Time for action

With local democracy week the focus is quite rightly on the need to improve the profile and role of elected members. The first priority is to ensure we can recruit and retain a wider cross section of our community as councillors. Much has been written about this but in the words of Elvis Presley its now time ‘for a little more action and a little less conversation’ from political parties, local councils and central government itself.

But first lets look at the main task. We all recognise that too few people are active in local democracy and we need to widen that pool of active citizens willing to be councillors. In this we have to be realistic we will never convince the majority of the population to take this step – becoming a councillors is a hard and demanding task. What we need, as Mrs Thatcher recognised several years ago, are more Good Samaritans. Currently we have 1 per cent of the population engaged in local politics as members of political parties. If we could just widen this pool to 2 per cent we would create a 1000 potential councillors in every local authority area .

But how do we go about it. Well two priorities selling the job and removing the barriers.

An earlier career in Unilever taught me that no one buys a product that everyone criticises and no-one understands. We need a high profile ‘mission to inform’ about the role and potential of councillors. There are hundreds of hard working and successful councillors from all sections of society and we need to ensure that these positive role models get the profile they deserve. We should also publicise that there are different roles for councillors. Not everyone needs to aspire to political leadership with the consequent time commitment.

We also have to very clear and confident that becoming a councillor attracts appropriate remuneration and support. Clearly money is an important aspect of this and the directly elected Mayors have created an interesting ‘rate for the job’ for a full time council leader. Pay is clearly an important issue for the 3-4000 councillors in executive positions but it should not distract the wider debate. For the vast majority of England’s 21,000 councillors full time status is neither wanted nor needed. What is just as important is that all councillors receive appropriate support and status that the position merits. Hard working councillors are expected to answer letters and deal with complex organisations with little if any administrative or technical assistance. Recognition and rewards can come in other ways than currently exist. If the US army can award ‘educational credits’ to fund higher education for its recruits then perhaps we can do the same for our citizens involved in public service

As for removing the barriers it is clear that if we want more councillors of working age we need to work with employers both large and small to change attitudes and behaviour to those wanting to take up public service. The IDeA have for the last three years promoted a Good Employer Award and it is amazing the levels of support that good employers are willing to give to their workforce. However this has to become more widely entrenched and imaginative (some companies will offer four year secondments for staff becoming MPs why not for council leaders). The government may want to assist by offering tax credits for such initiatives or even promote a Public Service Act to give staff serving as councillors the same rights as those staff serving in the Territorial Army. If this is a step too far for a business friendly government then there are two other steps the government can take directly which would massively widen the pool of potential councillors.

Currently millions of public sector staff are forbidden to seek election because of the provisions of the ‘Widdicome’ legislation. Whilst such legislation may have been justified in the 1980’s it is now increasingly questionable particularly as the salary bar has fallen well behind wage inflation (currently the salary bar stands at £32,000). Equally many thousands of potentially active citizens with a wealth of community experience are disbarred because of the harsh benefit rules of the Department for Work and Pensions which effectively create a 100% benefit trap for anyone becoming a councillor or any kind of public service.. At the same time that the Home Office and ODPM are promoting active citizens the DWP are promoting a ‘Charter for Coach Potatoes.’

However selling and supporting the councillor role and removing the barriers to entry are only the first stage. If we to recruit and more importantly retain high calibre and representative councillors then we need fundamental change from the three most important players – political parties, local councils and central government.

Let’s be clear political parties are a ‘good thing. When they work well provide the electorate with a range of informed choices at local level. They promote and provide political skills such as negotiation and consensus building and help build community cohesion in a rapidly changing society. They also provide a ladder of opportunity for talented and determined individuals to gain access to power and responsibility without the need to have a personal fortune as well as providing a filter to weed out the more obviously corrupt and venial. Crucially they are accountable on a regular basis to local people on the principle of one person, one vote (trying advocating that at a company AGM!) But (and it’s a big but) they are woeful about attracting the full diversity and strength of local communities. Apart from any equalities issues political parties are missing out on a huge pool of talent and experience.

There may be good historical reasons why the average age of councillors is 57, 75 per cent are male and the majority are retired or semi retired. But politics at a local level has to become a game for all the family if we are to make the case for greater powers and claim centre stage for community leadership. The situation may change with dramatic action (and the introduction of PR into Scottish Local Elections may be one to watch). However political parties are capable of change themselves and addressing some of the reasons for their current narrow appeal.

Firstly they tolerate far too often objectionable and boorish behaviour from a small number of councillors which can literally drive out more competent colleagues. Much of this is related to the ‘born leader’ fallacy which is alive and kicking in all political parties. No-one underestimates the beneficial experience gained from the ‘University of Life’ but this can all too often be combined with a contempt for professional development and a closed mind to new ideas and people. Political Parties can learn from other sections of British society. The British army began to have doubts about ‘born leaders’ with the Charge of the Light Brigade and became truly disillusioned with the First World Generals. (its why we now have Sandhurst one of the best management colleges in the world)

Political Parties and Leaders of Councils have to take ‘performance issues’ amongst existing councillors much more seriously and also be willing t o take on local vested interests who may have a lock on local selections. Some existing councillors need help with exit strategies to ensure that they can still contribute to public life but provide space for fresh blood in the council chamber. We may also want to revisit the minimalist performance/attendance requirements of the 1972 Local Government Act that permits runaway councillors to represent their electorate from Bermuda and China.

