By Rob Tape
Since writing my book on local government and now starting this blog I have been in touch with a number of people who are interested in the work of councils and seeing how things can be improved. In fairness many thousands of others have ignored me altogether so I’m not getting too carried away!
One of those who has been in touch with me is Andrew Kennedy who is a party agent and campaign director with the West Kent Conservatives. Keen not to hold this against him I started reading his blog and was very impressed with the amount of candour he showed. In fact he showed more openness and honesty in one posting than I’ve seen from any other “insider” for some time! I’m the first to criticise when people hide, dodge and protect party interests so it’s only fair that I give credit where it is due.
The excerpt below is lifted from one of his blogs: –
Last week we received a call at West Kent HQ. The lady at the end of the phone was in despair. The streetlamp directly outside her bedroom window had been flickering for three weeks and disturbing her sleep. The local parish council said that whilst they owned the grass verge, the pavement was the responsibility of the district council. The district council confirmed responsibility for the pavement, but the lamp came under Kent Highways. Over the following two weeks the lady had been passed around eight different people at three different councils, none of whom were able assist her or accept responsibility for the lamp. Across these three tiers of local bureaucracy our sleep-deprived resident is represented by eleven elected councillors (seven parish, three district and one county) yet she cannot get her problem sorted. “All I want is the light bulb replaced…”
The story is, let’s be honest, probably a very familiar one; at least as a variation on a theme. Andrew uses the story as an introduction to his thoughts on their being an overabundance of councillors in local authority structures – similar to my own blog a couple of weeks ago The Cost of Local Democracy. But Andrew’s piece also got me thinking about something else that is purely tangential. Namely what exactly is the role of the local councillor?
Councillors really have two main roles that I’ll talk about here. To represent the people of the ward where they are elected and to oversee, manage and direct the overall work of the council as a whole. Lets ignore party politics, majorities etc. for now and assume that all councillors do get a say in this. In my mind this latter function is of overriding importance. Setting the direction, scrutinising decisions, creating the strategy and generating the platform for what a council does, is and plans to do is an EXTREMELY important role. This by itself makes the role of a councillor not just important but essential. There are millions of pounds at stake and departments that service every single resident.
My query is over the first main role I have described. Representing the electorate is of course a fundamental part of representative politics. But isn’t running the council as a whole to the principles of good value and public service representing the public in a far better way? Surely representing the electorate shouldn’t be about taking phone calls about broken street lights, a stray dog poo in the park or some graffiti in a back lane and passing it onto to the appropriate officer. Not because this stuff isn’t important – this is what the public want to see resolved. But rather why does it need a councillor’s involvement when there are services in place to deal with these operational issues.
Councillors get involved basically at the point of service failure. Service failure is not just about street lights being broken; it’s about officers being too detached from the public. The more “badly” run the council; the more service failures there are and so the more random phone calls for operational service the councillors get. The more operational calls they get the more they are forced (or choose) to intervene (or interfere) in service provision and often the more “broken” the service becomes. It is essentially a vicious cycle that grows because, ironically, the council are not engaged enough with their electorate.
Now don’t get me wrong; I am not advocating councillors not representing the best interest of those who elect them. Far from it. I am instead suggesting that the operational side is looked after (more effectively) by the operational people – the officers. Councillors, take a step back and look after the big stuff that helps ensure that service failure is reduced; ironing out problems, allocating appropriate funding etc. While councillors continue to be dragged onto often minor issues like this it will always be a waste of resource – whether it is the councillor or their support team who deal with it. Currently officers set the strategy along with a few select councillors; while many elected members become glorified call centre operatives. It seems a waste of time and talent!
In Andrew’s example the appropriate councillor should be dishing out some bollockings if they are needed, and asking why things like this are missed. If it is a “one off”, then fair enough these things happen; if it is a symptom of systemic problems then that is where the councillor steps in to resolve things.
Essentially more and more councillors are becoming the middle men; passing on a message from the electorate because they are not getting the service they expect. Sometimes these expectations are unrealistic, more often they are just being fobbed off so have to escalate their issues. Officers getting a phone call from a councillor respond differently and more effectively than they do to a call from the public. Therein lies the problem. If the public got the “councillor gold standard service” when they rang up then councillors wouldn’t get dragged in. Elected members then become the sticking plaster to deal with the wider problem of councils not providing the right level of service to the public. But while councillors continue to get dragged into the proverbial fire-fighting activities they are unable to focus on preventing the fire in the first place.
Perhaps some councillors are loathed to change this approach. “Being seen” to be the councillor sorting out the broken streetlight will guarantee at least that one person’s vote. However being the councillor who sorts out the street lighting service as a whole behind closed doors is largely invisible and while it helps 100,000 people it might not result in a single vote.