Local government needs to meet people where they are going to meet if it is to truly reflect the diversity of communities, writes the chief executive of the Cheshire Association of Cheshire Councils.
Our municipal and parish councils exist and flourish thanks to the commitment of our army of 100,000 councilors on whom we depend. You might call them “the usual suspects.”
Often they are firmly rooted in their communities and are likely to be part of other organizations and partnerships, partly because they are often retired and have more time than some, but also because they can see what that needs to be done and do it.
But we have a problem. We have far too many vacancies and are often criticized for the number of co-opted members we have. This creates internal problems. Existing members can become overworked and eventually burn out, losing the passion they once had for the role.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when co-opting, we tend to lean towards people who look like us and that’s the problem. We must reach out to ‘unusual suspects’
More than potholes
We start with a huge challenge… apathy. So many members of the public have no idea about local government. Ask the average person what this means to them and you’ll get the answer “trash cans” or “potholes”. These are of course important questions – especially if we are wrong – but they are not what would excite anyone or make them feel they need to get involved.
We need to recognize that even our smaller communities are becoming more diverse and we need to reach out and tap into that diversity to refresh and invigorate our councils.
So we need to get the message across that local councils are so much more than that, especially our town and parish councils, because they have so much to offer. Also, of course, there are different ways people can get involved.
They might be interested in the administrative side of democracy or maybe they are focusing on a specific area of work in which the council is involved. They could consider joining a specific committee either as a full member or as a non-voting co-opted. .
We could present this in different ways to appeal to a variety of people, perhaps those who don’t want to make the commitment they see the “usual suspects” doing. We need to recognize that even our smaller communities are becoming more diverse and we need to reach out and tap into that diversity to refresh and invigorate our councils.
Rethinking “young people”
Progress is being made in this area, with women now making up over 40% of our advisors (not quite 50/50 yet). But age and ethnic variety are 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 will meet, for example by accessing information on their computer
We need to 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 great, like talking to young people in local schools about the work of the council at their doorstep, making democracy look like something they would want to identify with.
Many councils have youth councils. Some of them are exciting and dynamic and connect with young people, but others are more like mini versions of parent council. Both of these examples rely on the energy and enthusiasm of committed individuals and when they step back, the initiative stops.
Perhaps we need to rethink what we mean by engaging with ‘youth’. There are a lot of people between 25 and 55, people of working age who have lifetime commitments. These are the people we need to reach.
Lots of valuable support and information is available, such as the #MakeaChange campaign led by the National Association of Local Councils. We need to do more. We must try to meet our “unusual suspects” where they will meet, for example by accessing information on their computer.
Doing remotely for ourselves
I have just filmed a short video for social media which will be posted in the next few weeks with the aim of generating initial interest from local councils. The video explains why councils are a unique mechanism for creating local change and that by getting involved, our ‘unusual suspects’ can see meaningful change happen to benefit the community. It all starts with their involvement.
It is extremely disappointing that the government did not extend the power to hold meetings remotely, as it was a viable way to increase attendance and interest in council meetings.
But let’s not be defeated by this. Let’s get off the beaten track. We could organize virtual surgeries of counselors; pre-consultative meetings; stream our meetings live or simply record them and post them on the website.
To quote American personal finance author Dave Ramsey: “If you keep doing the same things, you’ll keep getting the same results.” So when it comes to reaching out to ‘unusual suspects’, why can’t we all do something different?
Jackie Weaver, Chief Officer, Cheshire Association of Cheshire Councils