What is local government actually for?

Contrary to what you might be expecting, this isn't going to be a blog post about Local GDS, or shared services, or anything like that.

No, it's going to be much more radical than that, and accordingly potentially much more controversial...

I've just been in a session of LocalGovDigital Live, a monthly get together of people working in the field of local government digital service delivery to have a chat about something relevant at the time. The scheduled discussion wasn't able to be had due to illness of the person scheduled to kick the discussion off, so after the usual introductions there was an opportunity for us to instead have a discussion on a topic suggested in the chat, and one of the suggested topics was ~'why do we have 350 local councils all doing more or less the same thing duplicating time, money, and effort?'~ - not just in terms of digital services, but services more widely.

In LocalGovDigital terms this discussion is usually centred around the idea of a Local GDS, and my view on that topic, whilst it's shifted and ebbed and flowed over the years around some of the details, is broadly the same as it always has been.

The posing of the question at that moment in time prompted some thinking that hadn't previously occurred to me; the usual answer to the question of why we have so many local councils is 'democratic accountability'.

It's been a riff for me for a long time - at least 10 years - that the system of every four years as residents we vote for political candidates who are (mostly) representing political parties to be councillors to run our councils is broken.

What are the candidates' policies?

Now, as we know, constitutionally when we're voting in First Past The Post elections in the UK, we're not voting for parties, we're voting for individuals, who just happen to be members of parties who will collectively form administrations and oppositions along the party lines of which party's candidates won the most seats. And whilst there's a degree to which that constitutional principle holds better for local elections than it does for national ones, in the real world, in the majority (I'd say overwhelming majority) of cases most people in most elections I think are voting for their preferred party, not their preferred individual candidate.

This doesn't matter and indeed makes sense for elections to Parliament to choose the central government - in broad terms we broadly know where each of the main parties stands on the main policy issues which affect the nation as a whole. We know that if the Labour Party wins the General Election we'll get one kind of government, and if the Conservative Party wins we'll get another kind of government, and if any of the other parties wins a sizeable number of seats in the General Election or in one of the elections to the Devolved Administrations what level of influence they might have either as government themselves or in coalition, or as opposition.

But when it comes to local government, what do the parties actually bring to the, erm, party?

I ask that in the sense of how do we know what we're actually voting for when we're selecting the individual candidate on the basis of what party they're representing? What is a natural and obvious Green Party position on libraries provision? What is the natural Conservative and Unionist Party position on filling in the county's potholes? Where do the Liberal Democrats stand on the maintenance of parks, and what is the Labour and Co-Operative Party's policy when it comes to running leisure centres? Does the Scottish National Party have known views when it comes to operating the fruit and veg market, and do Plaid Cymru have a clear stance on taxi licensing?

This is absolutely not to take anything away from the hundreds, thousands of councillors and would-be-councillors up and down the land of all parties - even the parties I especially don't like - who are councillors to serve their local communities and serve their communities well, who stand on party tickets because that's the easiest way to get brand recognition at election time. But when people are voting in local government elections and they're voting either because they like what central government at the time is doing or because they want to give it a kick, that's really not good at all for local councils and local government. And it's even worse when people aren't actually being councillors in order to serve their communities on the council, but rather are councillors in order to train to try to be MPs.

On that basis, the riff I've been riffing on the last 10+ years has been to advocate removing the party system from local government entirely, and replace it with local candidates standing to represent their local communities entirely on their own individual and independent merits, and the elected administration running the council on more collegiate lines.

But the question as it was posed this morning somehow prompted a more radical thought in my head.

What are the councillors for?

Provocative I know - especially if you're reading and you're a councillor - but it's a serious question which deserves serious consideration.

There are a number of alternative ways of framing the question, such as, what do councillors do? Or what do we expect councillors to do? Or what value do councillors bring to the provision of local services? What is the role of a councillor? etc

The answers to many of these questions - alternative customer services point of contact, community advocate, local guidance and support worker, strategic planner, etc - prompt the further question 'is having lots of local communities vote on individuals to do these tasks every four years with many of the members of those communities ending up with somebody they didn't vote for doing it the best way to staff these roles?'

To a degree, the powers of the councillors to fulfil these roles is limited - if my bins are consistently not collected, then the performance management of the local bin crew is and should be a matter for the bin crew's line management chain rather than a politician, and if the planning of the bin collection service is the cause of the missed collections then again I think the bins management service are probably going to be more expert at replanning the collection rounds than said politicians.

