Public Services Management: We can't go on meeting like this: Councillors are having to face up to a change in their traditional role and must rediscover their importance

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THE RELATIONSHIP between local authority officials and councillors is seldom an easy one. It is also a relationship that has no parallel in the private sector, as councillors represent not merely the investors (charge payers), but also the customers (service users). They are often unsure of their role, with little training to equip them as amateur part-timers to run a multi-million-pound organisation.

This uncertainty often leads to councillors trying to be the managers, thereby undermining officers and over-stretching themselves, both in terms of workload and capability.

Councillors do have a management role, but it is strategic not operational - to look at the longer-term goals, and to review performance.

Even this role can be difficult for a lay member to fulfil. John Vereker, leader of the Conservative-controlled Warwickshire county council - commended by Price Waterhouse for efficiency - believes it can take many years before a member is fully functional.

He said: 'An awful lot of black magic is spoken about performance targets and appraisals. A lot of councillors will come with a range of skills, but not necessarily these. Reviewing performance targets is an ability that comes with experience.'

Mr Vereker added: 'There are two parts to the role of a councillor. One is to act as a non-executive director of a large organisation, but it is even more important not to act as an administrator but as a communicator of the democratic wishes.'

The question of the role of the member in the modern, enabling local authority has been put on the agenda by a 1990 report from the Audit Commission, entitled 'We can't go on meeting like this'. The commission tried hard to be politically neutral, and councils of all persuasions have responded positively to the report.

The Audit Commission described the role of a member as being threefold: to be a politician; a community representative; and a board member. Critics of the report have alleged that the commission underplayed the roles of community representative and politician, and overplayed the role of board member.

The commission's view is that councillors usually underplay the role of board member and overplay the others.

Too much member time, the commission said, was spent in meetings discussing detail, and too little spent on broader policy. Members often see themselves as operational managers, apologists for what has gone wrong, reluctant to delegate authority to officers.

As a result, both officers and members have lost motivation, with councillors overworking. This may have led to the high turnover of councillors, the commission concluded.

It also said that policy had often been established 'on the hoof' in response to a specific incident, without regard to the full policy implications, and without the benefit of background information.

The whole question of the number and length of meetings, and their purpose, was thrown up by the report, which cited two local education authorities. One had a budget of pounds 230m and held 32 meetings per year on education, while another with a budget of pounds 160m held 302.

The report cannot be held solely responsible for the changes that have occurred, but it did reflect the mood for change. Councils have restructured their committees. Many now have fewer, with fewer members, meeting less often.

This also reflects the new role of councils following compulsory competitive tendering (CCT), and the client/contractor split.

Councils have also become clearer in setting policy, and more often delegate the role of implementation to officers. For instance, with planning development control many councils give full delegated authority to the chief planning officer, unless an application is contentious.

The Local Government Management Board has been training members to see themselves in a changed, but not reduced, role. Roger Letch of LGMB said: 'The perceived wisdom is to take on board the strategic role of councillors, to be more visionary. What we stress is that a member still represents the community, whether a local representative of a ward, or of the whole community. In democratic terms, a councillor does rather more than run the equivalent of a big business. 'Even the chairs of committees who are doing the strategic things still have to look after their electors, otherwise they won't be there any more.'

Mr Letch thinks the introduction of CCT and customer charters will reduce the traditional representative role of a councillor.

Underlining the irritation felt by many councillors today, the LGMB has published a booklet aimed at candidates as well as councillors, entitled 'Why Bother'. Mr Letch said that it was 'a study of the frustrations, the failings and the future of our elected councillors, what they suffer and what they could get out of it'.

Chris Game of the Institute of Local Government (Inlogov), which also undertakes member training, also stressed that councillors need once again to see their role as positive and influential. 'What concerns them most is the diminution of their role, the reduction of local government, their reduced level of discretion, the introduction of the enabling authority and CCT. The thrust of our input is to say there are just as important roles in the Nineties as in the past.

'Perhaps the representative role is going to become more important. The old attendance allowance system used to imply that the only time councillors 'worked' was while sitting on their bottoms in committees: their meetings with constituents, surgeries and ward work were excluded from allowances.

'If we're talking about board representation in an enabling authority, then strategic management is exactly what councillors should do, but there is a more expansive role, giving a community its voice, determining goals and objectives, and meeting these, not necessarily through service delivery, but by contacts.'

Labour-controlled Kirklees council has implemented Inlogov's vision of local government. Its leader, John Harman, spoke of the changes which it has introduced over the past three years. 'We streamlined the decision-making process, and gave officers more delegation, with policies more clearly set out. We stopped the 'magic roundabout' whereby members had three or four discussions on the same subject but in different committees, first in the service committee, then the finance committee, perhaps in the personnel committee, and then in full council.

'Now, as many decisions as possible are taken just once, along the same lines as the European Community's subsidiarity, with the lowest level possible taking the decision, unless the committee deliberately shoves the decision up. It didn't particularly reduce the amount considered by members, but it did make members think more strategically.'

Kirklees' new structures for the members are paralleled by new structures for officers. Mr Harman explained: 'All our senior management posts were abolished. We appointed executive directors without departmental responsibilities, who sit on an executive board, with departmental heads responsible to that board. We have crushed the departmentalism, and it is seen by some to be based on corporate management principles.

'It has forced members to be more strategic, but we did not want to have members on the executive board. Councillors have their own policy board, where they act like non-executive directors, meeting with the executive board once a fortnight.'

Mr Harman emphasises that these structural changes are not the end of the story. Kirklees is now entering into a new process of change, which he refers to as the 'political phase'. He said that they were seeking to become much more of a community voice, working with other agencies, and entering into partnerships.

Other models for local government are still being discussed inside government, not least the possibility of reducing the number of councillors, or even electing a mayor who takes on many of the current functions of both council leader and chief executive.

In the meantime one councillor said that even more fundamental changes had to take place. He saw his authority, which employs 20,000 staff, shrinking to just 200 within a few years. It may be impossible to design structures for either members or officials that can withstand that type of shock to the system.

This article first appeared in Thursday's Independent

(Photograph omitted)