in Politics

What do councillors do?

I have been wondering exactly how you describe the role of a councillor for quite a while. This was partly prompted when a business owner in the borough recently asked where I fitted in relation to their Town Centre Manager (a council employee) and other Economic Development Office staff. And it’s also prompted by a bit of CV writing; being a councillor is not a full-time role, and I try to fill the rest of my time with some freelance work (not helped by the recession) so constantly tinker with my CV.

In turn, this post was prompted by a post on The Local Government Officer that declared ‘local government is a lot like cricket‘ and used the analogy to categorise various types of councillor (thanks to Ingrid Koehler at the Policy and Performance blog for highlighting it).  The comparison is fairly simple, essentially batsman have the vision and drive the council forward, bowlers scrutinise the batsman and keep an eye on what they are doing and fielders are the community based politicians dealing with casework.  It is an interesting analogy.

The MP/Councillor comparison
A more commonly used comparison is with Parliament, and to see councillors as some form of ‘MP lite’.  This always reminds me of the late Tony Banks’ comments on MPs being a “sort of high-powered social worker and perhaps not even a good one,” not because I share his analysis that casework is tedious, but because it always seemed that a goodly chunk of an MP’s casework would be better directed towards councillors.  Indeed, from time to time Martin Linton directed his residents towards me – though this seems to have stopped now he’s defending a small majority.

In many ways the MP comparison is a better one, if only because most people have an understanding of how Parliament and Government work and can translate this to the local level.  Both have Cabinets which are responsible for the overall direction and vision, and Cabinet Members with individual portfolios.  Parliament as a whole scrutinises the work of the Government, in much the same way as councillors scrutinise the work of the council Cabinet.  And finally councillors have a casework load, not as large as an MP’s, because we tend to have a lower profile, but equally we don’t have a staffed office to help process it.

The councillor and officer relationship
What I find harder to explain is the relationship between councillors and officers.  And this relationship is the key relationship when it comes to councillors delivering results to their residents.  Councillors do not repair roads or collect rubbish, that is done by council employees.  I’ve illustrated two possible comparisons for councillors, but struggle to come up with a widely understood comparison for the way councillors ‘lead’ their council.  Primarily our work is based around medium and long term results, rather than initiating immediate actions.  Councillors are sort of non-executive directors, but I don’t think that’s a readily understood comparison, how many people know what a non-executive director does?!

And this creates problems because there is so much a councillor just cannot do.  I cannot, for example, help you with your parking ticket unless I saw the ticket being incorrectly issued.  I cannot help you with your housing problems, I can only raise your case and have it re-examined.  In cases like this I’m limited to the role of advocate; and with good reason, if councillors were able to influence these decisions it would not take a great leap of imagination to see lots of councillors parking with impunity and living in some of the best council properties going.

I don’t know if I just lack imagination in coming up with a simple metaphor, and hope someone will tell me if there is one.  I tend to use the MP/Cabinet member model, but I’m not sure many people fully understand the relationship between politicians and civil servants, and their expectations of central and local government are different in any case.  But in the absence of anything better, it will do because I think for engagement to really work well, there has to be a good understanding of both positions; council and resident.

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  1. “I cannot help you with your housing problems, I can only raise your case and have it re-examined”> It is already good if you can have the case re-examined, and advocate it. Some people need help and a Councillor can provide some.

    • True. I have seen successes by raising issues with the housing department of which they were either unaware or of which they did not realise the severity. However, there are some who assume a councillor is able to jump them to the front of the queue. Since the queue is determined according to need we are, quite rightly, unable to help in those situations.

  2. Sorry – I missed this first time round. The death knell for a political idea, to be described as ‘interesting’. Let’s hope I stick at interesting and don’t start making any ‘courageous’ posts! I shall, as ever, choose to take as a compliment anything which can be thus interpreted.

    I should have continued my analogy to point out, as you in effect do, that every cricketer has to take their turn at fielding as a responsibility that comes as part of having the other two roles, and indeed while not all may bowl, any might be called on to bat for at least a little while. In my head it was all making sense until I started thinking about wicketkeepers (group whips who try to make sure the bowling doesn’t do more harm than good, maybe?).

    There is a real problem in terms of casework – it would be a real success for government at all levels if casework about Council issues could mostly come to Councillors, at least at first – it could be dealt with more rapidly, give Councillors a wider insight into local problems, avoid misunderstandings, and take some administrative load off MPs.

    The real problem is I think that too many people do recognise that while Councillors can “only” raise a case again, not influence the result, the terror felt by many Councils of their local MP means that the “no favours, slightly quicker” line is more likely to be crossed.

    My most rewarding experience of helping a Councillor with their casework was around them supporting a couple of families through appeals to get their daughters into their good local school, rather than a less good one which was in any case an unsafe walk away. Good help, right outcome, but potentially quite close to the line if interpreted very strictly?

    A further issue, but very important, is how many Councils are led by their Councillors (collectively) as against how many are driven by an individual strong leader or core Cabinet, with the support of a political Group of course, but with, for many, that group’s passive votes rather than active engagement across all the key issues. Or, heaven forbid, those largely driven by their Chief Executive and senior officer team. I have a notion this may be particularly prevalent where the Council’s “ambitions” are around performance in inspections, or specific plans for economic development.

    Is the problem not so much that people don’t understand what Councillors are doing “in Council”, as that they often don’t need to, because the wiggle room is much smaller than it once was, and the likelihood of reversals against the majority position smaller, if not unheard of. That may not be wholly out of line with the Parliamentary analogy, to be honest!

    Late night stream of consciousness there, I reserve the right to change my mind about everything tomorrow.