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New councillors need guidance on their role. Paul Wheeler describes an initiative which could help councils attract...
New councillors need guidance on their role. Paul Wheeler describes an initiative which could help councils attract talented people

Here's a puzzle for you. If effective councillors and council leaders are recognised as essential for continuing improvement and community leadership, then where will the next generation of leaders come from and how can we more clearly define the skills that make for effective councillors and council leaders?

Talk to local government managers about the recruitment and retention of councillors and two views emerge which can be loosely characterised as the optimist and the cynic.

The optimist believes councillors are brought to the council chamber by the political parties after each election rather like the stork brings the baby. In this view councillors arrive in the town hall fully formed and able to undertake their complex role immediately. Councillors are 'born leaders' who know their job and understand what they want from their managers.

The cynic, on the other hand, knows full well that councillors emerge from the smoke filled rooms of party selection meetings both formal and informal. Their progress in politics is not based on skill but more how well they cope with the 'dark arts' of politics.

In the spirit of the age, perhaps the best advice is to be an optimistic cynic. We should all recognise that local political parties are voluntary organisations which guard their independence jealously from both their national party organisations and from other agencies. They, and many potential candidates, do not take too kindly to the latest trend towards 'job descriptions for member,' and the insensitive application of professional HR techniques too often based on a crude managerial view of the complex roles that all councillors have to undertake.

And yet we also have to accept there is an emerging crisis for local democracy. Even when political parties can identify enough candidates to stand for election, all too frequently they come from a narrowing sec tion of society. Other forms of community governance, such as magistrates and NHS trusts, are making real efforts to attract a wider and more diverse section of the community. Local government and its advocates need to think of how they can assist political organisations, both existing and potential, to attract members of talent and ambition to become councillors.

One of the most important questions any new recruit is likely to ask is: what does the job involve and what skills are needed to do it well? To assist in answering these questions the Improvement & Development Agency, with support from the ODPM, engaged Jo Silvester, professor of organisational psychology at Goldsmiths College, to look at the whole issue of political skills and not only for future councillors but for future cabinet members and leaders too. Prof Silvester has a good track record, having previously worked with the Conservative Party in updating their process of selection for parliamentary candidates after the 2001 general election.

Prof Silvester and her team have spent the last six months talking to councillors in a range of councils including Daventry DC, Kent CC, Leeds City Council, Newham LBC, Oldham MBC and Warwickshire CC.

What these interviews have indicated is that there is a range of political skills that every councillor will need to perform their role to maximum effect.

These are:

-- Community leadership

-- Regulatory and monitoring

-- Scrutiny and challenge

-- Communication skills

-- Working in partnership

-- Political values.

For members who aspire to be cabinet members there are two additional skills associated with managing performance and providing vision. And finally for those who aspire to the ultimate challenge of leading an authority they have to have an additional one associated with excellence in leadership.

Applying the principles of occupational psychology to a political context, Prof Silvester has been able to indicate positive and negative indicator s associated for each of these skill sets.

Clearly there will be differing emphases on the relative importance of these skills depending on local and political factors in each authority. However, the prize this project offers is a common language in the role of councillors that can be shared by political parties, local government and councillors. Externally it allows central government, strategic partners and the public to gain understanding of the responsibilities expected from the councillor.

This can act both as a powerful recruitment tool and as a tremendous asset for the future development of councillors by their political organisations and councils. For the first time we have explicitly recognised the importance of political values and the role of political parties. Skills associated with being able to communicate and work to a set of values and beliefs and having a relationship with a wider electorate at ward and borough level are ones only political organisations can develop.

These findings are being validated among a much wider group of elected members and managers in local government. By July we will publish the full set of political skill sets so political parties and all local councils can use them as part of a wider campaign to attract a diverse group of the local community to serve as councillors. For local political parties it may have the added benefit of providing a set of objective criteria to assess some members who are not up to the job of local councillor and need to find alternative roles.

We live in a difficult age where the motives of those in public service are frequently derided. Councillors quite rightly are a secular lot but perhaps we can think of an appropriate patron saint. My nomination would be the Good Samaritan. After all, he was someone who stopped to help and, just as importantly, knew what to do and had the resources to do it.

-- Information on this project is available at the Modern Members Conference on Friday 2 July in Manchester. Contact Lorraine Vel on

Paul Wheeler

Assistant director, Improvement & Development Agency

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