The LGA’s regional teams run induction events in May/June following local elections as an opportunity to provide support to new (and returning) councillors. We have done these for a number of years and they have extremely positive feedback, particularly as an opportunity to ask more experienced LGA member peers about their top tips.
Below is a list of some of the most commonly asked questions, some thoughts from a councillor who reflected on his first 12 months in post and top tips from other councillors from across the county.
- Q1: We receive a lot of invitations. How do we decide which ones to accept or decline?
A: A good tip is to accept once, and then you are able to assess whether this is a valuable forum/event to attend on a regular basis. Immerse yourself - but realise that there will come a point when you’ll know where you can best spend your time. If you are in a two-member ward, you may be able to divide the engagements up between yourselves.
- Q2: How do we manage all the different demands on our time?
When you first become a councillor, it can be completely overwhelming especially if you have other commitments such as employment or caring responsibilities. It is up to you how long you spend on councillor duties, and what type of councillor you see yourself being. Most people want to spend time in their communities as well as in the Town Hall. It is a difficult balancing act and tends to change as you progress in your councillor career. From our recent LGA survey, we know that, on average people spend around 22 hours per week on their councillor role. But there is no fixed time – it is up to you to find a way to
Always respond to your residents' issues promptly, keep them informed and ensure you get out in your community to let them know what you can do for them"
- Councillor Mike Bush, Tendring District Council
- Q3: We have just changed political control. Are we bound by the former administration’s spending plans and budget?
A: There is no legal reason why you have to be tied to existing spending plans. However, with contracts in place, it can sometimes take time to change arrangements/contracts and so you may wish to work through these carefully to ensure that you are always securing value for money.
- Q4: What advice can you give us about personal security?
A: Councils will have advice and guidance about personal security for councillors so it is well worth reading this. Most updated these after the murder of Jo Cox MP. There are a number of top tips around not taking unnecessary risk for example for weekly surgeries, always pick a venue which is well used, accessible, with plenty of other people around should you need to call for support.
- Q5: How can I access the information I need to be effective my role as councillor?
A: Lots of information is available online. Your council’s website and intranet will contain lots of information about the council, the way it works, timetable of meetings, its services and the local area etc. Council papers may be provided electronically and/or in paper form. Officers have a duty to ensure that councillors have access to the information they need in order to make well-informed decisions. They may do this by producing factual reports, making presentations or arranging visits – e.g. for planning committee.
The LGA’s ‘LG Inform’ is a valuable resource for information. It presents you with up-to-date published data about your local area and benchmarking information. Whether you’re interested in scrutiny, a particular service area, or simply need an overview, it can help you review and compare performance with other authorities.
Say yes: positions are always coming up on committees, panels and task groups. Your fresh ideas might be exactly what are needed."
- Councillor Kelly Braund, London Borough of Merton
- Q6. How will my personal development and support needs be met?
A: Your council will provide support - some is mandatory and some optional - and this will vary from council to council. Your Democratic Services officer will be able to signpost you to relevant activities. There are also a series of e-learning workbooks on the LGA website.
- Q7. What practical support will I have access to?
A: Practical support will vary depending on your council but may include access to space in the council headquarters such as a members’ room, office equipment such as a mobile phone, computer and printer, access to media and general communications advice and research support. Some support is provided to all councillors, other support is provided via political groups. Your leader and cabinet members are more likely to have access to dedicated support, along with the chairs of scrutiny in some councils.
- Q8: I know that I will have casework to manage and that this will place demands on my time. What are some top tips for managing casework?
A: Identify what the problem is - you will need to establish the facts and find out how your constituent wants you to help. This will include identifying whether there is a long history to the problem and who has been approached in the past.
Avoid promising to sort out every problem - but do offer a sympathetic ear. While you can use your knowledge, contacts and advocacy skills to assist people, also help people to help themselves.
Refer the problem to the appropriate council department - having identified what the problem is, you should communicate with the council officers who handle members’ enquiries or relevant service officers, if that is how your council operates. You may want to put your concerns or questions in writing, although most members find that a quick face to face discussion, telephone call or e-mail is quicker and easier in sorting out casework problems.
Provide feedback - after you have made initial enquiries, let the constituent know what you are doing and keep them up to date with progress and eventual outcomes. They will not know what is going on unless you tell them.
