BLOG: Time to think about member induction!
May seems an awfully long way away, but both councillors and officers will already be gearing up for the local elections.
Depressingly, local polls are often seen as providing a proxy for people’s judgement on the parties nationally. That said, “all politics is local”, and election results often follow that precept – in recent years evidenced by the rise in the number of independent councillors (that is, councillors not from one of the larger national political parties), and changes in political control that defy national trends.
Predicting what May will bring, then, feels like a fools’ errand. Councils can expect a degree of turnover (turnover rates have increased in recent years) but beyond that, future political control and political balance in many councils remains unclear – even in authorities which may currently feel solidly controlled by a particular party. Who would have predicted the swing that put Westminster in the firm control of Labour for the first time in that council’s existence?
Preparation, for councils, focuses on member induction – welcoming into the council what might be a large number of new members. The learning curve for those members is very steep indeed. Their first meeting, Council AGM, may be difficult to follow and engage with – new members will find themselves with important roles on planning, licensing, scrutiny and audit and needing support to fulfil those roles properly.
Modern member induction, and training and development, has to go beyond putting on traditional “chalk and talk” style sessions on basic matters, and then leaving councillors to get on with it. There is a growing understanding that to pay little attention to member development is to risk councillor disengagement, and an environment that alienates people coming into the sector who may not feel comfortable or familiar with the rather formal, traditional way that councils do (some) things.
We have been supporting councils on member induction matters for many years. As you would expect principally this is induction around scrutiny, but increasingly we have been providing support on training and development on wider issues too (for example, on matters such as standards). Increasingly, our work involves designing interventions that bring training into council meetings themselves and into councillors day to day work – using the opportunity to both introduce new members to the council by learning through doing, but using the same principles to refresh the knowledge of existing members.
Nowhere is this more the case than in scrutiny, where we have seen the benefit of councils planning a small number of short, sharp and focused task and finish scrutiny reviews to be carried out before the summer – with the main aim of offering a practical introduction to the function for new members. Around this work can be planned support on work programming, questioning skills, and support in acquiring subject knowledge on matters for which councils hold responsibility.
Officer refresher training can also be especially important at this time. Ensuring that officers are comfortable and confident operating in a political environment is important in supporting strong member-officer relations. Those of us who work in democratic services and scrutiny often forget that for many managers – even comparatively senior ones – a council’s political processes can be opaque. Officers who work day-to-day with councillors offer authorities a unique resource to mentor and coach directors to better understand the political dynamics within which they work. This is all part of an environment that recognises democratic services as a repository of skill and expertise on much more than just minute-taking.
At CfGS we are keen to continue to support councils to train and develop both members and officers in this way. If you’re an officer beginning to think about and plan post-May induction (or a councillor thinking about the same issues) please get in touch. We work closely with the LGA, and through them may be able to offer to undertake some member training and development for free.