Fundamental to improvement will be how local parties attract members and select their candidates. Clearly this is a matter for each party but if we are able to increase a wider and more representative group of people willing to become councillors they have to respond positively. Selections will also be a contentious issue but political parties are looking at ways of using modern methods of selection based on appropriate skills and attitudes such as the recent work by Professor Joe Sylvestor at Goldsmiths College for the Conservative Party.

The future for local politics is to re-connect political activity as part of the wider spectrum of public service. Most new recruits are likely to feel strongly about specific issues such as education, crime and their local environment. Far better to have people join political parties for positive reasons than because they hate the other parties. How far active citizens will progress will depend on their available time and also the ability of local political organisations to convince them of how effectively they will use their time and commitment. The main political parties currently have a virtual monoply on public office and such a monopoly has to be justified by open and inclusive selection policies. If existing political parties fail to respond don’t be surprised if new political organisations come forward to take up this new and interested talent. For those who say there is no demand take a trip to Denmark. The 2001 local elections saw a huge influx of young and dynamic Council Leaders such as the 30 year old Louise Grade Mayor of Aarhaus , Denmark’s second city.

The successful political organisations of the future will be those that become talent scouts rather than gate-keepers ie those that can attract existing and potential activists to their cause and equip them with the political skills to become successful community representatives. Nor is this a theroetical discussion. The LGA have fought a brilliant campaign to secure for councils the lead role in Childrens services. To live up to this expectation political parties have to find the best and the brightest in our communities to undertake this role as lead members and manage hugely important relationships both within and external to the council ( the run up to the County Council Elections in 2005 may be a good time to start).

But it’s not just up to Political Parties. Local councils have a critical role in retaining any new influx of talented councillors and not only for altruistic reasons. The Audit Commission as well as the Social Services Inspectorate and OFSTED have all recently highlighted the importance of political leadership to service delivery. Councils have to invest in development and member support to find the talented political leaders of the future.

If we are to successfully challenge the born leader fallacy and the boorish tendancy then we need high quality and relevant development programmes. The Leadership Academy launched by the IDeA and sponsored by BT provides just such an opportunity and is transforming the accepted view of local political leadership as well as developing new networks for political leaders across the political spectrum. As part of its successful expansion The ‘Fastack’ programme for councillors under 35 aims to provide the same opportunity for future leaders and the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Programme is an overdue attempt to attract the undoubted talent that exists in these communities into mainstream political leadership. Local Councils and political parties should be saying that any councillor who aspires to political leadership has to be willing to attend the Leadership Academy or equivalent executive programmes.

Councils also must invest in the scrutiny role. Professor John Stewart, the spiritual guru of local democracy, has talked of councillors becoming ‘tribunes of the people’. The scrutiny role, properly developed and resourced and with access to independant research and advice, can allow the 17,000 non executive councillors to develop this role not only in relation to council services but also for the whole range of public services in a locality.

None of this will come cheap but if we want talented and capable members we have to provide appropriate support and advice for all councillors and especially for their advocacy and representational role.

One final lesson for local government. Every Chief Executive and senior manager should have a notice in their office saying ‘Member Time is Precious’. I am constantly amazed at some of the activities highly skilled and busy councillors are asked to undertake by their councils. The IDeA launched a National Charter for Member Development and one of its suggestion is a annual member only discussion on how effectively their time has been used. Some imagination is required. Whereas video and telephone conferencing are facts of modern life not one council in the country uses either for its member meetings. In large authorities members can spend hours travelling when at least some of the meetings could be conducted from local offices with video links.

And finally to Central Government where the lesson is clear. You have to put your trust in local democracy. Clearly this means ensuring more ‘freedoms and responsibilities starting with the excellent councils but rolling out to all local councils. Ultimately it also means that local democracy is only meaningful when local councils have discretion over the majority of their funding. The present bizarre situation where local government controls less than 20% of its overall funding is a recent phenomenon introduced in the post poll tax fiasco in 1993 and is not sustainable in the long term. If we want capable and talented people to give their time and energy to local democracy we have to give them a real job with real responsibilities.

So all in all its an impressive and demanding agenda for change. One thought could be why bother?
It’s a lot of work and will cause tensions, particularly for political parties, in the short term. Surely we can muddle along as we are for a few more years and hope for the best. However comfortable as that option is let’s just look at some of the opportunity costs for local and central government.

For local government the danger is that unless we attract members of talent and ambition it will be increasingly difficult to defend local democracy. There is already a whispering campaign asking do we really need 21,000 elected members with falling electorate turnouts. If the political process cannot produce talent and diversity for governance roles then don’t be surprised if the advocates of the appointed state seize the opportunity to widen their area of influence.

However there are also clear dangers for central government especially in the present rush to create alternative centres of local democracy to the local authority. A range of local boards whether for hospitals, police or leisure services risk creating a series of ‘producer advocates’ each claiming their own ‘mini mandates’ for extra resources. The long term improvement of public services needs competent local political leadership which can help deliver joined up local services and value for money scrutiny. All this could be lost in a fog of local turf wars around competing mandates.

Generally you only appreciate something when its gone. Let’s not make that mistake about local democracy.

Paul Wheeler
8th November 2004