In doing the 21st Century Councillor research we thought interviewing councillors would be a bit like interviewing officers. It wasn’t. Councillors are a lot harder to pin down, with irregular working hours, which for some of them include working at another job. Whereas officers expect some training and development (and bemoan reduced training budgets), councillors were more ambivalent. They acknowledged that training sessions were often poorly attended, and often weren’t very useful. Some didn’t like being trained with members outside of their political group, whilst acknowledging the ridiculousness of officers delivering the same training three times (i.e. to each political group).
We found that there is a role for the foundational skills – chairing a meeting, speed reading – along with subject knowledge – planning and licencing for instance. But also we found a desire for what we call relational skills. These include:
- Connective skills: Drawing on the need to bring together resources in a more creative way across a range of agencies, it was felt that councillors need support to develop the softer skills such as influencing, negotiating, listening, connecting and story-telling:
- Digital skills: All of the interviews recognised that it was essential for councillors to engage with new digital technologies. Whilst this could have been classed as a knowledge-based skill – linked to IT or media training – the essential skill requirement we identified related to the need to use new digital technologies as communicative resources. Increasingly councillors will undertake their representative role through digital media, and there are clear opportunities to use online capabilities to engage people in new types of conversation about the future of their neighbourhood or different ways to use community resources.
- Reflective skills: A final skill set related to the reflective capacities councillors required to cope with the demands of their position, and the difficulties of setting boundaries in a 24-7 role. The emotional toll of being a councillor, on self and on families was recognised to be high. One described needing the thick skin of a rhinoceros to cope with the constant demands from residents.
The emergence of buddying and mentoring schemes in some councils may help councillors to develop the skills to deal with the emotional aspects of the job, but our sense is that current training and development offers focus on the knowledge based and practical skills, and insufficient attention is being paid to the support that councillors need to develop the connective skills of a 21st Century Councillor.
Our next blog looks at councillors and social media. After that, we’ll share what councillors told us about 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