Councillors: Engage more and engage differently, but not at the expense of the basics

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: k.a.bottom@bham.ac.uk

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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.

Portrait of OPM staff member

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.

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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.

Elected Mayors: The Wrong Solution to the Wrong Problem

Catherine Durose

Only one eligible voter in every three participated in the local elections in May 2012, the lowest turnout since 2000 and despite a context of austerity and swingeing public spending cuts. The recent elections for Police and Crime Commissioners saw turnout slump to a record low for a national poll, averaging at 15%. To quote a Guardian editorial, ‘lack of engagement is the most eloquent of all the political messages…. and one that the parties need to take most seriously. Voters are fed up, not fired up’. Collapsing turnout is perceived as part of a wider decline in traditional forms of political participation, this trend has been labelled as a ‘democratic deficit’ and it is this ‘problem’ that elected mayors are seen as offering a fix to by as simplifying local democratic accountability and offering greater visibility for citizens.

In the referenda held in May 2012, the rejection of elected mayors was near unanimous. The average turnout was low at 32% with over 60% of those who participated, voting for the status quo. The turnout can be, in part, explained by the uncertainty and confusion amongst the electorate about what they were being asked to vote on (the powers which elected mayors would have was, and remains, unclear). But, the size of the ‘no’ vote suggests, at the least, a lack of enthusiasm about electing more politicians. Indeed, voters in Hartlepool have now decided to scrap the position of a directly elected mayor after three terms of office.

Bristol is an exception, by a narrow margin of 7%, it was the only one of the ten cities to vote in favour of an elected mayor. Yet, the Bristol mayoral election, held on 15 November 2012, only received a turnout of 27.92%. Of the fifteen candidates who contested the elections, only one was female and one was non-white. The newly elected mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, whilst depicting himself as an independent, has previously sat as a Liberal councillor and contested a seat at two General Elections for the Liberal Democrats.

In thinking about why citizens are ‘fed up’ with local democracy and why the idea of elected mayors was a turn-off, perhaps we should take a look at those contesting and winning these elections. As in Bristol, mayors do not represent a radical departure from the professionalised political class or indeed the mainstream political parties which citizens are increasingly dis-engaged from: Boris Johnson in London, Ian Stewart in Salford and Peter Soulsby in Leicester, are all former MPs; Joe Anderson in Liverpool is a former Leader of the council.

I would argue that elected mayors are the wrong solution to the wrong problem. The currently proposed fixes in the constitutional reform agenda, including elected mayors, to deal with the ‘democratic deficit’, are clearly not producing changes which citizens are interested in engaging with. Perhaps this is because the assumption that underpins such fixes – that citizens are apathetic about politics – is incorrect. If we challenge this thinking, then many of the proposed fixes seem like the wrong solution to the wrong problem. If we instead recognise that many people feel that representative politics doesn’t represent them or indeed engage with the important issues that affect their everyday lives, then a different problem with a potentially different solution emerges.

One means of responding to a decline in traditional forms of political participation is to offer different opportunities to engage democratically. Broadening the range of democratic engagement fits with re-thinking what citizenship means: it’s less a ‘status’ which people possess and more a ‘practice’ that people participate in. Looking at data on levels of different forms of civic activity in the UK suggests there is a healthy base of existing participation and an appetite for more. The Hansard Audit of Political Engagement suggested that 14% of people are already active, but 51% felt that getting involved could make a difference; 14% of these were considered as ‘willing localists’, people who were not actively involved but were willing and likely to do so locally.

But how can we tap into this latent demand? First, local authorities and other public bodies need to stop ‘second-guessing’ citizens.  Recent research highlighted that whilst two thirds of local councils felt that the community would be unmotivated to participate more locally, less than 20% of them had formally assessed communities’ interest.  Second, we need to acknowledge that a lot of current opportunities for ‘participation’ replicate some of the problems of local representative democracy by acting as ‘mini town halls’ offering only tokenistic consultation of citizens, failing to recognise Sherry Arnstein’s seminal observation that “there is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process”. Third, to look for alternative ways to mobilise citizens and communities. I recently attended Locality’s annual convention – the organisation now recruiting and training 500 senior community organisers, along with a further 4,500 part-time voluntary organisers, over four years spent working with community host organisations. For Locality, this initiative is about ‘building a movement’. Speaking to organisers, they see their challenge as mobilising social action and generating a sense that change is possible. I have seen the impact of organising first-hand in Chicago, and it was inspiring to hear the impact the programme is already making there. If an elected mayor is to make a difference to local democracy, it won’t be as a visible manifestation of Politics, it will be about embracing and supporting these new social movements.

Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer and Director of Research in the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.  Catherine’s research focuses on the changing relationships between the state, communities and citizens.