Consider the wider issues - reflect on the issues raised by casework and let your co-members know. A number of similar concerns raised with members may suggest that an issue needs to be dealt with by a new or revised policy or a scrutiny review. Where you have had a success, it is also worth letting your fellow ward members know in case they face a similar situation.
Involve your family and friends. This might include bringing them to community activities such as litter picks and fun days."
- Councillor James Hill, Northampton Borough Council
- Q9: What are some of the top tips for managing my presence on social media?
A: Use social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, LinkedIn and YouTube but make sure your content is accurate, informative, balanced and objective – if in any doubt then check your council’s social media policy. There are also some principles that are useful to keep in mind:
Be strategic – plan ahead: who do you want to engage with, why and how? What do you want to achieve?; Be human: be approachable in your language and tone, behave online as you would in person; Be engaging: respond to questions and join in when you can move the conversation on or help; Be professional: remember that you represent your council, so be aware of how your public voice comes across; Share and attribute: you can share what others have posted but it is polite to acknowledge and attribute where this has come from; Go to where your audience is: if the people you want to connect with are on a particular platform, forum or group, join it; Content is king: by creating sharable and engaging content you can contribute to the conversation and be heard; and Be authentic: don’t pretend to be something you are not.
Also remember - the internet is forever and what you post now could be found in years to come.
- Q10: There are so many different levels to working as a councillor e.g. across the council’s area, combined authority footprints and health footprints. How can I quickly get an understanding of how this all works and fits together?
A: As a Councillor you will work at different geographies and in partnership with local communities and organisations – including the public (such as Clinical Commissioning Groups and Local Enterprise Partnerships), voluntary, community and private sectors. This can all be very complicated and it will take you time to understand how the systems work. Ask for guidance if you are unsure or need to clarify anything and confirm arrangements including how your council is represented on those bodies.
For at least six months you will feel like you don't know anything. Democratic services were a lifeline during that time."
- Councillor Philippa Hart, South Cambridgeshire District Council
A year in the life...
Councillor Neil Prior - Cabinet Member for Transformation and IT at Pembrokeshire County Council, shares some top tips after being in post for 12 months:
Immerse yourself. Local government is complex but when you add in ‘code of conduct’ and ‘constitution’ training, and have worked out which scrutiny committee does what, you’ll realise how enormous it really is. So throw yourself into it, but realise that there will come a point when you’ll know where you can best spend your time.
‘The bloody council’. There will be a honeymoon period where council critics will hold high hopes for the future and you can do no wrong, but sooner or later you will be labelled a self-serving, in-it-for-yourself crook and liar. While I’m a fan of social media, there will probably be an online group who have a strong opinion on your actions and will happily share their thoughts on the internet.
Build relationships. You are a potential threat to an established way of working, and other members will want to know if you will support them. On the up side, there are officers and councillors who want to see change and it’s important to work with them. To get things done, you’ll need to build your credibility.
Leadership. You are a leader of both your community and council. This is more explicit in my case as I am a cabinet member. Finding your feet is not easy but, by being clear in my objectives, building my credibility and by being authentic, I think I’m getting there. I’ve also had to remind myself that leading change is difficult. Pace and process. Local government can be painfully slow. As someone who’s worked in the technology sector, it’s been a challenge to increase the speed of our transformation programme but I’ve been fortunate enough to have some brilliant senior staff to work with.
Balance. Depending on your availability and other commitments, you will need to find the balance of your work in the council, on the council, and in your community. You also still have a life and will need to take some downtime.
Expect the unexpected. You’re on call 24/7 and you’ll have to deal with wide ranging issues where people genuinely need your help. That’s a big responsibility but incredibly fulfilling, and it’s what people elected you for. They don’t really care about the brilliant contribution you made in scrutiny, they care about the grass being cut and the bins being collected.
Council is theatre. I watch and listen to the more experienced in the chamber for the way they construct their arguments and their timing. And while it’s daunting, it’s important to get on your feet and be part of it.
Fulfilment and purpose. People have put their faith in you to serve them, and this is your priority. It’s critical to remember that you work for them.
Enjoy it. It’s a privilege to serve and I’m going to make sure I enjoy it, bring my personality to it, make the most of the experience and do my best.