Defending democracy


Not a plastic advisor in sight

Local Authorities are not particularly democratic, at least in the way they are run.

A local authority is a very complex organisation. In order to provide the required governance of this complex beast into the hands of the demos we elect councillors to monitor and manage the activities of the council. This would be a tricky job were these representatives fully qualified in running a local authority, or very knowledgeable in the areas they are in charge of, and had full time responsibility for the activities of it.

It becomes very difficult indeed when the councillors are part time representatives with limited time to get under the skin of issues, few meetings to really analyse council policies and a whole range of other responsibilities not attached to running the local authority as such. Add to that a mass of regulation from central Government and it is very hard to say for certain that the actions of the local authority represent the will of the demos.

So when I say that local authorities are not particularly democratic I mean it in the above sense.

Obviously, the issues detailed above are numerous and multi-faceted. They also only just scrape the tip of the iceberg of the local democratic deficit.

However, for the rest of this post I want to look at only one aspect of a councillor’s democratic duty: their role in understanding, scrutinising and setting direction for the activities of the council.

Over the past ten years (and possibly before that) councils have increasingly looked to provide additional support to their councillors. This additional support has often been through policy or political advisors. These advisors were appointed by the council but reported into the councillors themselves and had their agenda set by the people trying to run the authorities.

Obviously, there are examples where these individuals (often young, bright and ambitious) have taken on big ‘P’ political roles and acted as glorified cheerleaders and low level spin-doctors for their political masters.

Indeed, I still have hatred in my heart for one of these advisors who, at a previous authority, took some information I gave him in good faith over the phone and used it for an attack press release. However, despite this I believe that they have played a really valuable role in local democracy. By having full time officers who are willing to poke in areas the local authority might rather they did not these advisors are able to get to the bottom of a lot of issues that would otherwise remain hidden.

They are also able to advise on policy and provide a little bit of thinking space for their councillor masters. The set up isn’t perfect and one or two officers per party is not going to make up for the lack of time councillors are able to devote to their, very difficult, task. But it does make a difference.

The reason all this is important is that as councils start to cut back on their staffing, especially in the corporate centre the role of political support comes under threat. I’m sure Eric Pickles would call them town hall spin-doctors and bemoan the fact that they are being paid for by fat-cat councils (everyone loves a mixed metaphor) and local papers and importantly, fellow staff members, are not particularly sympathetic to them.

Together this means that we are likely to see a fairly large fall in these roles and with it a decline in the ability of the elected politicians to fulfil their democratic duties to a very high standard.

I don’t want to overstate the effect but I, for one, am a little concerned.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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3 Comments on “Defending democracy”

  1. Sue Appleby Says:

    Absolutely agree, I have had to work with a few really awkward political advisors, but also some who were bright, committed, helpful, concerned. A great shame if these roles vanished. Babies and bathwater,very sad…

  2. localgovalso Says:

    I came back from leave once to a phone call from a political assistant from a party (the party which was in control at the time) “I found this statistic on the internet and just wanted to check where it came from”.

    Rang them up, and got “doesn’t matter, it was only for a press release so we made it up”.

    But the occasional bit of cat-esque spinning aside I’ve got to admit I struggle with the necessity for a function which surely should be picked up by effective resourcing of O&S and other corporate support.

    If a policy team can’t deliver policy support to all members, if a research team is being closed-handed with data then that’s a flaw in those teams ability to deliver. Likewise, if a Council is employing a truly effective negotiator, policy-digger etc. it seems slightly arbitrary to keep that person aligned to one, possibly arbitrary, political persuasion.

  3. LG Worker Says:

    I agree with localgovalso. I think my concern has always been about the issue of neutrality (which I know you have dealt with else were). I see the importance of the political advisor but should they be paid for by the Council HR (which also employees ‘neutral’ officers), or paid for by the party (though party resources might not stretch that far). Also is their a problem of duplication? As an officer working with Cllrs, I advise them and help them through these difficult systems but if they have a political advisor doing a similar job, who will they listen to and should there be two of us?


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