A ‘no’ vote for city mayors does not have to shut down discussion on how local political leadership can be strengthened

Dr. Karin Bottom

Last week, ten English cities voted on whether  to alter the dynamics of leadership in their authorities and replace the current leader and cabinet formula with that of elected mayor, deputy and cabinet.  The rejection was almost unanimous, only Bristol registered a yes vote – but with a majority of less than seven per cent – and more than 60% of voters in Coventry, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield and Wakefield   prioritised the status quo above change.   To some this outcome was a surprise, yet  polls prior to the referenda were inconclusive at best and taken in conjunction with the uncertainty surrounding elected mayors, it is hardly surprising that the majority of the electorate chose to stay at home or vote no, average turnout being recorded at a particularly  low 32 per cent.

With a focus on what the office of mayor could do to regenerate cities  and enhance local democracy,  ‘yes’ campaigns were beset with problems from the  start, not least for the reason that pre election, the role of the elected mayor was to be broadly similar to that of council leader: specifics were to be negotiated after taking office and worryingly for some, a substantial amount of the role’s leverage would be the product of personality and an ability to maximise what are often termed as ‘soft’  powers.  Compounding these factors, the office’s confinement to cities – as opposed to regions – suggested that capacity for real change was somewhat more limited than proponents suggested.

Analysis in the aftermath of the referenda suggests that a number of factors contributed to the ‘no’ votes but it  is clear that the overriding sentiments within the electorate were uncertainty and confusion.  Voters were unsure about what they were being asked to endorse or reject and some argue that this explains why the   ‘no’ campaigns were particularly successful at tapping into and harnessing public sentiment.  Taken in the context of austerity, ongoing public service cuts and a generalised dissatisfaction with the political class, it is easy to speculate and suggest that the electorate was unenthusiastic about electing more politicians, especially when the nature of the role was unclear and guidelines for removing poorly performing mayors were minimal to say the very least: to many the office seemed nothing other than a risky and unnecessary expense.

Yet, the results on May 3rd should not shut down discussion on local political leadership. The mayoral model may have been rejected but the issue has not gone away; arguments for stronger more visible city leadership persist and the government has made it clear that it now sees the move towards elected mayors as incremental, cumulative and progressive: in this sense the debate continues.  Yet, now it might be useful to shift the focus somewhat and think about how leadership can be nurtured and maximised in the 339 non mayoral authorities in England because there is nothing to suggest that the qualities which comprise strong leadership sit only within the purview of  an elected mayor.  While  Joe Anderson and Ian Stewart take up their new mayoral posts  in Liverpool and Salford, they do so alongside 124 other English authorities which also underwent some form of political reconfiguration last week: it will be interesting to see  whether  the issues which catalysed the mayoral referenda will impact on future leadership dynamics in those local  authorities.

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.

Go Back to Committees – and Use All the Talent of Elected Councillors

Andrew Coulson

A recent centre spread in the LGC has the headline “Committee System may be Outdated, Councils Warned”, even though the option to return to government by committees is one of the main planks of the Localism Act and a central plank of Conservative and especially LibDem policy.

The research reported on, by Ed Hammond of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, reports that four councils are expected to make the change in May 2012.  There will also be some “hybrid” arrangements, such as that likely to come into effect in Kent, where advisory committees are given greatly strengthened powers, even though technically decisions will remain in the hands of individual cabinet members, and the cabinet, though that is not expected to meet very often.

Up to 40 councils are believed to be giving serious consideration to making the change, including some of those where there will be mayoral referenda on 3 May.  If those referenda are lost, some of these councils may well revert to committee governance in May 2013.

Why?  Because, as they see it, committees are much more inclusive than any other form of governance. They give a voice to all the elected councillors, and potentially bring to the table all their talents. They make it harder to take decisions in secret. They give councillors a means of putting into effect the commitments they make when they stand for election, and they keep council officers on their toes because they can never be quite sure what will happen when they attend a committee – even if most of the major changes that might be made to a report will have been agreed in the group meeting of a majority party beforehand.  They also allow backbench councillors to specialise, and provide a means to induct them into how council services are run. They develop leadership – many strong leaders emerged over the years from the committee system.

This is not to say that committees were perfect or are inevitably the best solution. They can, and often were, criticised – for being slow to make decisions, leaving it unclear who was responsible for decisions, and for sustaining silos (such as Education authorities) which at times seemed to have little involvement with other parts of the council.  The criticisms can be answered. The committee system can be fast, and keep confidences, when it matters. With a cabinet, or indeed an elected mayor, leadership is still distributed – with chief executives or chief officers often the real leaders. Silos can be broken down if there is the political will to do so. But none of this is easy, and there were plenty of disillusioned and frustrated councillors and officers in the past. All we can say with confidence is that no system is perfect and that each council needs to work out what is best for its own purposes.

