Standard bearers for democracy
South Tyneside’s democratic services team has made huge efforts to reach out to the wider community to boost democratic engagement.Its success made it the winner of The MJ’s Excellence in Democratic Services Achievement of the Year Award for 2011. Michael Burton meets the winning team.
Too often, ‘democratic services’ is regarded as a corporate, ‘back office’ function.
But in South Tyneside, the team has taken it out to the wider community, regarding it as a frontline service and an integral part of the council’s relationship with its residents.
The work of the council’s democratic services team so impressed judges of The MJ’s Excellence in Democratic Services Achievement of the Year category in the 2011 awards that they made the team the winner.
South Tyneside MBC’s democratic services, which includes committee and members’ support, the elections and registration and civic support, employs 38 staff supporting 54 councillors. There are three civic centres in the borough, including historic South Shields Town Hall, completed in 1910.
Chief executive, Martin Swales, said the council had made £35m savings this year, but described democratic services as a key priority for improving links with residents which the award win recognised.
He said: ‘I’m a South Tynesider. I grew up here. And when I became chief I did a walkabout with the members and decided we wanted to connect democratic services more directly with the communities.’
He praised the team headed by Ann Best, the service leader, who has been with the team since 2004, adding: ‘For the team and the council, at a time of dramatic change and cost reductions, the award is recognition that we’re also improving the service and support to members and residents.
‘It is also a great recognition for the democratic services team, which has gone through huge change.’
Democratic services are also tied into the council’s area management structure which covers key services such as housing, community safety, and streetscene.
He continued: ‘The MJ award recognises that there is a new and different way of doing things. What used to be seen as a central governance support is now regarded as linking into the real needs of the community.’
Ms Best described her reasons for entering The MJ’s awards, saying: ‘We felt the work needed to be recognised, and it was a culmination of a year of activities. Since the win, we’ve been congratulated from far and wide and have had other councils approaching us.’
The team includes Neil Simpson, senior democratic support officer, who has been involved in delivery of the democratic engagement process. Patrick Melia is the corporate director, business and area management, which is where democratic services sits.
Brian Springthorpe, Gary Shaw, Janet Mankin and Sian Foster-Purvis are all democratic support officers who, as well as their committee support work, have helped develop the team’s activities.
Valerie Stephenson is the elections and registration team manager, and Joanne Gelson is the senior elections officer. Both have been involved in promoting the importance of voting and getting registered to vote, while Simone Birt is members support officer.
The team is also supported by Cllr Alan Kerr, lead member for democratic renewal, who has taken part in most of its outreach work and special events, and has been a champion of its approach to democratic services.
Ms Best’s entry to the awards described some of the team’s innovations, including its interactive and bespoke local democracy sessions in schools and community settings. This includes information on what the council does, and how people can influence decisions being made.
The team also creates opportunities for councillors to explain their role to young people with a view to encouraging them to contact their councillor – or even become one, when they are older. The team has also had training in British sign language after inviting deaf people to explain to them the barriers to being engaged in local democracy.
Other initiatives include:
- an annual inter-generational debate chaired by the mayor and involving the chairs of the Young People’s Parliament and Forum 50 (older people’s parliament), as well as councillors, which is open to the public
- training sessions for staff on working in a political environment as part of the council’s ‘capable managers’ programme
- a democracy roadshow to community events throughout the year
- a dynamic democracy event.
The council also receives regular requests from other councils across the UK wanting to find out more about how to operate community area forums, scrutiny, or other aspects of democratic engagement. The team has also been asked to host interactive workshops at conferences.
In 2010, the centenary of South Shields Town Hall was an opportunity to showcase it as a focus of civic pride with events. John Austin, chairman of ADSO, the award sponsors, said: ‘I would like to congratulate South Tyneside on winning this award. They faced strong competition from all the other short listed entries but the judges were particularly impressed with their enthusiasm and commitment to stretching the boundaries of the democratic services role in the local community. They are a credit to democratic services.’
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