COUNCIL Bristol City Council
AWARD LGC Awards 2006
SPONSOR Local Government Information Unit
Fair representation is an issue many councils have been grappling with. Encouraging people from all walks of life to take part in local democracy sounds great on paper, but finding ways to promote such participation, is not such an easy task.
However, Bristol City Council, winner of LGC's Supporting Local Democracy award, can report some success. Bristol set up the first cross-party joint councillor shadowing scheme in the UK. The initiative was run in collaboration with Operation Black Vote between October and May 2005.
Only 3% of Bristol's councillors are from a black and minority ethnic background, so the scheme was designed to encourage the BME communities to get involved. It allows participants to see what is involved in becoming a councillor or taking on another public appointment, while encouraging them to form informal networks of support.
According to Helen Ball, head of policy, performance and equalities, the scheme gave participants a better understanding of local politics and how the council works.
She emphasises that working with Operation Black Vote has given the scheme credibility. 'We were the first council to do anything like this, and we will be talking to the Audit Commission about extending local democracy and how we can build up credibility among different communities so they decide to become councillors.'
The results exceeded expectations, with councillors getting as much out of the shadowing experience as the people they were mentoring. 'Councillors had a direct work relationship with people they might not necessarily meet through the party system,' explains Ms Ball.
Cllr John Kiely (Lib Dem) agrees: 'It had an unexpected effect on me - I saw the life of a member of the black and ethnic community more closely than usual and recognised some of the very different cultural issues
facing people from the BME community who want to engage with mainstream politics.'
Through the scheme, 10 shadows were matched to councillors from their preferred party and spent a minimum of eight working days over a period of six months together.
They followed a range of different activities, from attending ward surgeries, scrutiny commission, cabinet and full council meetings to political party gatherings.
They also gained a certificate in local governance based on the BTEC Professional Award in Local Governance, with modules on local governance, personal capacity and leading communities.
At the end of the programme, participants said they were more active in politics. Three of them were successfully recruited to become advisers on the Bristol Race forum and the Women's forum. One went on to become a school governor and others joined political parties or other local organisations. Nine out of the 10 said they would be interested in standing as a councillor or getting another public appointment within the next two years.
'The fact a number of them became active in the community shows that the scheme gave them confidence,' says Ms Ball.
'These were people who didn't know very much about the council. They were quite impressed with the dedication and time commitment councillors put into their work. They have gone away with a much better appreciation of their local council and its work than they had in the past.'
She also points out that the impact participants have on their local network should not be underestimated. 'These people go back to their families, religious and social network and talk about what they have been doing, which has a knock-on effect.'
Although there were immediate wins, Ms Ball believes it may take two or three years before the community sees the full impact of the programme.
'These things take time, but we need to start somewhere. We are now at the early stages of developing another scheme to involve other communities, particularly young people,' she says.