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.