Spalding needs a proactive parish council prepared to go to bat for their town. This is the much promoted, and, as yet not applied, ‘different way of working’ that councils should be working towards….
I agree with much of what you say. However, although I was a strong advocate of a town council for Spalding in the early days, having seen the quality of those that do exist and the bureaucratic cost of running them, I would want to seek a middle ground.
As I had the privilege of helping to re-establishing the Spalding Town Forum in 1999 as it’s first chairman, I was very aware of the political sensitivities around having a pseudo town council paid for by the whole district. I asked for an administration budget to be established as a partial way of paying the forum’s way. I would like to think that it would be possible for a Spalding Town council to be run using district council support, but paying for these services. The major advantage of the current arrangements is that members. Of STF are district councillors and have benefitted from the knowledge, experience and training of being a district councillor. Simply paying for another layer of admin to support a totally untrained, albeit elected bunch of town councillors, does not seem like good value for the local taxpayers given the current level of our council taxes.
The problem with the (STF) Spalding Town Forum (other than, as you note, that it is part funded by ALL the District taxpayers), is that there is an inherent conflict of interest as it’s members are the elected Spalding ward members, who are mostly Conservative; and, to make matters worse, are mostly SHDC executive members. This translates to STF focus basically echoing the Conservative sentiment of the day. It’s all just too cosy. Lets face it, you’re hardly going to witness a hot bed of dissent emanating from the STF. This would not be so bad if there was an effective opposition party at the District level – there isn’t; and that means that there really is an imbalance of political influence, which is ultimately not good for the town. Quite frankly, it’s not good (or even fun) for the Conservative group either and, you could argue, encourages complacency and mediocrity. Currently, it seems that the only organised dissent/opposition involving Spalding comes from the Civic Society and, occasionally, the Chamber of Commerce.
Any (prospective) Spalding Town Council therefore surely needs to have a clearly defined and independent position on all the major factors of the day impacting the town to provide some political balance to the elected District council group. This additional, hard nosed scrutiny may have helped to avoid the Red Lion Quarter fiasco and is certainly warranted in the proposed Holland Market/Hayley Stewart development.
Spalding needs an independent political body to represent the town and town-peoples’ interests in all these matters. Additionally, as the central government presses it’s ‘localism’ agenda, the role of the town council will become increasingly influential. Without one, Spalding could miss the boat!
Taken to its logical conclusion, no,elected member should be allowed to serve at more than one level, but is that the real problem, conflict of interest? What exactly would an completely independent Spalding Town Council have achieved, or rather what would have been different re the RLQ or any other major development proposed for Spalding?
Within the district council we have an independent dominated scrutiny panel, whose sole purpose is to put all the controlling group’s decisions under the microscope – and yet? Remember, that these councillors are not just there looking after the interests of Taxpayers, the reason because they stood on an independent ticket in the elections, was so that voters could choose somebody other than a recognised political party candidate. Having been elected and then given a position on a scrutiny panel, they are almost duty bound to seek political,advantage by making life difficult for the controlling group. This doesn’t have to be based on political dogma, the public have a clear dislike and distrust of those who persistently grandstand.
Add to this, that this panel has all the resources of the district council’s at its disposal and can require as much information and specialist assistance as it demands. With all this resource at their disposal, they still seem to be less that effective in holding the executive to account and helping avoid the issues you refer to. How then would a small town council do better with so much less resource?