In interviewing over 50 councillors and officers for the 21st Century Councillor report, we heard about changes in what it means to be a councillor. There are lots of reasons for the changes – citizens expectations of local government are shifting, technologies are reshaping modes of communication, and services are coming together in new ways (integrated health and social care; combined authorities). But mostly councillors framed the changes as coming from austerity. Their conversations with citizens, with partners, with communities are changing in a context of severe and long-lasting cuts to council budgets, what we elsewhere have called perma-austerity .
Not everyone thought this was a bad thing (‘we used to do too much for people’, reflected one leader), but everyone saw how it was reshaping their roles. Some councillors were struggling with the enormity of the effects on citizens: ‘the cuts are horrific and they’re striking at people who really haven’t got a voice.’
Councillors recognised the need to adapt their roles for this context, sometimes finding ways to orchestrate community action, sometimes acting more entrepreneurially themselves. One example came from a councillor talking about play facilities in two neighbouring villages:
‘The first village asked for £25,000 for a new playground, and got it. By the time the next door village wanted it, austerity had hit and there was no way that sort of money was around. So the councillor went to the local wood yard, sourced the wood and some volunteers, and got a new playground built for a fraction of the cost.’
As well as being orchestrators and entrepreneurs, councillors talked about being:
- Stewards of place – working across the locality in partnership with others
- Advocates – acting to represent the interests of all citizens
- Buffers – seeking to mitigate the impact of austerity on citizens
- Sense-makers – translating a shift in the role of public services and the relationship between institutions and citizen
- Catalysts – enabling citizens to do things for themselves, having new conversations about what is now possible
Are citizens happy that councillors are working in new ways – as catalysts, sense-makers and entrepreneurs rather than as problem-solvers and budget-holders?
Some councillors said citizens are still asking for the same things (‘You know, there are still a few people that say, “Oh, you know, you haven’t got the flower baskets out.”’). Others felt citizens were willing to work on shared problem-solving:
‘I’ve had half a dozen phone calls [about plans to stop a bus route]… and I start with the conversation…”you do know our budget is being cut by [millions of ] pounds a year over the next couple of years” and they say “well, yeah and we’re not really expecting the Council to step up, but is there anything else that can be done?”’
Our next blog will explore the training and development that councillors need if they are to be supported to have these different kinds of conversations with citizens. We’ve also got blogs forthcoming about councillors and social media, and about councillors and combined authorities. The full report is available here.
Catherine Needham and Catherine Mangan are based at the University of Birmingham. They tweet as @DrCNeedham and @mangancatherine using the hashtag #21cPS