A month or so after the council elections, many newly-elected first time councillors will be wondering what they have taken on.
The initial elation (or in some cases surprise and shock at having been elected) will be receding, to be replaced with the need to undertake the duties and fulfil the responsibilities of office.
I believe that being an elected councillor is a privilege and an honour. It is a role deserving of commitment and serious application. Of course, it should also be rewarding – and even fun – but at the right times.
Councillors elected in May will now almost certainly know what committees they will serve on for the coming year. They should also know what internal and external roles (both in and on behalf of the local authority and their political group) they are going to be undertaking. Hopefully, they will have taken the opportunity to take part in induction, familiarisation and training programmes organised by their authority (and perhaps by their political group).
They will be developing relations with colleagues (though these may have existed already through political parties and other routes) and with council officials. These will take time to mature and for practical understanding and trust to be established.
My counsel is to start with the premise that officials are to be trusted and are committed to both public services and meeting their legal responsibilities in a non-partisan manner. Also, assume that colleagues on your side of the political divide and from across the floor will (with few exceptions) be in their places because of a desire to serve their communities. Those councillors who are not primarily motivated to serve the community will soon be easily identified by their new colleagues.
As the summer advances, there are some important decisions and actions which newly elected councillors can consider – recognising that they can and should continuously be taking stock and adjusting these decisions/pursuing new actions wherever appropriate.
First and very importantly, I recommend determining the time that can realistically be applied to being a councillor to protect work/life balance, family and other relations and employment responsibilities. For those many councillors who are also in paid employment and who will need to reach agreement with employers about how they can meet their dual duties, employers will hopefully be as supportive as possible. But this will be more easily achieved if there is dialogue as early as possible. There is also a need to consider the balance of time to be deployed in the various duties and roles of being a councillor. This balance will change from time to time, but it is advisable to set some parameters.
Some newly elected councillors may wish to consider asking an experienced serving or former councillor to be their mentor, at least for the first year. Mind you, some councillors (including senior and experienced leaders) retain mentors throughout their tenure.
Over the next few weeks of the summer if they have not already done so, I suggest that newly elected councillors should read up on their chosen areas of policy in which they wish to specialise, and to meet relevant stakeholders to ensure that the council policy and performance reports, audit and inspection reports and wider published material is augmented by the direct experience and feedback from those involved in (or on the receiving end) of every aspect of these policies.
Councillors must know what the council can realistically do through its competencies, powers and wider influence – the latter being vital as councils seek to live up to their leadership of place and place shaping roles.
Equally important for the new councillor is to ensure they understand the basics of local government finance and the financial state of their authority. Local government finance can seem daunting and hard to understand (it is) but councillors should never be ignorant of this crucial aspect of local government. Most council finance officers will explain and have accessible material to hand. Experienced councillors should share their knowledge on this and other issues too. And new councillors should press them to do so.
In terms of the written material (usually now available online, of course) it is vital to identify and decide what are going to be reliable and accessible sources. The demise of the Audit Commission left a void in data and information which could contribute to councillors being able to make judgements about their authority’s performance and to hold the leadership to account. Thankfully, there are other sources including inspectorates, auditors, trade unions, professional bodies, academia, think-tanks and voluntary sector/community organisations. No councillor should rely solely on her or his council for data, information or ideas.
In terms of being a ward councillor and consequently a community leader, it is vital the councillor is clear what these roles and responsibilities mean to them and how they plan to fulfil them. Where there are town and parish councils, new councillors should establish relations with relevant councillors, mayors, leaders and clerks. Throughout my time as a county councillor, I regularly attended parish and town council meetings and was offered a slot on their agendas to give a report and take questions. This was invaluable and enabled me, I believe, to be a more effective community representative. It also influenced my strategic thinking and role as a leader and group leader.
A key role as a ward councillor is to be accessible to residents, businesses, and community groups. This may be via surgeries, timely email correspondence and in other ways. The newly-elected councillor should (if they have not already done so) put these arrangements in place and widely promote them. They need a clear approach to use of social media as a means to have two way communication with their communities. They also need to be mindful of personal security – including online safety, avoidance of undue stress and physical risks. Councillors must ensure they have some downtime for themselves and those close to them.
Identifying and building relations with community groups and voluntary organisations is fundamental to being an effective ward councillor. It is critical the councillor respects the independence of such groups and does not seek to ‘tell’ them what to do or ignore them simply because she/he does not like what she/he is being told by such a group. Of course, a councillor will come to know which groups to listen to most and which have the best-informed advice and commentary to offer. This can take time and most councillors will have been community activists prior to their election so should be well placed to hone their approach. As with building relations with parish and town councils, these relations with community groups were invaluable and enabled me to be a more effective community representative. They too influenced my strategic thinking and role as a leader and group leader.
Councillors who have been elected on a ‘party ticket’ should remember and respect their accountability to the party though always ensuring this does not trump their electoral accountability. This means attending member meetings and reporting back; discussing ward and strategic council issues (and often taking counsel on these in advance of group meetings), and working with the local party to undertake ’doorstep’ activities to seek opinions and explain decisions. Again, political party activities need to be included in the councillor’s allocation and management of time.
To have been elected a councillor for the first or umpteenth time is always an honour and privilege. There are legal duties and responsibilities to fulfil but there is much more to being a councillor.
After the initial month or so in office, councillors elected this past May should be ready to make real the commitment to their communities and, as importantly, to champion those communities’ interests and foster their aspirations.
John Tizard is a former councillor and leader, and he is a strategic advisor and commentator