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Handy information packs and training for councillors have helped engage local people in politics. Claire Laurent re...
Handy information packs and training for councillors have helped engage local people in politics. Claire Laurent reports

COUNCIL Worcestershire CC

AWARD Highly commended in 2005 Awards

CATEGORY Supporting local democracy

SPONSOR Local Government Information Unit

Engaging with the community is one of the most important aspects of any council's work - but it can be also be one of the most difficult. Reaching groups such as young people, those with disabilities or from ethnic communities can be particularly tough.

Worcestershire CC, which was highly commended in last year's LGC Awards for supporting local democracy, tackled the issue by appointing regional officers to work closely with councillors and local communities.

The area democracy team, which has evolved into the planning, economy and performance team, consists of three officers working on a geographical split of the county. Each has built a close working relationship with the councillors in their patch and developed specialist knowledge of the communities and issues for people in their area. The team has put together a councillors' toolkit to help local members in their representative role.

The toolkit has information such as ward profiles, which give figures on population numbers and household composition. Hotspot analysis provides a more in-depth understanding of issues such as deprivation, crime and other statistics. Other items in the kit include personalised leaflets about each member entitled What can your councillor do for you? as well as lightweight exhibition boards, banners and displays.

Many councillors have used the kit to raise awareness of their role and what the council does, bringing them out at supermarkets, schools and special events. Feedback suggests they help to break down barriers and encourage people to talk to their councillors.

One of the keys to the success of the area democracy team is its ability to forge links between directorates, partner agencies and community activities.

Diane Tilley is director of planning, economy and performance at Worcestershire CC, which now brings together partnership, communications and democracy working. She says the development of the area democracy teams came out of a recognition the council needed to engage people in what it was doing. 'When we changed to a cabinet system, members felt disengaged because the cabinet model led to so-called backbench members who did not have a clearly defined role,'' she says.

'Officers are working one-to-one with members to help them to be effective representatives of their communities and get more people involved in public meetings.'

Officers also support the democratic non-political role members bring to the local strategic partnership boards. Representatives from the boards then feed back to other councillors, improving communication and understanding and giving members the opportunity to be fully aware of the challenges faced by LSPs.

The council has developed a programme of training and development aimed at meeting members' needs whether they are new or old hands. All new councillors receive a comprehensive

induction. There is also a series of briefing sessions to keep councillors up to date with the latest developments. And they are given the opportunity to work alongside colleagues to develop skills in team building and working with committees.

In addition, councillors have the benefit of an annual performance and development evaluation. This is designed to guarantee everyone is on top of their development needs.

The democracy team's work has increased the confidence of members and officers alike as they are now reaching more widely into the community and hearing from more disparate groups. The improvement in engaging with younger people has been a particular success as has ongoing work with ethnic communities.

While engaging groups is challenging, maintaining their engagement can be just as difficult. However, Ms Tilley says the area democracy work is evolving as more people see that their involvement counts. A new head of community leadership has been appointed, bringing together all the democracy, partnership and communications work.

'It's really kickstarted the process and we have begun to see all different kinds of activities,' says Ms Tilley.

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