An Open Letter to Newly Elected Councillors

Congratulations on your election. After weeks of canvassing and campaigning it must be good to know it’s all paid off. If you are also part of a winning group taking power for the first time then the taste of victory must be particularly sweet.

It’s an exciting time for new members but remember you have up to four years to make your mark. So who is going to influence your career as a member? Well broadly defined there are three groups of people who are going to matter to you; members, managers and the wider public. Let’s have a look at them in turn.

Take some time to get to know your fellow members both in your own group and across the council. After all you are going to be spending a lot of time with them over the next four years. More so, unless you’re one of the handful of councils with a directly elected Mayor, your political career will depend on gaining the support and confidence of other members of your group. Why bother with opposition members? Well if you’re a front line councillor (ie not one of the ten executive members) then you will be working with all councillors in the overview and scrutiny role. Getting results in this arena will depend critically on working well with all members. Councillors, like any group of volunteers, are a mixed bunch with varying degrees of motivation and interest. There will be times when the behaviour of some really frustrates you. However, unless someone is corrupt or a bully do not report them to the Standards Board in a political ‘tit for tat’ campaign. Most issues of behaviour should really be resolved within the group or the council with an emphasis on improvement rather than punishment. Involving the Standards Board just means giving public money to lawyers.

If your council has changed political control then expect managers and especially senior managers to be very nervous. However it is a mistake to regard them as the enemy. Most managers want to do a professional job and will appreciate clarity and direction regarding your policies. If senior managers have nightmares about the elections it’s much more likely to be about having no single party in charge. More to the point if you want to have a successful and well regarded council then you will need high quality and talented managers. This is particularly important if you want to extend your influence as councillors over other parts of the local state (we will be coming back to this point). So treat managers with a firm but professional approach. If its apparent that some of them can’t work for you then they will move on as part of their own career development. Try and make sure such moves are mutual. Forcing managers out is a messy and very expensive process.

So that leaves the public. Well the good news is that, in as much as they like any politicians, they like councillors. They certainly trust you more than MPs and also interestingly more than your managers (source as always MORI). However apart from a general desire to ‘speak up for them’ they are pretty hazy on what you actually do. So there is a real need to profile and promote your role both within the council and within the locality. Time spent in your wards and in the wider community leadership role is time well spent.

Not that I want to depress you so early on in your councillor career but some of the public confusion is due to the fact that your powers and responsibilities have been diminished over the years. Even in a period of increased public spending central government prefers to spend this money through a maze of quangos and national agencies. In fact a recent survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that District Councils are responsible for just 5% of public spending in their locality. It’s a bit better for first tier councils but still over 60% of all public spending is controlled by locally unaccountable organisations (does anyone know who is the Chair of their Learning and Skills Agency?). Such a situation is unsustainable in the long term but it’s up to local government and its national organisations to make the case for local public spending to be more influenced and directed by locally accountable and elected representatives (ie you!). You might want to start by having a look at your local Primary Care Trusts (especially in London where the boundaries are the same as your council). The administration of public health would benefit enormously from local knowledge and political intelligence and the opportunity for some joined up services.

So having sorted out everyone else what about you? Some of you will think your abilities as a born leader and the recent endorsement of the electorate are all you to be effective community representatives. Others (the really clever ones) will realise you need help and support. Some will come from your council especially around IT skills and the general councillor role. Some may come from your political party in terms of political skills (although apart from the Liberal Democrats they are a bit patchy) There are some excellent national organisations too such as the Centre for Public Scrutiny and for those of you in new executive positions the IDeA Leadership Academy is a must. Wherever the support and advice comes from, take advantage of it. I know there are huge problems of time especially if you have a job and family too but local democracy needs capable and talented councillors to be role models in the new debate on new powers and funding for local government (it also helps the case for higher member allowances too!)

So I hope you enjoy your new role. Local politics is messy and unpredictable but it’s the best form of public service around.