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NLGN’s new research paper, Future Councillors: Where next for local politics, supported by Grant Thornton, maps the future role of elected members. As councils make the toughest financial decisions for a generation, they must redouble their efforts to improve electoral turnout and civic participation. Otherwise they could face paralysing local resistance from groups disconnected from the democratic process. The call emerged from the new research paper as localism think tank NLGN, argues that improving democratic engagement should be as important as delivering cleaner streets or better public health. The research paper describes the pressure on local government’s approach to democratic engagement, as councils commission more of their services, cut functions and deal with new technology transforming the practice of politics.
The think tank warns that if councils do not lead the process of change, then it could be done to them by disgruntled electorates. A scenario-planning exercise conducted for the report shows how councillors that fail to renew their democratic processes risk losing the support of their communities by becoming technocratic service managers or feuding factionalists. But the research also suggested that councils that did grasp the opportunities offered by technology and service redesign can become far more engaged with their communities, building efficient and co-operative models of local government focused on neighbourhood needs.
By setting targets for democratic participation, councils will give themselves a clear incentive to focus time and resources on improving the quality of local engagement. While there is no suggestion that participation should be measured and managed nationally, NLGN does argue that Ministers should take the quality of local democracy into account when they consider devolving more power to councils through mechanisms such as city deals.
Simon Parker, Director, NLGN, said:
“We must take the quality of local democracy just as seriously as we take any other local public service, and that means managing and measuring participation in the same way we would measure and manage the quality of refuse collection or social care.”
Guy Clifton, Advisory Lead, Grant Thornton UK LLP, added:
“As councils grapple with the deepest funding cuts in living memory, many elected members are keen to take a far greater role in financial planning at their authorities. As part of NLGN’s Future Councillors project, we explored the skills and capabilities that members need to effectively manage the budget setting process. These included: effective communication and stakeholder engagement, understanding financial planning tools and, perhaps most importantly, knowing what questions to ask.”
photo credit: niko si