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FEATURES - WHAT DO THEY DO?

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Last week I found myself speaking at an event organised by the strategic partnership taskforce at the ODPM. The sub...
Last week I found myself speaking at an event organised by the strategic partnership taskforce at the ODPM. The subject of the event was the role of councillors in strategic partnerships - and jolly good it was too - but as I was preparing for it, a thought struck me. I wonder how many people actually know what councillors do.

We live in a country that has very few councillors per head of population compared with some of our European neighbours and the chances are that the majority of citizens may never know or meet one. Yet it strikes me that we have some weird assumption that the citizen knows what we are actually talking about, when we discuss elected members and councillors.

Many years ago, in a former role, I was asked to set up an independent panel to examine the vexed question of councillor allowances under the modernised system. This independent panel examined the leader, cabinet members and the rest. As chief executive I gave evidence. At one point, one of the independent members turned to the leader and said: 'This isn't what the leader does, that's what the chief executive does, I know, I have worked with him.' It was one of those career threatening moments that all chief officers experience. The leader, luckily, saw the funny side and said: 'Yes of course that's what he does, but I am the one who gives him permission to do it.' This assessment of our roles was, in truth, about right.

Even within councils there is now widespread confusion as to what the exact role of the councillor is. The difference between scrutiny and cabinet has made this even more complex and in some cases the introduction of the elected mayor has made it very difficult for local people to understand what the councillor actually does.

This is particularly striking in partnerships. You might try this test with someone who does not work in local government and has never worked with it. Ask them what the difference is between the leader of the council, the lord mayor/mayor/chairman, and the chief executive. The chances are they will have no clue as to how these different roles function. Local government is unique in all systems, be they private sector, health or other agencies such as Learning & Skills Councils where the chief executive is not a voting member

of the executive, nor usually, is the non-elected mayor.

While I am not arguing for a change in this position, are we as clear as we could be that we have explained this to potential partners? Even within our industry there is perhaps a little experiment that we could undertake. Taking a random group of councillors and officers from an authority and asking them, anonymously, to write down what they think the role of a councillor is.

I think it would be salutary. When I have done it, albeit verbally, no two answers were anything like the same. It might also be useful for some councillors to examine a role which ought to be more than attending meetings. If we do not bother to explain what we do, it is small wonder people misunderstand us and our motivations. It is also small wonder that getting new people to want to stand as councillors is increasingly difficult.

David Clark

Director general, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers

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