There are different forms of committee systems, ranging from a single committee with important decisions taken in full council (as in a number of the present Fourth Option councils, with populations less than 85,000, who have never given up their committees) to the massively complex structures in some counties and metropolitan districts before 2000 which had committees or sub-committees for almost everything that a councillor could become involved in – over 50 in total in one case. No-one is proposing to go back to that.

There have to be means of dealing with cross-cutting issues, urgent business between meetings, the size of committees and sub-committees, how often they meet, systems of councillors’ allowances, and policy review, to take but some of the issues of detail that must be addressed. Scrutiny will for most councils remain a function that needs to be done, and there are different ways of integrating it into a committee system. Maybe there is much to be said for not rushing into making the changes, and learning from what is happening now.

A day workshop at INLOGOV on 6 July will present a balanced picture and facilitate a discussion of the pros and cons of making the change and the detail issues that need to be taken into account in any new constitution.  Several of the councils making the change will be represented or make presentations. Ed Hammond, the researcher who wrote the Centre for Public Scrutiny report, will speak.  There will be comment from the Local Government Association, and support from FOSIG, the group that represents fourth option councils.

It will provide a unique opportunity to listen to the enthusiasts for making a change, and cross question them, and to understand the alternatives, and the possible downsides,  and the need to address the detail.  More about this workshop, including a booking form, can be found by clicking here.

Dr. Andrew Coulson is Lead Consultant on Overview and Scrutiny at INLOGOV,University of Birmingham, with wide experience of Overview and Scrutiny.  He has recently launched one of the first assessed qualifications on the subject.  His further research interests include partnerships and governance, economic and environmental strategies, and local government in Central and Eastern Europe.

An elected mayor for Birmingham?

On May 3rd, the people of Birmingham will decide if they want a directly elected mayor and if so, on 15th November they’ll decide who they want. There has been so much debate about what an elected mayor could achieve for Birmingham and the West Midlands, perhaps it is a good time to look at the evidence and compare it to the aspirations.

Do mayoral authorities perform better? Audit Commission performance data show that some mayoral authorities did improve significantly between 2005 and 2007. For example, North Tyneside and Hackney rose from ‘poor’ to ‘3 star’. This may well demonstrate the benefits of strong leadership and accountability for councils which historically had poor political leadership but correlation is not the same as causation. Many non-mayoral authorities also improved at the same time and there were exceptions to the pattern of improvement in mayoral authorities.  Doncaster and Stoke spring to mind.  Stoke is a complex story  but Doncaster is a classic example of how poor leadership and bad behaviour on the part of an elected mayor can undermine a town – whose residents turned to an elected mayor in the hope of a new start but merely replaced widespread corruption with wholesale under-performance and negligence.

Does directly accountable leadership make a difference? Research suggests that mayors have been able to use their personal leadership to good effect but so have the leaders of non-mayoral authorities.  Some cities and city regions such as Manchester and Leeds have done well in spite of not having a mayor. 

What can a mayor do for Birmingham and the West Midlands? Birmingham has long been perceived as an underperforming city, partly because of local political and economic history and partly because of regional issues such as a traditional resistance on the part of the other six  West Midlands councils to Birmingham exerting ‘too much’ influence. You can hear the hackles rise as potential mayoral candidates set out their region-wide ambitions for the role.

Cities are complex constructs: where does the city of Birmingham end and the West Midlands region begin? Many proponents of the benefits of elected mayors, such as Lord Heseltine, who has been making the case since 1991, and Lord Adonis talk about the benefits of regional or metro-mayors.  But that isn’t the model we’re getting here, in contrast to the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner, who’ll be elected on the same day with a region-wide remit.

What can mayors do? The powers of mayors under Local Government Act 2000 are limited: to be elected for four years, to decide the size and membership of the cabinet and delegation of powers and to set the budget and strategic policy framework of the council, which can be rejected by a two thirds of the council members.  Hardly a demagogues’ charter!

So what can a mayor do for Birmingham that a council leader can’t do? Under the Localism Act 2011, the Coalition Government is planning to devolve some ‘local public functions’ to councils. Cities will bid for new powers and freedoms on; economic growth, infrastructure, housing, planning and skills and employment.  Cities with mayors will automatically be considered for these new powers and freedoms because they can demonstrate ‘strong, accountable leadership’ – but they will not be granted automatically.

Might it be better to focus attention on the local, regional and national barriers to achievement in Birmingham and the West Midlands and tackle them collectively, rather than expecting the mayor to overcome them alone by heroism and enormous force of personality?  It’s a big ask.

Catherine StaiteCatherine Staite (Director of INLOGOV)
Catherine provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.