Councillors get a bad press - not just from the local rag, but also from council staff. A recent LGC survey (LGC, 7 April) revealed many local government managers believe backbench councillors - who make up the vast majority of the ranks - are doing a poor job. By contrast, senior councillors, cabinet members or chairs of scrutiny fared better, with almost two-thirds of managers awarding them six out of 10 or more.
If quality of councillors is an issue, maybe it is time for council managers to rethink how they attract and develop councillors, rather than accepting poor performance and complaining about it.
Mr Coomber suggests political parties should be more rigorous in selection to ensure those standing for election all have a certain level of competency. Once they are in place, he recommends on-the-job training or mentoring by their peers rather than officers.
But he adds: 'The parties need to talk to officers about what members are required to do. Officers have a useful perspective on councillors - they see how they act, how they get messages across, how they deal with people - so their input can be invaluable.'
Mr Coomber adds: 'While councillors don't have a contract like staff, things are changing and, increasingly, councils are becoming much clearer about what is expected of councillors.
'It's almost looking like a job description and, eventually, we should be able to offer members a competency list which reflects the various skills they are required to have.'
Neil Stonehouse (Lab), leader of Wear Valley DC, believes councils should spend more on training for councillors.
'Budgets are always tight, but we have to do better. If we want councillors to do a good job, we have to invest in them.'
Paull Robathan (Lib Dem), leader of South Somerset DC, has three tips for councils looking to improve councillor performance:
>> Internal training and technology - verse your new councillors in fundamentals, such
as the culture of local government, and give them the technology to back these skills up. 'We provide every elected member with a PCor a laptop giving them access to the council's network,' says Mr Robathan. 'Being an effective member depends on being in the loop.'
>> External training - encourage councillors to go on courses. Mr Robathan is a recent graduate of the Improvement & Development Agency's leadership academy, aimed specifically at executive members.
>> Mentoring - 'This is enormously useful,' says Mr Robathan, who asked a councillor of 30 years' standing to act as his mentor when he joined the council. 'He knew everything and everyone and was able to give me really practical advice on issues I'd never come up against before.'
Patricia Turner (Con), leader of Mid Bedfordshire DC, is also a strong believer in training: 'Councillors don't fall out of the womb with all the necessary qualities. These qualities have to be learnt.'
Until 2000, the council's entire budget for councillor training was£2,500 per year. That has now risen to£20,000. The council has created the post of training champion and councillors are encouraged to attend appraisal-style interviews with human resources staff to assess their development needs.
Whatever the democratic justification, Ms Turner insists that a councillor's competency is as important.
She says: 'We do not allow members to sit on the licensing or planning committee without the relevant training. These are areas of huge responsibility with a quasi-legal element. The people making the decisions need to have the right experience and judgment.
'You do get some councillors who think training is akin to brainwashing and that being elected to the post is sufficient to justify their position. But we must not forget that councillors also have a statutory duty to make sound judgments.'
Judi Billing, head of leadership programmes at IDeA, suggests some ways councils can help councillors become more effective. These include:
>> A learning environment in which experienced councillors support rather than patronise newcomers.
>> Early opportunity to see a role description - perhaps based on IDeA's political skills framework - so they can really start to identify the areas in which they might need help.
>> A really good induction programme and an explanation of the different roles of officers and councillors.
>> Opportunities to attend regional and national conferences so councillors can see there are different ways of doing things, not only what they do in their council.
Consulting with citizens