Performative aspects of scrutiny

Posted on 05/08/2021 by Centre for Governance and Scrutiny.

In this guest blog Cllr Bryony Rudkin, deputy leader at Ipswich Borough Council, reflects on the importance of behaviours in how local councillors enact democracy and scrutiny.

“Read the standing orders, read them and understand them!”

At bit like the moon landings, Berlin Wall or England beating Colombia in that penalty shoot out, take your age-appropriate pick we all remember where we were back in early 2021 when we first heard those magic words. Thus the comings and goings of Handforth Parish Council were revealed to a world in the depths of a winter lockdown, hungry for entertainment. It all went viral with memes galore and HPC merchandise all over those hand-craft websites. The heroine of the hour, Jackie Weaver, became the toast of media interviews and was herself delighted to be on a virtual sofa with star of Strictly Come Dancing, Anton du Beke. Never before had local governance had such a staring role. Subsequent meetings got record attendance figures on YouTube. A discussion, of sorts, started about what they had actually been arguing about and who actually had the authority and what that allowed them to do.

Meanwhile, of course, other councils were just getting on with the business of online meetings into which we had all been chucked without so much as a mayoral ceremony back in March 2020. The many tiers of UK local government  are always so complex to explain to international colleagues…”yes, he’s the Mayor and he was elected, but there’s also another Mayor, also elected by the way, she opens things and then there’s the neighbouring County which has a Chair. And then there’s the Borough…still with me?” Yet all these different layers of government had found a way out of their chambers and into their spare bedrooms and were conducting meetings and showing their workings to an equally trapped public. What did all this mean and what does it mean as we slowly, blinking head back to our City, County and Town Halls?

I’m working on a PhD at the INLOGOV at the University of Birmingham. 25 years of being a councillor myself, with a masters degree on the way, has given me something of a hunch about the way I and my colleagues behave, not to speak of privileged access to meeting rooms and politicians of all colours and none and for all this I am very grateful. I’ve gathered data for this project from watching meetings and have also taken part in numerous LGA peer reviews which have also led me to a variety of web platforms and broadcast meetings, both real life and online. I’m sure I’ve baffled some poor soul tasked with checking who is logging on to their council’s meetings when, apart from their own residents, officers, friends and family, they find someone logging on from Ipswich. They can only presume – incorrectly – that we are short of home grown entertainment.

However, what I’ve gained from delving into these broadcasts is more than a few laughs, but rather a rich and detailed picture of how we as politicians enact democracy, how we carry out the scrutiny of decisions made and how we show ourselves to be accountable. You might note the language I’ve used to describe what is happening has its roots in the theatre, performance and enactment for example. Theatre and politics both share the concept of dramaturgy, that is, dramatic composition and representation on a stage. It was Erving Goffman, the renowned American sociologist who first explored social interaction in terms of theatrical performance, using the concept of dramaturgy outside of a theatrical stage. He started by watching people interacting in a hotel on a remote Scottish island, moving on later to asylums. Council chambers provide the same fertile ground for observation and understanding and it is through a dramaturgical lens that we can better interpret what is happening when politicians meet and the extent to which they are carrying out their responsibilities as democratic representatives.

As politicians we are often challenged for not being open enough, for not speaking in terms that our voters understand. I’ve watched enough meetings to know that we could all do with a little help in reading and understanding what’s going on, not just the standing orders. At the opera, people skilled in the art of dramaturgy are employed to explain to the audience what is going on – usually in the form of detailed programme notes, alongside the scene and setting of the performance. Perhaps that’s what we need in politics, not just an agenda, but explanatory notes. My research is working on this…in the meantime, if anyone from Handforth wants to explain what was going on that wet night in winter, do let me know. 

About the Author:

CfGS is a national centre of expertise on governance and scrutiny. We provide consultancy and training to organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors. We’re a charity with a unique focus on the principles of accountability, transparency and involvement.