Karin Bottom, Catherine Mangan and Thom Oliver
This month saw the ‘Communities and Local Government Committee’ release its report on the role of the modern councillor. Focusing on the impact of the Localism Act (and associated developments in recent years), Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Committee, suggested that local representatives are now spending less time in council and more in the community. As a result, they now shoulder the majority of responsibility for ensuring that that their local communities have the tools to make the most of the localities in which they live. While the Report’s findings held few surprises, it did suggest that those we elect to be the local democratic voice of our communities must embrace this challenge and meet it head on. This position resonates with early findings from an INLOGOV project concerned with local engagement and the role of the local representative.
Firmly grounded in the belief that councillors’ responsibilities and remits vary, the current climate suggests they require a more nuanced and responsive skill set than ever. In this sense, elected representatives must be outward looking, open to new ideas and welcoming of new approaches, but they must take care not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Instead, our research suggests that what councillors need to do is integrate new learning into their existing repertoire of behaviours, while at the same time being more dynamic and responsive in their increasingly frontline role.[i]
For respondents, one of the main challenges they felt they faced was engagement. Whereas it is natural for all councillors to ‘do engagement’, a variety of approaches were evident in our research and for those who had moved into executive positions, the role shift was accompanied by community activities having to be curtailed. Respondents were very clear that the Localism Act was beginning to have an impact, for example in the mediating role that has now been allocated to councillors: this meant developing skills as a community organiser and ultimately being on top of a great volume of information while managing a number of resources and contacts. This form of community engagement, though hard, was thought to have clear rewards: a number saw the benefits of having shared aims and a deeper understanding of the people they represented, which in turn provided greater insight into the experience of being on the receiving end of council services; in contrast others thought wider community engagement created opportunities to lead opinion and ultimately change behaviour, for example one councillor worked with environmental groups to shape the ward’s attitude towards refuse collections and recycling.
Our interviews also surfaced information suggesting that that the majority of traditional communication methods continue alongside a slow evolution to greater online engagement and use of social media. While one councillor referred to sending regular email shots and creating a web page to articulate local information, activities and updates, another described how Facebook had enabled him to engage with people – often young people – who generally chose not to participate in politics and local policy conversations. Finally, a number of councillors explained that twitter enabled them to aggregate opinions en mass, engage in debates and learn information they would otherwise be unaware of, while some with cabinet responsibilities stated that this particular medium was unique in that it enabled them to keep on top of their portfolio while also providing opportunities to build and consolidate relationships they would otherwise not have had time to address..
One factor that was evident in almost every interview was that councillors always needed to be aware of the bigger picture: different methods worked in different situations and knowing a ward’s story or the history behind a particular community group could make the difference between successful and unsuccessful engagement. Just because a particular approach might work in one instance, there is no assurance it will work in another, despite apparent similarities. So, while councillors may see their responsibilities increasing and their community role broadening, it is vital that they maintain depth in their representative activities: if they don’t, potentially successful initiatives run the risk of failing.
The authors are grateful to the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, for providing funds to assist in this research. With thanks also to NLGN for their contribution to this work. For further information about the research project, contact Karin A. Bottom: firstname.lastname@example.org
Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory. She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.
Catherine Mangan is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV. Her interests include public sector re-design, outcomes based commissioning and behaviour change. Prior to joining INLOGOV she managed the organisational development and change work for a not-for-profit consultancy, specialising in supporting local government; and has also worked for the Local Government Association, and as Deputy Director of the County Councils Network. She specialises in adult social care, children’s services and partnerships.
Thom Oliver is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes Business School. He completed his PhD, exploring the representative role of councillors on appointed bodies, at INLOGOV in 2011. He currently lives in Bristol and has recently rejoined INLOGOV as an Associate. Follow his Twitter account here, and read his own blog here.
[i] Research to date provides initial findings from interviews in three councils (one London Borough and two Metropolitan). Interviews comprised a broad mix of age, seniority, roles and experience. Approximately equivalent numbers of men and women were interviewed.