Crossposted from https://cllrkenhawkins.co.uk with kind permission of Councillor Ken Hawkins @cllrken
BARRIERS TO COUNCILLOR DEVELOPMENT AND TRAINING
The report ‘The 21st Century Councillor’ identifies the importance of developing councillors skills and goes on to highlight the important skills required for present day councillors and also identifies some reasons why training and development has not moved on accordingly.
Since 2002 local government has witnessed substantial change; cabinet style governance, austerity measures, new ways of working, the push for regionalisation through combined authorities, and the growth of the digital age, amongst others. Most learning organisations will adapt to these important trends, identifying the key areas that affect their core business and developing strategies to ‘be ahead of the game’ – especially their competitors.
Successful and progressive local authorities have adapted accordingly, investing in staff development, especially developing a new breed of public sector leadership model. New ways of working are commonplace, as is agile working. These authorities have identified the need for greater engagement with the public it serves but I question whether local councillors have maintained the same pace.
The report mentions cuts in member training and development budgets following the onset of austerity measures and I believe councillors as a whole agreed to such cuts (or failed to challenge them) because they felt the public would wish that area of the budget should be cut before frontline services but also because of opposition, or not being confident about the need for councillors to identify individual training and development needs.
The new councillor:
Induction training for new councillors does exist and these are generally welcomed. Again, progressive local authorities recognise the opportunity for the more established councillor to take the opportunity to attend these events as a ‘refresher’. However, it is fair to state the take up of such invitations are not great. After the induction programme it seems councillors are left to themselves.
The established councillor:
Once established, perhaps gaining some expertise within scrutiny committees he or she serves on, it is my experience that any further development rests with the councillor. If that councillor has not had the benefit from working in learning organisations or within teams that do reflect then that councillor may not recognise the need for personal development plans.
My personal experience saw 30 years in West Midlands Police where as a police inspector I underwent a great deal of personal development, even undergoing 360 degree feedback as early as 1990. Following my retirement from the police I took, what was for me, a natural progression to lecturing at local college. Here, training and development was essential – for students and tutors.
My experience has reinforced the need for continuing development and that I found the report via twitter does I feel provide evidence that I do this. However, there must be thousands of councillors up and down the country who will be oblivious to reports such as this. Attempts within my own authority (around 2010) to establish personal development plans for some councillors was not wholly welcomed – I think I was the only member from a small cross party group to agree.
The concept of a councillor openly stating and admitting to a development need may be an anathema to them. They may feel this shows a weakness to opposition members, or competitors within their own group. Also, why bother with training and development if you own a safe seat? Of course, having the ‘Cllr’ in front of your name immediately identifies you as an expert in everything (or could do with certain members). If members have an employment history of working in progressive companies with established staff development ideals then they would no doubt appreciate the need and importance of such development as a local councillor. However, how many councillors actually have experience of working within progressive organisations that focus on the need to continually learn? If a councillor does not have this experience (and profiles of members might evidence this) then developing a need for training and development as a councillor might not be recognised.
The digital age is a great example to show which councillors embrace training and development and which councillors may not. The benefits of engaging in social media are real and clear to those who do engage – both councillors and residents. This though demands the councillor to recognise the value of social media and then make a choice to learn how to use it and engage with people on-line rather than face-to-face. Those that use social media do note this allows residents a voice and challenge their elected representatives in ways not experienced before. Engaging with hundreds, even thousands of residents via social media (as I do) certainly has its challenges but it is how you deal with those challenges that is important. Yes, there are those who will not ever appreciate what you do but there are those residents who do appreciate this wider engagement and support you at election time – voting for the candidate they can engage with, not the political party. However, why indeed go to the bother of engaging with residents and a wider public on Facebook and Twitter if you are only interested I getting the thousand or so voters out to vote for you at election times? Do they feel that attending a public speaking course, or some other staff training, really matter on their CV at election time?
The drive for personal development for councillors must come from within. There appears no body that seeks to suggest to a councillor they might want to consider a specific training need; it would be a brave officer to suggest to a member he/she undertakes a public speaking course, but why shouldn’t this happen? As a school governor I receive plenty of opportunities to attend seminar, training and other events but this appears not to happen locally (I do know political parties advertise some training but do not know how much this taken up).
Report and letter writing seems to me an evident training need for some councillors in my authority (as evidenced by some emails I have received). We could all benefit from public speaking and certainly the need for developing our scrutiny and questioning skills is continuous. How we get there is by prioritising the issue and creating a budget, but in a way that will identify positive outcomes for members, officers and residents. We really need a sea change in how we see ourselves and see our role as 21st century councillor.