A large number of the services councils provide are statutory services - that is to say, they are services the council must provide; the council has a choice in whether or not to put on a city centre arts festival every year, but the council must by law collect the bins. There's discretion in how the council collects the bins - the council can choose to collect all the bins every week, it can choose to collect some bins weekly and other bins fortnightly, and it can choose to charge for garden waste collections. But these choices themselves the council can make, by and large they're going to be determined more by service need than by political choices people are voting for - because after all, nobody is voting to have to pay for their garden waste collection, and nobody is voting for fortnightly bin collections.

Do we even need those councillors?

So given a large part of the current role of the councillor, their ability to act is limited, their training competence to plan and manage services is even more limited, and their latitude of decision making is limited, do we actually even need to vote for people to complain to either to bypass the council customer services department or when complaining to the council customer services department hasn't been effective?

Is there not a better way to do all this?

An alternative future for local government

I'm not here with a fully formed design model for how local government might be structured and managed and local accountability preserved in the future. My thinking here is off the cuff having been prompted by an interesting chat with my peers. I'm not proposing a robustly thought through model I'd be prepared to defend to the verbal death, rather I'm doing some thinking out loud in the hope that other people might also be prompted to do some thinking out loud in the hope that collectively all that noise might be organised into music; collectively I think we all know that the whole system of local government needs some kind of a redesign in order to meet the needs and challenges of the 121st Century of the Human Era.

To first of all answer the initial provocation - do we need 350 individual local organisations all doing the same things duplicating each other's work? - then in broad terms I'd say the answer is yes, though with qualifications. We might not need 350 separate organisations, but however we might organisationally structure the service provision we know that local services are always better provided at the local level with local decision-making influenced by local knowledge.

Local radio and local newspapers in the UK are actually delivered by national media organisations with stories and playlists created by national journalists and presenters with only some feint veneer of local skinning with the odd token presenter with a regional accent and journalist living in the area to report the odd local story to make people think they're consuming local content. National chain supermarkets similarly - your local supermarket stocks the produce the at best regional listing system says all the supermarkets in the area will stock, if the people living in Burscough have a particular wish to get bottles of Lancashire Relish then they'll have to pop to the Burscough branch of Booths, they won't be able to get it from the Burscough branch of Tesco. I think few would disagree with the statement that local journalism, local radio, and local supermarkets serve their users and their customers increasingly poorly as a result of the ongoing march of centralisation these last few years and decades.

But I think we should drop the pretence that local councillors are in a meaningful sense responsible for the management of the parks and the leisure centres, and that if there's a lot of flytipping on the road between our house and our child's school then that's somehow the local councillor(s)' fault.

I think a new model for local government should take the responsibility for management and budgeting of statutory services out of the hands of councillors entirely, with the model of accountability for success and failure in delivering those services changed so that the people who are actually succeeding and failing themselves - the managers and senior managers - somehow being the accountable ones.

And accordingly by doing this we should remove the ability for councillors at election time to try to take credit for customer service actions they were not actually responsible for - no, dear councillor or prospective councillor, you did not fill in that pothole yourself or clear up that flytipping yourself; the job was already scheduled after the citizen reported it before you came on to your Facebook local group to say you've asked the depot to sort it out.

This should be a Good Thing for people who want to serve their communities through the medium of democracy - because that does leave enough stuff that it's appropriate for elected representatives to make decisions on. We could still elect people to manage budgets and make decisions about doing Nice Things for the city; we can elect people to make decisions about whether to put on a world class city centre arts festival every year or alternatively spruce up all the parks to make them all worthy of entries to the Chelsea Flower Show, or have a middling arts festival and middling floral decorations in the parks.

Councillors are not experts in road safety or in transport planning, but we can still elect councillors to make decisions about which of several Clean Air Zone (Ultra Low Emissions Zone) options or road safety schemes which are objectively equally effective the professional transport planners present to them should be adopted; we can still elect councillors to make the decisions on quasi-judicial committees such as the Licensing Committee and the Planning Committee - and indeed we can increase the powers they have to make those decisions, because currently councillors again are limited in their ability to refuse premises licences or planning applications to only 'legal grounds', the fact that everybody living in a certain area simply does not want a certain new development to go ahead is generally not sufficient grounds to refuse an application.

Such a remodelling of local service provision and how the decisions are made ought to put the competences and the accountabilities where they need to be - elected politicians are not competent to be involved in the decisions or the accountability for certain aspects of that provision so they shouldn't be put in the position of being expected to be, and similarly whilst elected politicians are not competent to plan and run events, they are competent to make the decisions about what kinds of events are going to be planned and whether a budget should be spent on one big blow-out mega event or whether it should instead be allocated to a number of smaller more modestly scaled events through the year.

And we can then elect those politicians on the basis of realistic election manifesto statements of 'I'm in favour of nice shrubberies rather than trees' or 'I'm in favour of exempting rather than including night-time workers in the CAZ charge', rather than electing the parties which our tribal political instincts compel us to choose on.