Council officers as local democracy makers

Philip Lloyd-Williams

To what extent does the lack of training and development of senior officers at local councils impact on the practice of local democracy? Can ‘democracy’ even be taught? It’s a question that has been with me for a while. I have no answers but can offer some personal reflections following research I undertook into the role of senior officers in managing local democracy. From personal knowledge I knew that Chief Executives and Directors of local authorities advised, negotiated and shaped not only the delivery of services but also how citizens engaged with their Councils. As a result, I saw them as what I termed Local Democracy Makers as they held a position of influence and authority which could impact democratic practice – so I decided to have a more detailed look.

Much has changed in local government in the last 20 years. We now have Executive decision making structures with fewer Councillors being involved as decision makers. Commonly services are delivered in partnership or from commissioned providers, often on long term contracts with opaque accountability arrangements. However, what is often mentioned when local government is discussed is the challenge of engaging and connecting with communities, inspiring interest in elections, bucking the trend of low turnout for voting and the senior age profile of Councillors. Securing the democratic mandate and involvement (however it is defined or described) is still considered an integral part of local government. Thus, local democracy is of importance and how it is then shaped, moulded and operated matters. The senior officers as Local Democracy Makers have a powerful and authoritative position in the organisation of local government to have a material bearing on the way local democracy is discharged locally.

Senior officers are well versed and often highly trained in management but there is little training or teaching in the management of political relationships or local Democracy. It’s mostly ‘on the job training’ which in turn influences how the senior officers behave as Local Democracy Makers. I interviewed and observed senior officers interacting with the politicians and I discovered that, unsurprisingly, their own world view of politics, localities and democracy would inform how they enabled and restricted local democracy. Often, the heavy hand of regulation, managerialism, audit and the management of risk would result in a narrow view of how local decisions should be informed by local people. Other elites had several deep political scars that made them suspicious of allowing a more deliberative democratic practice. For certain, the push to achieve a good ranking in performance, financial management and consumer reputation has the effect of marginalising the place of local democracy. Perhaps such findings are to be expected, but when they have an impact on how democracy is practiced it becomes more acute.

So, are we doing enough to raise awareness of the impacts of management arrangements on democratic practice? My research tells me that not enough discussion, debate and possibly training is given to the principles of local democracy in the management and administration of local services. It suggests to me that too much emphasis is placed on the ‘management’ abilities and not enough of the importance of democracy. Like it or not, senior officers in local government act as Local Democracy Makers and we need to actively support them in this role.


Philip’s doctorate from the University of Aston was on the role of local authority officials as ‘makers of democracy’. His career has given him extensive experience of working with elected representatives in local government as a Solicitor. He is an INLOGOV Associate Member and contributes to its Management Development programmes.

3 thoughts on “Council officers as local democracy makers

  1. Philip
    Some good points in this but seeing it from the perspective of members other issues arise. From my own experience in being locally elected and from discussions with other members one of the frustrating things that prevents senior officers from being Local Democracy Makers is that offiers operate within the context of managerialism and rarely share the same sense of ‘place’ that many (not all Cllrs) have. The point of interaction between the elected and the employed therfore becomes a distorted discouse. Perhaps why community leadership is seem differently by members and officers?

  2. Very thoughtful piece Philip. On the odd occasions that I still work in local authorities I am still struck by the parallel universes occupied by professionally trained staff and elected members. It is now over 40 years since I first encountered the relative ignorance of professional staff of what makes an elected member tick and the implications of their progress through the local democratic system for the decisions professional advisers ask them to make. There is rarely commitment to experiential learning which would broaden the horizons of council staff in terms of the key players in the democratic process of which they are part.

  3. The theory is that Officers give best advice and elected Members try to make political sense of this. Reality clearly demonstrates the opposite.

    Consider that every attempt to democratise Council services has foundered. Then ask why?

    There is no lack of experiential learning – after all, every Council employee lives within the same parameters that afflict and effect the rest of the population.

    I suspect that it may derive from a deep-rooted conviction on both parts that officers know best. In between, the people that pay are ignored and abused.

    Better education, welfare, housing, health, environment, employment and matter to everyone. In my experience, the best elected Members focus on these matters.

    Perversly, Officers focus on process, conformity and the ubiquitous assessment from above. All of this in a climate of hatred for any idea of local democracy.

    no wonder people are disengaged.

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