Local government must meet people where they go to meet each other if it is to truly reflect diverse communities, writes the chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Cheshire Councils.
Our town and parish councils exist and flourish thanks to the commitment of our 100,000-strong army of councillors upon whom we depend. You might call them ‘the usual suspects’.
Often they are firmly embedded in their communities and are likely to be part of other organisations and partnerships, partly because they are often retired and have more time than some but also because they can see what needs to be done and do it.
But we have a problem. We have far too many vacant seats and are often criticised for the number of co-opted members we have. This creates internal problems. Existing members can be overworked and eventually burn out, losing the passion they once had for the role.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when co-opting we tend to look to people who are like ourselves and that’s the issue. We need to reach out to the ‘unusual suspects’
Much more than potholes
We start with an enormous challenge… apathy. So many members of the public have no idea about local government. Ask the average person what it means to them and you’ll get the response ‘bins’ or ‘potholes’. These of course are important issues – particularly if we get them wrong – but that is not what would excite someone or make them feel they need to get involved.
We have to recognise even our smallest communities are becoming more diverse and we need to reach out and tap into that diversity to refresh and reinvigorate our councils
So we need to get across the message that local councils are about so much more than that, particularly our town and parish councils because they have so much to offer. Plus, of course, there are different ways for people to get involved.
They might be interested in the administrative side of democracy or perhaps they are focused on a specific area of work the council is involved in. They might like to consider joining a specific committee either as a full member or as a non-voting co-optee.
We could present this in different ways to attract a variety of people, maybe those who don’t want to make the commitment they see the ‘usual suspects’ making. We have to recognise even our smallest communities are becoming more diverse and we need to reach out and tap into that diversity to refresh and reinvigorate our councils.
Rethinking ‘young people’
Progress is being made in that area whereby women now make up over 40% of our councillors (not quite 50:50 yet). But the age and ethnic variety is not there and we have a duty to do what we can to change that.
We must try to meet our ‘unusual suspects’ where they go to meet each other, for example by accessing information on their computer
We must have councils that are representative of their communities, not just councils that tick the boxes. I know many councils have tried and some of those initiatives were excellent, such as speaking to young people in local schools about the work of the council on their doorstep, making democracy sound like something they would want to relate to.
Many councils have youth councils. Some of them are exciting and vibrant and connect with young people but others are more like mini versions of the parent council. Both of these examples rely upon the energy and enthusiasm of committed individuals and when they step back the initiative stalls.
Perhaps we need to rethink what we mean by engaging with ‘young people’. There are a lot of folk out there between the ages of 25 and 55, people of working age with life commitments. These are the people we need to be reaching out to.
There is a lot of valuable support and information available, such as the #MakeaChange campaign run by the National Association of Local Councils. We need to do more. We must try to meet our ‘unusual suspects’ where they go to meet each other, for example by accessing information on their computer.
Doing remote for ourselves
I have just filmed a short video for social media which will be released in the next couple of weeks aimed at sparking initial interest in local councils. The video explains why councils are a unique mechanism for creating change locally and that by getting involved our ‘unusual suspects’ can see meaningful change take place for the benefit of the community. It all starts with them getting involved.
It is hugely disappointing the government has not extended the power to hold remote meetings as this was a viable way of increasing attendances and interest in council meetings.
But let us not be defeated by that. Let us think outside the box. We could hold virtual councillor surgeries; consultative pre-meetings; live stream our meetings or simply record them and pop them on the website.
To quote American personal finance author Dave Ramsey: “If you keep doing the same things, you will keep getting the same results”. So when it comes to reaching out to the ‘unusual suspects’ why can’t we all do something different?
Jackie Weaver, chief officer, Cheshire Association of Cheshire Councils