Paul O'Brien 31 March 2015

Joining the dots of local democracy

What does the average councillor do with his or her time? Do councillors think they can contribute personally to improvements in services? Has the introduction of the cabinet and scrutiny system made local democracy more transparent? These were some of the questions our research among local government elected members set out to consider.

Almost 2,600 councillors took part in the research by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), the Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort University and Centre for Local and Regional Government Research at Cardiff University. Repeating questions first asked in a survey conducted in 2003 enabled our research team to evaluate long term changes in practices and attitudes since the introduction of the Labour government's political modernisation agenda.

The average councillor spends 27 hours a week on authority business, the survey found, with executive members spending ten hours more than non-executive members on average. So how do councillors spend their time on duty?

The survey revealed a divergence in the everyday tasks upon which executive and non-executive members tend to focus. Non-executive councillors tend to devote a high proportion of their time to scrutinising services, acting as a source of ideas for their ward and being the first point of call for residents in their wards.

This grass roots role is distinguished from more influential and strategic responsibilities, with over half of the executive members in the poll spending a high proportion of their time 'matching community needs and aspirations' and 'communicating and explaining council decisions' and almost 40% saying they spend high proportion of their time advising officers.

While the vast majority of councillors believe partnerships are increasingly important, 39% devote a high proportion of their time to partnership work, 20% spend a high proportion of their time representing the authority on other public bodies and only 9% working with regional and national government agencies.

As well as differences in what they do, there also appears to be a schism in views on local democracy between executive members and those in 'backbench' roles. The study found attitudes were split according to roles rather than party lines and shadow executives had more in common with executive members than non-executives within their own party. This led the local government experts who analysed the results to identify the existence of 'two tribes' among local politicians - with opinions on matters including local government political structures and capacity to improve services split along executive and non-executive lines.

A worrying finding from the poll was that two out of every three non-executive members thought the modernisation agenda, implemented twelve years previously, had marginalised their role. The report, Two tribes? Exploring the future role of elected members, also suggests that fiscal austerity has dented councillors' belief in their capacity to further improve services, with a dramatic fall in confidence since our 2003 survey.

Again there was a big divide – whilst almost 75% of councillors overall thought their authority was committed to service improvement, 87% of cabinet members believed they personally could contribute to improvements whereas only 43% of backbenchers believed they could contribute.

The results of this study suggest that while non-executive members can offer a crucial connection between local residents, front-line services and accountability, this contribution does not seem to be sufficiently recognised at present. The research echoes well-documented concerns about the lack of diversity among local authority elected members as the average age of respondents was 60, less than one in three were women and only four percent were from an ethnic minority.

The study also found that elected representatives are engaging extensively with social media, which has made them increasingly accessible but risks placing increasing demands upon them. It concluded that serving as a local government elected member is difficult, though not impossible, for people with work and family responsibilities.

All of this suggests that local democracy needs to be reinvigorated and the contribution of councillors who are serving their communities well at grassroots but feel marginalised from decision-making needs to be better recognised. There are no easy answers to complex local governance challenges. But it is clear that collective dialogue on governance needs to move beyond narrow discussions of political structures and consider the fundamental purpose of local government.

Our report on the future role of elected members suggests that developing an 'ensuring ethos' – which is grounded in a set of principles that genuinely advances local political leadership and democratic accountability – could help trigger the constructive dialogue that is required.

The 'Ensuring Council' vision was developed by APSE and research partners during a year-long project on the future of local government. The ensuring ethos means the fundamental role of local government should be to ensure the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of the local area.

It suggests the way to achieve this is linking strategic decision-making with retention of a core capacity to deliver frontline services. Taking an ensuring approach could, in our view, ultimately, help revitalise local democracy by joining strategy with delivery and placing service provision at the heart of local democracy.

While the research needs to be understood in the broader context within which elected members are operating, it highlights the fact that it is time to consider how elected members in all roles can be better connected with strategic decisions.

Paul O'Brien is chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE)

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Click here to register for your free copy.

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